Lag B'Omer: Of Mystics and Merriment

Lag B'Omer: Of Mystics and Merriment

Lag B'omer Celebration AT Chabad Headquarters In NSW, Australia. (2009)

by Dvora Lakein

April 30, 2010

( More than a million people visit annually, but it is during the 24-hour period of Lag B’Omer that the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai really gets festive. From Saturday night until Sunday, vibrations will echo through the hills as over 400,000 Jews converge in Meron, Israel, to pray and celebrate. 

On his deathbed some 19 centuries ago, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, as he is commonly known, instructed his students to ensure that the date of his passing be forever a day of joy. Bonfires are lit in most Jewish communities, symbolizing the tremendous light the Rashbi’s Zohar, the sourcebook for Kabbalah, brought to the world. It is said that on the day of his passing, the Rashbi’s home was filled with such powerful illumination, that his students could not even look at him.

Nearly 1600 years later, the Rashbi’s esotericisms were given new life, and a much broader audience, through the work of Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. His monumental Tanya brought the second century sage’s writings to more concrete footing. Since then, Chabad leaders and rabbis have sought to spread the wisdom of Chasidism to the Jewish masses.

Perhaps they didn’t realize just how popular it would become.

Today “Kabbalah” is a buzzword, bandied about by celebrities and entrepreneurs, eager to exploit these sacred teachings. For the uninitiated, a sip of Kabbalah water or a wisp of Ketoret incense qualifies as the real thing. “Too many people run around using the name Kabbalah, without understanding what it means,” says Rabbi Asi Spiegel, director of Chabad of Eugene, Oregon. “It is like electricity; if someone doesn’t know how to use it, he can harm himself.”

Problems arise, elaborates Chasidic and philosophy scholar Rabbi Immanuel Shochet, when Kabbalah is separated from study and practice of the rest of the Torah. He likens Jewish mysticism to the soul of a body with the body being the Torah. “Kabbalah is the profound significance of what the Torah is saying,” explains the Toronto-based author and lecturer. “Those people who study it without practicing Jewish law haven’t got a clue.”

Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin, author and editor of several Kabbalah courses for the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, says that he and his colleagues sensed a real need for courses on Jewish mysticism, so “rather than bemoan and bewail the fact that people are not doing it right, we have to get out there and do it ourselves.”

“Kabbalah is the center of our religion. Its study gives people personal reasons to deepen their connection with all aspects of Judaism.”

Until Chasidism’s open-door policy made esoteric layers of Torah accessible to the masses, one had to be extremely righteous in order to study Kabbalah. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi labored to make the teachings of Kabbalah available to everyone. The very act of studying its secrets, he explained, would elevate its disciple.  

Like his colleagues around the globe, Spiegel teaches Kabbalah and Chasidism. “I find that Chasidism appeals to most modern people. Chasidic thought emphasizes the power of the individual and the power of the subconscious. There has been a parallel development in psychology that a lot of people are familiar with.”

Spiegel’s classes delve into the mystical and often result in the practical. Relationship issues are a popular, and relevant, segue from the text. He explains that the relationship between G-d and His people can only be understood when a person comprehends the relationship between man and woman.

“Love is an emotion that everyone in the world, as well as the masters of Kabbalah, holds in high esteem,” says Spiegel. “However, if it is present without proper guidelines and balance, it can quickly turn into a disaster. Kabbalah teaches us that love must be carefully blended and balanced with the rest of our emotions in order to achieve its true objective—love. This is a rather difficult task which only stresses the need and practical use of this mystical knowledge.”

On Lag B’Omer, the beauty of bar Yochai’s teachings can be seen amongst the hundreds of thousands of revelers who come to pay homage. Though he was on the highest of spiritual planes, his teachings transcend all levels. On this day, everyone from scholar to simpleton approaches his tomb. And that is what Chasidism achieved with those lofty Kabbalistic concepts. While the teachings are grand, the lessons are universal.

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