Few holidays are accompanied by as much joy and celebration as Lag Baomer, the 33rd day of the Omer. What makes it all the more unusual is that this holiday commemorates not a victory or liberation, but a death – the passing of the Tannaic sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
It is customary to mark a day of passing, a yahrtzeit, by lighting a candle. On Lag Baomer we light not one candle or multiple candles -- we light a huge bonfire. For weeks children eagerly collect twigs, sticks and logs, which are assembled and ignited on Lag Baomer. The dancing and singing around the bonfire, especially in Meron, Rabbi Shimon's final resting place, are famous worldwide.
What is special about Rabbi Shimon? Why do we celebrate his death, unlike any other Jewish leader, and with so much joy and enthusiasm?
“Leviathan” is a common expression used for someone or something that is outsized, larger than life. It is named for the leviathan fish, the largest creature G-d ever made.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a Leviathan. This is how he is described in Chassidic teachings –and not just because of his oversized influence. Chassidic teachings explain that generally, tzadikim can be divided into two categories. There are those who excel in their fulfillment of mitzvot, both in quantity and quality. Then there are those tzadikim, a small minority, whose connection with G-d is exclusively through Torah study – so much so that they are exempt of the obligation to perform any mitzvot.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai belonged to the latter category. He reached such an exceptional level of unity with G-d through Torah study, that he was exempt from fulfilling mitzvot. Through his Torah study he was able to attain whatever spiritual effects we normally achieve through mitzvot.
For this reason he is called “Leviathan” – from the root word of leviya, accompaniment. Rabbi Shimon was counted among that rarity of tzadikim who accompany G-d Himself, since they were able to attain an extraordinarily high spiritual level and walk side-by-side with the Creator.
Rabbi Shimon had a special quality even compared to other “Leviathans” – he used his holiness for the benefit of others. It is related that Rabbi Shimon spent 13 years hiding in a cave, in fear of the retribution of the Romans after he spoke out against them. He spent those 13 years completely immersed in Torah study. Yet when he came out, his first steps were to help others and to settle puzzling questions in Jewish law.
Rabbi Shimon's most famous work was the book of Zohar. In the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon recorded all the secrets of the Torah that are the foundation of the Torah of Chassidut and Kabbalah. For many generations, study of Zohar was reserved for only the most mature and exalted scholars. However, Rabbi Shimon had declared that in merit of studying this book we would be redeemed from exile. In recent times, study of Zohar and Kabbalah have become popularized, particularly in the form of Chassidut, which takes the mysterious teachings of the Zohar and puts them into a form readily understood by the average intellect.
Because of all this it is no wonder that the day of Lag Baomer is celebrated with such vividness. Rabbi Shimon taught that the day of one's passing is an elevation of the soul, and he wanted all Jews to rejoice with him. The Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted a custom of holding parades for Jewish children on Lag Baomer, as a salute to Jewish pride and to the little soldiers in G-d's army. Our celebration of Lag Baomer is a fitting prelude to the ultimate Redemption, when we will be greeted by the Rebbe and by Rabbi Shimon himself.