Lag b’Omer

Categories: News and previews

Sarah Newman explores the food and traditions of Jewish festival, Lag b'Omer

Lag b’Omer, which will be celebrated this year from the evening of Saturday 13th May to in the evening of Sunday 14th May, is a minor Jewish holiday. It translates literally as the 33rd day of the Omer. After the first day of Passover (a week-long holiday), we begin counting the days with a special blessing, until the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, 49 days later.

An omer is a sheaf of barley. In ancient times, during the spring harvest, Jews would bring barley offerings to the holy temple in Jerusalem. The counting of the omer later became a practice to mark the transition from the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Passover) to the receiving of the Torah (Shavuot).

Lag b’Omer is also the date of the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a Jewish scholar and mystic who lived from 100-160CE. His commentaries and teachings are part of important Jewish texts about law, ethics and mysticism. He wrote the Zohar, the foundational text of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah.

He defied the Roman Emperor Hadrian who persecuted Jews, closed all Jewish schools and forbade the study of holy texts. To avoid execution by the Romans because of his disobedience, Rabbi Shimon and his son, Elazar, hid in a cave for 13 years in the village of Meron, northern Israel.

The carob tree
They survived on merely spring water and the fruits from the carob tree that grew at the entrance to the cave. To ensure their clothes would not wither away during so many years of hiding, they buried themselves in sand up to their necks. Their commitment to Jewish life was unabated; they continued to pray and study holy texts every day.

During the time between Passover and Lag b’Omer celebrations such as weddings and parties are not held. Lag b’Omer ends this quiet phase and people transition into a regular mode that includes celebrations. It is common for people to light bonfires during the evening of Lag b’Omer and eat barbequed food.

The fires “commemorate the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings.” In addition to food cooked over a fire, people sometimes eat carob for the holiday in memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In Israel, hundreds of thousands of people descend onto the town of Meron to the place where Rabbi Shimon and his son hid to light candles and say prayers.

I’ve attended many bonfire celebrations that involve lots of singing and eating. This year, I will be visiting a friend’s house for an evening bonfire in their backyard. We will cook lots of food over the fire and sing songs throughout the evening.

Bonfire celebrations
When I used to live in Los Angeles, I would go to Lag b’Omer bonfire celebrations on the beach which was especially fun. Most of the barbequed food served is meat, but as a non-meat eater, I created a spicy, roasted vegetable dish that can be served with a grain for a hearty entrée or as a side.

This dish is comprised of roasted vegetables, following the tradition of eating food cooked over fires on the holiday. The spicy ingredients (lemon, chilli and radicchio) are an extension of the fire theme. The tiny bit of carob powder is a nod to the carob that was eaten by Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and his son. If you don’t have access to cooking over a fire, then simply roast in the oven.