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Reclaiming Lag Ba'omer as Yom Yerushalayim

With the coming of another Lag Ba'omer that sees Yerushalayim in greater peril than ever, it is time to look back and reclaim it as the original Yom Yerushalayim, the day of Jerusalem's liberation from Roman rule that failed.

Today that history is barely remembered at all as the days of abstention leading up to Lag Ba'omer and Lag Ba'omer itself were encoded to survive through the persecutions of the Roman era and then were all but lost. The days of abstention around it and the rituals of the day that survive, the bonfires and the bows and arrows have also lost their meaning and become identified with various spiritual ideas.

Remembered today for the deaths of tens of thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students in a plague, this was a means of encoding the truth of what happened, that the plague was a plague of Roman swords. Rabbi Akiva who served as the prime Rabbinic leader of the rebellion against Rome and continued to resist Roman tyranny until his execution, lost tens of thousands of disciples fighting to liberate Israel.

Lag Ba'omer was the original Yom Yerushalayim, the day when Jerusalem was liberated from Roman hands. Arrows were shot into the air by the liberating army in celebration of the day and bonfires were lit in celebration and signal fires went up across outposts and mountains to pass the word. The real Lag Ba'omer in a word was V-E day, a second Chanukah, that was forgotten because it failed that ended with the loss of Yerushalayim and the fall of Betar. In retrospect the Bar Kochba rebellion became the Warsaw Ghetto on a national scale. Jerusalem was cleansed of Jews and turned into a pagan city that changed hands as time went on.

Yet the popular history is in many ways wrong. The Bar Kochba rebellion was not the last Jewish attempt to reclaim Israel until modern times, nor was it even the last uprising against the Romans. Only the last major one. Jewish history was not a story merely of quiet endurance between the fall of Betar and 1948. The heart that beat to reclaim the land was an abiding presence that sometimes took up arms.

The celebrations of the liberation of Jerusalem, the bonfires and bows remained detached from their origins. Among Jews the story of the great revolt against Roman power was encoded as the story of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples who died because of their lack of respect for one another, a not too subtle point on the lack of unity and the betrayals that doomed the uprising. While the Bar Kochba revolt was not assailed by the same level of betrayal and treason that doomed the independent Jewish state in its first confrontation with Roman power, the fall of Betar and the end of the rebellion was an act of treason.

The real lesson of Sefira is not about music, it was about the lack of unity, the willing of some to serve the Romans, to betray their own people, to agitate and undermine, to inform on and spy against their own. It is a lesson we desperately need to learn today. The way forward is in Meron but not because of what is buried there but because of what lives there, the unity of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Jews from all walks of life, congregating and celebrating the first liberation of Jerusalem, even if they don't know that this is what they are celebrating.


  1. Interesting!
    The video piece is inspiring if a bit sad.

  2. it shows what the signal fires would have been like as a cinematic representation

  3. Very interesting to watch.

  4. As always, a point well made (even if I didn't know about Lag Ba'omer) - and an important point for America.

    Have a safe Memorial weekend.

    Maggie's Notebook

  5. Most interesting.

    Especially if it's all true.

    Can we trouble you for the (kosher) sources for this, so we can have a gander for ourselves?

    Derech Agav, it's not mutually incompatible that there were spiritual aspects to this whole episode - we are talking about Rabbi Akiva, after all...


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