On Sunday, April 28, the streets in ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in cities such as Montreal, New York and Jerusalem will be ablaze with bonfires and reverberating with the sounds of singing, dancing and children at play. The occasion for these outdoor celebrations is the minor Jewish festival of Lag B'Omer, which falls annually on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, according to the Jewish lunar calendar.
In Winnipeg, Lag B'Omer festivities are more subdued and, depending on the weather, usually take the form of synagogue-organized outdoor picnics and barbecues.
Lag B'Omer translates as the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, referred to in Hebrew as Sefirat Ha'omer. An omer is a unit of measure. In ancient Israel, sheaves of barley, or omers of barley, were brought to the Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem as offerings.
Sefirat Ha'omer is a verbal counting that takes place during the 49 days that fall between the end of Passover, the holiday commemorating the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the beginning of Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the Israelites' receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.
"Sefirat Ha'omer -- the counting of the omer -- linked the ancient Passover barley harvest with the wheat harvest of Shavuot," explains Rabbi Larry Pinsker, spiritual leader of Winnipeg's The New Shul.
The act of counting came to represent the Israelites' increasing excitement and spiritual preparations to receive the Torah.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE during the First Jewish Roman War, the traditional period of Sefirat Ha'omer evolved into an extended period of mourning. During this time, all festivities, parties and weddings were forbidden. Lag B'Omer was the only day in the seven-week period in which these prohibitions were lifted.
Why that day in particular became a cause for celebration has inspired debate for hundreds of years. Some rabbinic scholars maintained that it was on the 33rd day of the counting of the omer that a terrible plague that had killed thousands of young Jewish scholars suddenly ceased.
Others contended that the date commemorates a single day's military victory by Jewish rebel leader Bar Kochba and his followers over the Romans circa 132. Still others insisted the date marks the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the fundamental text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The custom of lighting bonfires on the holiday celebrates the light and wisdom of Bar Yochai's life and teachings and of the Torah.
Another less popular explanation suggests the Lag B'Omer date simply corresponded with the date of an ancient pagan holiday.
In spite of origins that are not completely understood or agreed upon, Lag B'Omer is widely celebrated among observant Jews. Nonetheless, in the scheme of Judaic practice, it remains an inconsequential festival.
"It's a minor observance," says Pinsker. "There are no formal rituals or prayers connected to Lag B'Omer."
The period of counting the omer, leading up to and following the festive day, is, however, more laden with import.
"Medieval Kabbalists and their descendants viewed the omer as a time of self-assessment and spiritual self-improvement," says Pinsker. The period of the omer became identified as a season for strengthening the virtues, values, ideals and character traits that affect the well-being of the world and of our personal lives.
"In contemporary times," he adds, "it has become customary for Jews who are counting the days of the omer period to sometimes mark each day as an opportunity to formally reflect on philosophical, spiritual, behavioural and religious ideals."
In 2013, there is even an app that will help them do so. Based on Rabbi Simon Jacobson's book, A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer: Forty-Nine Steps to Personal Refinement, the app provides users with a daily omer count, a corresponding emotional attribute, and a spiritual exercise that is designed to help them make positive changes in their lives.