Lag B’Omer comes between Passover and Shavout, between spring and summer. It is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The word “lag” (ל״ג) means thirty-three – Lamed (ל) is thirty & gimmel (ג) is three (total of 33 when you add them together). Omer (עומר) is an agricultural measure (a sheaf of the first fruit of the fields) which Israelites were expected to bring to G-d on the second day of Passover as a thanksgiving offering. From this day, forty-nine days (7 full weeks) were to be counted until Shavout, The Festival of Weeks.
Why the thirty-third day should be set aside as a day of sports and celebration we will see after we have retold the story of Rabbi Akiba and Rachel and the story of Bar Kochba and the Romans.
Back in the second century of the common era, there lived a wealthy man in Jerusalem named Kalba Sabua who, when the capital was besieged by the Romans pledged to support the Jewish population even if the siege lasted twenty years. Now this man had a daughter who was beautiful and many wanted her to be married to her.
Among Kalba Sabua’s helpers was a handsome shepherd named Akiba who did not attract much attention because of his poverty and ignorance. As a matter of fact he scorned education and knowledge. When Rachel heard of this, she came to rebuke Akiba; but as they talked longer and mor often, they fell in love. He did not dare ask her to marry him because of his lowly status and the fear of her father. Rachel was so much in love with him that she approached him one day and told him she wanted him to marry her, on one condition, that after they were married he would go off to study Torah. Akiba hesitated; he was too old to begin studying. Legend tells that as they sat and talked, Akiba saw groves worn in a stone by constant stream of water and said, “If a stone can be softened by drops of water, then I too can still learn.” He gave Rachel his solemn word that he would study.
When Kalba Sabua heard that his daughter had eloped he was enraged and he disinherited Rachel. As promised Akiba left his beloved Rachel and went to a great Yeshivah to study. Rachel was very poor, worked hard, but felt less confident that Akiba would be a great man.
For twelve long years, Akiba devoted all his time to his studies, and acquired a wealth of knowledge. One day he decided to return home for a visit. When he came to the house where Rachel was living, he overheard an old woman reprimanding her. “Why do you waste your time on Akiba? You’re a foolish woman to wait for a man so long so unworthy of your love.” But Rachel was still in love with Akiba and replied, “I would gladly wait another 12 years as long as Akiba becomes a great rabbi and scholar.” When Akiba heard her answer he went back to the Yeshivah and studied for another 12 years. During that time his name became famous, many thousands came to hear his words of wisdom and to study from him. Akiba became the recognized leader of the Jewish people.
He felt that it was time to return to Jerusalem and word quickly spread that the great Akiba was coming. Hundreds and thousands pressed close to catch a glimpse of the distinguished rabbi. Rachel, too, shabbily clothed, was in the crowd. When she saw Akiba she began to put forward to reach him but the disciples ordered her away. Akiba had already seen her and told his students “Let her pass, what is mine and what is yours come from her. The Torah I learned and the Torah you learned from me came because of her.”
Akiba and Rachel were reunited after 24 years. Rachel was the proudest woman in the land. There was only one emptiness in her heart, her longing to see her father. But fate played a role at this point.
Rachel’s father had heard about the great Akiba, but he had not the faintest idea that he was the ignorant shepherd that married his daughter. Kalba Sabua decided to seek the advice of the great rabbi. “Great rabbi I have a grave problem. My daughter Rachel married a poor ignorant shepherd and in my rage I sent her away from my house. Now after all these years I am sorry. What can I do? What should I do?”
Akiba looked into his eyes and said, “I am Akiba, father-in-law, I am the ignorant shepherd whom Rachel married against your will. Never fear. All is forgiven Let us be reunited again.”
Kalba Sabua was delighted and gave them both a home where they lived happily and Akiba continued to teach Torah.
Akiba lived during a time of the Roman oppression. As leader of his people he had to help them live in freedom so that they could pursue their studies and enjoy other blessings of life. He sought many means to alleviate their difficulties. While Akiba was consulting with his advisors, a leader came forth called Bar Kochba (Son of a Star). Bar Kochba was a mighty man of valor, reminiscent of the great Samson. He lead the Jewish Army against the Romans. Akiba was among those who supported him.
When the revolt came, the Jews, inspired by Bar Kochba’s courage, fought with all of their might. For awhile it appeared that they might triumph, but the Roman Army was well trained and well equipped, the heroic band was defeated. In 132 CE Son of the Star fell and with his death the Jewish Army disintegrated.
The Romans became more oppressive. They sought out the leaders of the revolt. One of Akiba’s students, Simeon Ben Yoni, was sentenced to death. He took his son, Eleazar, and hid in a cave in Galilee at Meron. They took Torahs and other scrolls and he continued to study and teach. His students would dress as hunters with bows and arrows to fool the Romans when they brought food and studied at the cave. When the Romans were defeated it was on the 33rd day of the Omer. Thirteen years they had studied and taught in the cave. This is the reason that Lag B’Omer is called the scholar’s festival.