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    Unravelling the Lag Ba’Omer mystery

    18 Iyyar this week is the minor festival of Lag Ba’Omer when the somber mood of the S’firat HaOmer is lifted to allow marriages and celebrations.

    Outside the Jewish people it was an important medieval period just after Easter when Christians embarked on Crusades to recapture the Holy Land. They were driven by excitement and idealism, though they wrought havoc in the lands they passed through and brought tragedy to any Jewish community that happened to be in their way.

    But this is not the background of the difficult weeks of the Omer for Jews, nor does it explain why all of a sudden there was a bright day in the gloom.

    There is a well known theory that the events of this season are connected with the revolt against the Romans in which thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished, with the calamities lifting on 18 Iyyar.

    A fascinating and possibly valid explanation is given in Josephus, where we read that after much planning, often in secret, the Jews rose up against the Romans on 17 Iyyar, with the news becoming known the following day, 18 Iyyar. So the gloom of the early part of the Omer was due to the Roman repression and the joy of 18 Iyyar was the Jewish response.

    The fact that the uprising was not successful in the end accounts for the resumption of the period of gloom after 17 Iyyar, though not every Jewish community felt depressed once the national pride of the uprising had burst forth.

    Why, if this is the way things happened, did Jewry speak of Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, and not 18 Iyyar, the more direct calendrical date?

    Perhaps because their plans had more or less been in code, using an internal Jewish form of date which the enemy would not recognise.

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