Lag Ba’Omer, the most minor of Jewish holidays in the diaspora, is a major event for hundreds of thousands of Israelis. These are the people who make pilgrimage to Meron in northern Israel to be near the grave of the great (second century) kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (known by his acronym Rashbi). It is said that Rashbi died on Lag Ba’Omer, and that by praying at his grave his soul will intercede to grant a request. Those especially enthused with this custom set up camp nearby well before the onset of the holiday, which this year is on Monday night, May 11.
While Judaism traditionally frowns upon the use of intercessors in one’s prayers to G-d, the custom of “prostrating oneself upon the grave of a Tzaddik” is practiced to some extent by many Jews. Unfortunately, some Jews in Israel, like some people worldwide, want to hedge their bets further and will avail themselves of magical incantations, potions, and charms—and there is no shortage of purveyors of this magic. My friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman argues that if one understands who Rashbi was, then the celebration at his grave on Lag Ba’Omer is a statement against superstition. He writes (I freely translate):
“Precisely now we are desperately in need of a true Lag Ba’Omer celebration. At a time of ‘kabbalah for the masses,’ when apparent mystics—who trade in amulets, who are often just money hungry, who sometimes are not even personally observant of the mitzvot, take advantage of the misfortunate and sell them secrets that are supposed to bring them good luck and success—we need Rashbi’s celebration like cool water upon a tired soul. At a time when cheap mysticism presumes to substitute for the internal depths of the Torah, when magic potions and worthless tricks try to quench the thirst for the “water of life,” we need to take advantage of Lag Ba’Omer in order to reacquaint ourselves with the figure of Rashbi, a true divine mystic.”
The Midrash tells the story of a childless couple who had been married for 10 years. They come before Rashbi in order to divorce. He says to them: “Just as you were married with food and drink, so you shall not be separated except with food and drink.” The couple does as Rashbi asked and “made for themselves a holiday and had a great feast and the man drank too much.” At this point the man says to the woman: “Take every good thing that I have in this house and carry it to your father’s house.” After the man falls asleep, the woman has her servants carry the man to her father’s house. In the middle of the night, the man wakes up. Now sober, he asks the woman, “Where am I” and she tells him, “In my father’s house.” He asks, “What am I doing in your father’s house?” She says to him: “I do not have anything more dear to me in the world than you.” They went to Rashbi. He stood, he prayed for them, and they conceived.
Rashbi does not view his role as being a source for magical charms and blessings. After the couple in the story has discovered love anew, after they are prepared to work for their love, Rashbi prays for them, for now there is something upon which his blessing can take hold. The blessing of a tzaddik is not a magic solution and is not intended to relieve someone from personal responsibility. The true kabbalist turns inward and teaches his followers to walk in the ways of G-d
Happy Lag B’Omer.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made Aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.