Lag baOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer (which falls on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar), is a strange, somewhat mysterious minor festival on the Jewish calendar. The counting of the Omer itself is a biblical commandment, mentioned in both Lev. 23:15-16 and Deut. 16:9: 49 days from when the first of the barley crop (the earliest ripening crop in the Land of Israel) is harvested, at the time of Passover, and culminating in the holiday of Shavuot on the 50th day. But there is no mention of any one day of the count being more significant than another.
An association of these 49 days with mourning appears relatively early in rabbinic Jewish history, among the Geonim – scholars and leaders of the Jewish community under the Islamic Caliphate, not long after the close of the Babylonian Talmud. Several sources from this time period make note of a custom (which is to be distinguished from an outright prohibition) not to hold weddings between Passover and Shavuot. This practice is then connected back to a story that appears in the Talmud, on Yev. 62b:
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students, from Gevat to Antiparis, and they all died during one period, because they did not treat each other with respect…
A tannaitic source teaches: They all died between Passover and Shavuot.
Rav Hama bar Abba said – and other say (it was) Rav Chiya bar Avin (who) said: They all died a terrible death.
Yet we still have no mention of the 33rd day!
If we then go forward to the classical medieval period of the 12th and 13th centuries, more details start to emerge. Among other things, we now have evidence that some Jews also customarily did not get haircuts during this time period (this being a classic sign of mourning in Jewish practice). But here also we hear about our 33rd day. The following, for example, is from a work called Sefer haManhig (The Guide), an early 13th century work by a scholar named R. Abraham ben R. Nathan, who collected Jewish law and practices during his travels among European communities:
There are places where they are accustomed not to have hair cuts from after Passover until the 33rd of the Omer (Lag baOmer), and similarly there are those who are accustomed not to marry wives between Passover and Shavuot because these days are weakened since the plague fell on Rabbi Akiva’s students (during them).
So now we have the 33rd day, but still no explanation why it might be significant. According to R. Abraham, the ban on weddings (for those who observe the custom) persists throughout the Omer. But the connection between the plague that afflicted Rabbi Akiva’s students and the 33rd day is no far leap for other scholars of this time period. One, R. Aharon b. R. Jacob haCohen of Narbonne in the 13th-14th century, observes in his work Orchot haChayim (The Ways of Life) that while the plague took place between Passover and Shavuot, if one subtracts from the 49 days of Omer all those are that are typically not days of mourning – the latter days of Passover, the Sabbaths, and the new moons – one comes up with (more or less) 33 days on which mourning could actually occur – and so, after we’ve counted 33 days, we no longer need to mourn. One more possibility appears (among other places) in the writings of R. David b. R. Yosef Abudraham, a Spanish scholar of the 14th century:
There are places where they are accustomed to marry a wife and to get hair cuts from the 33rd of the Omer (Lag baOmer) and onwards, since they say that from then they (R. Akiva’s students) ceased dying. And so Even haYarchi wrote that he heard in the name of R. Zerachiah haLevi that he found written in an old book that came from Spain that they died from Passover to “pros” Shavuot. And what is “pros”? Half (the period of preparation for Shavuot, a month)… and half is 15 days before Shavuot and this is the 33rd day of Omer.
Although yet more customs and associations have become attached to Lag baOmer in the intervening several hundred years (including a number of kabbalistic meanings given to the date), this connection of the end of the plague to the 33rd day has remained one of the most common explanations to this day for the significance of this minor Jewish festival.
And my history lesson now concluded, it is this association I’d like to probe just a little further. It doesn’t take much imagination at all to feel that there might be a connection between the tragedy that befell R. Akiva’s students and the pandemic we all have been living through. Indeed, this is the third time we are counting Omer under the shadow of COVID-19. And how much more so when the disease of our time is – like the rabbinic askerah – one of the breath, one that is transmitted by breath and one that especially in its earliest and deadliest manifestations caused suffering and death through acute respiratory distress. Fortunately, even with new, far more transmissible variants now rampant, we’ve learned a great deal about potential mitigation strategies and vaccines have made it likely that those who contract the virus will not end up hospitalized.
More particularly, though, I want to think about the talmudic rabbis’ explanation of the plague: because the students did not treat each other with respect. A parallel version of the story in Genesis Rabbah 61 says they were “narrow eyed” (stingy, or perhaps envious) with each other, but it amounts to something similar. Now, many of us, myself included, are deeply disturbed by a theology that simplistically presumes that bad things that happen to us must be punishment for some sin or character flaw. Bad things do happen to good people. So I don’t want to embrace the rabbinic claim as any sort of explanation for a plague, then or now. But neither do I think it is irrelevant. If we have learned anything during this time, it is, or at least ought to be, that we cannot address COVID as a problem of individuals. Judaism has long recognized that the true sin is to separate oneself from the community, that the entire community is responsible for one another. It is not at all surprising that a responsum by my friends and teachers Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Susan Grossman on the topic “Wearing Face Covering, Physical Distancing, and Other Measures to Control the COVID-19 Pandemic” passed unanimously in the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards just over a year ago (https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dorff%20Grossman%20Masks%20final%20reclassified.pdf) with this conclusion:
Jewish law requires that Jews take appropriate measures to preserve their own life and health and that of everyone else in the human community. In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, this means that in public, Jews are halakhically required to wear appropriate face covering, physically distance, wash hands, obey maximum occupancy and attendance restrictions, and follow all other public health measures recommended by public health authorities… The duty to protect others is even greater if we have possibly been exposed to someone who may have COVID-19 or if we, ourselves, test positive for COVID-19, in which case we must quarantine ourselves for the period of time recommended by local public health authorities…
Similarly, Judaism has always insisted that we have a responsibility to those in need of healing – to provide medical care if we are qualified, and love and support no matter what.
In fact, as I write this (on the 16th of the Omer, as it happens), my husband and I are quarantining at home because both of us have tested positive for the virus. Not to worry: because we have both had three vaccines (we were planning to get the fourth soon….) neither of us has (kinehora) had symptoms worse than an annoying cold. But from the safety of my own home, I find myself thinking of all the interlocking networks of community and care that have come to the fore while we go through this experience. I think of the responsibility I have to my students and coworkers to properly report my condition and stay off campus until I am virus free; similarly my husband worries about inadvertently exposing his coworkers who have children under 5, as yet unable to be vaccinated. I think of the students who have graciously accepted the necessity of learning on Zoom for a bit and who, despite all our Zoom fatigue, have brought abundant enthusiasm to our temporarily virtual classroom. I think of the multiple friends from our minyan who have called or texted see how we are doing and to ask if we need anything: groceries, meals, errand running. Lag baOmer reminds us: while needn’t understand suffering as punishment, still it is true that we suffer more when we are uncaring of each others’ well-being, when we fail to respect each others’ humanity, when we are “narrow eyed” with each other. And a good way to start reversing a plague and the mourning it brings is to remember our responsibility to our community in its widest dimensions.