We are not certain when it took hold of the Jewish spirit. We are unsure as to the real reason which brought it into being. It falls during a time of semi-mourning which is calculated in various ways. It has few liturgical customs. It is a break in the sombre mood of the Omer period, during most of which we do not celebrate weddings.
Unlike every other yom-tov, it centres neither on the synagogue or the home but rather in the fields and forests, with bonfires, picnics and sports – especially archery. The bows and arrows presumably recall the fact that Rabbi Akiva’s students, fighting against the Romans, suffered from a plague that lifted on this day. A second explanation – when the Romans banned the study of Torah, children would go to their lessons carrying bows and arrows so that any Roman sentry who saw them would think they were on the way to an outdoor picnic or to play sport.
The bonfires may derive from the Romans interference with the Jewish practice of lighting signal fires to mark the coming of a new month, so in later centuries a bonfire symbolised the right to religious and national freedom.