This article originally appeared on Kveller.
What do bonfires, weddings and carob have in common? They’re all connected to the holiday of Lag b’Omer.
While you may have never heard of this holiday, Lag b’Omer is popular and widely beloved in Israel — and it’s time we Americans learned to enjoy it, too. Below are suggestions of some fun ways to do so.
But first, a little bit of history about this unusual holiday, which this year begins on Thursday night. Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer, a seven-week period that begins on the second evening of Passover. During this time, we count each day until the holiday of Shavuot begins. While the Omer connects two joyous holidays — Passover, which celebrates freedom from slavery, and Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai — the Omer is a period of semi-mourning.
According to the Talmud, the central text of rabbinic Judaism, many years ago during the Omer, God caused a plague that killed thousands of the students of the great Rabbi Akiva. Why? We’re told that Rabbi Akiva’s students weren’t treating each other with respect. Today we remember these students and their punishment during this time. However, on the 33rd day of the Omer — yes, Lag b’Omer — God brought the plague to an end. That means it’s time to party.
Of course, in true Jewish tradition, there are other backstories to Lag b’Omer as well. The holiday is also connected to a disciple of Rabbi Akiva — whom, it’s worth mentioning, was a supporter of Bar Kochba, who led a ferocious but unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule in 132 BCE.
This disciple, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, fled from the Roman rulers in Jerusalem. Legend has it that he spent years hiding in a cave, sustained only by a well of water and a carob tree. A famed mystic, Shimon Bar Yochai allegedly died on Lag b’Omer. In Israel, hundreds of thousands of Hasidic Jews make pilgrimages to his tomb in Meron on this date. They celebrate his life by partying up a storm.
Among less observant Jews in Israel, Lag b’Omer is generally an excuse for friends and family to get together and have a bonfire. In the early evening on the holiday, many people light fires and cook all sorts of campfire foods, like hot dogs, baked potatoes and marshmallows roasted on a stick. Even if you’re not an outdoorsy type of person, trust me when I say it’s lots of fun.
Fortunately, you can celebrate Lag b’Omer even if you’re not in Israel. This year, as we continue to inch closer to the end of a modern-day plague, I encourage everyone to find meaning and joy in celebrating the end of a different plague that occurred many years ago. Here are some family-friendly ways you can celebrate Lag b’Omer:
1. Have a picnic
It’s common in Israel for schoolkids to celebrate Lag b’Omer with barbecues and/or picnics. If the weather is nice, have a meal outside and spend some quality time with your family.
2. Have fun playing with bows and arrows
During the holiday, Israeli kids are often seen playing with toy bows and arrows — one explanation is that this is in imitation of the revolt by Rabbi Akiva’s students against the Romans.
3. Make a bonfire
As we’ve established, fires are a traditional way to celebrate Lag b’Omer in Israel — some say this is in honor of the “spiritual light” that the mystical Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai brought to the world. Also, what’s more fun than a bonfire? Add to the joy by serving up s’mores or other treats.
4. Listen to some music
Many traditional Jews don’t listen to music during the Omer, as it is a period of mourning. But Lag b’Omer is the exception. Regardless of what your family does or does not do during this time, this holiday is a perfect excuse to get down to some fun Jewish or Israeli music — or whatever floats your boat. Here’s a playlist of some catchy, modern Israeli songs to get the whole family dancing.
5. Share memories from your wedding day
Traditionally, Jews don’t get married during the Omer. Of course, Lag b’Omer is an exception, and as such there are many, many weddings in Israel on this joyful day. If you are married, take this opportunity to travel down memory lane. Share some photos of your special day with your kids, tell some stories, and if you have a video of your wedding, watch it together as a family — especially if your kids have never seen it.
6. Snack on some carob
Carob, as we established, sustained Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai during the years he lived in a cave. It grows abundantly across Israel, and it’s also a very tasty and healthy snack. That’s especially true if you let go of the misguided notion that it’s a substitute for chocolate. (Newsflash: It is not.) If your kids aren’t familiar with carob, Lag b’Omer is the perfect day to introduce it to them — sample the whole pods if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some.
7. Have a parade
Some communities have parades on Lag b’Omer in celebration of Jewish unity. Even in this time of continued social distancing, you can have a parade, too! It doesn’t have to be anything major — no permits are required if your family (and maybe a few friends) simply march around your neighborhood, or even just your yard. If your kids are up for it, you can make signs or flags to carry, or bring musical instruments.