20 May 2022

‘To deceive anyone by
words is worse than
cheating him out of money’

Patrick Comerford

Lag BaOmer or Lag B’Omer (לַ״ג בָּעוֹמֶר‎) began on Wednesday night (18 May 2022) and came to end at sunset last night (19 April 2021). This is a Jewish religious holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, and it occurs on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar.

It is traditional to observe some customs of mourning during the days between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot – the days of Sefiras haOmer – and to have a festive day on either the 33rd day of the Omer, which began last night, or for Sephardim on the 34th, which began last night and continued today (20 May 2022).

This minor Jewish holiday – known for bonfires, weddings and haircuts – takes place about a month after Passover. This is a break from the semi-mourning of the Omer, and key aspects of Lag BaOmer include holding Jewish weddings – it is the one day during the Omer when Jewish law permits them – lighting bonfires, and the pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, which is marked by all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

According to some traditions, this day marks the hillula or anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or ‘the Rashbi,’ a Mishnaic sage and leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century CE, and the day on which he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar (Book of Splendour, literally ‘radiance’), a landmark text of Jewish mysticism.

Historians now suggest, however, that the association of Lag BaOmer with the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai may be based on a printer’s error. Another tradition says Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration recalling the end of a plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples.

Some authorities attribute the joy of Lag BaOmer to the belief that the manna that fed the people in the wilderness during the Exodus first appeared on the 18th of Iyar.

Although its origins are uncertain, Lag BaOmer has become a minor Jewish holiday. While the Counting of the Omer is a semi-mourning period between Pesach and Shavuot, all restrictions of mourning are lifted on this day. As a result, weddings, parties, listening to music, and haircuts are commonly scheduled to coincide with this day among Ashkenazi Jews.

Families go on picnics and outings; children go out to the fields with their teachers with bows and rubber-tipped arrows – a possible reminder of the war battles of Akiva’s students – and plant trees. It is customary to light bonfires, to symbolise the light Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought into the world. And many couples arrange their wedding for this day.

Tachanun, the prayer for special God’s mercy on one’s behalf, is not said on days with a festive character, including Lag BaOmer. It is said that when God is showing one a ‘smiling face,’ so to speak, as he does on holidays, there is no need to ask for special mercy.

Unrelated to Rabbi Shimon, the kabbalists also give a mystical interpretation to the Omer period as a time of spiritual cleansing and preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. The days and weeks of counting, they say, represent various combinations of the sefirot, the divine emanations, whose contemplation ultimately leads to purity of mind and soul. The sombreness of this period reflects the seriousness of its spiritual pursuits.

Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of loving and respecting one’s fellow (ahavat Yisrael).

Sephardic Jews call this holiday Lag LaOmer, which means ‘33rd [day] of the Omer,’ as opposed to Lag BaOmer. The Sephardi custom is to continue mourning practices through the 33rd day of the Omer and celebrate on the 34th day of the Omer, or LaD BaOmer (ל״ד בעומר‎), which falls today (20 May).

There is a tradition that Jewish boys do not get their first haircut until they are three years old, and some parents wait to time this occasions for their boys on the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer. Perhaps this tradition reflects the Biblical teaching that one may not eat the fruit that grows on a tree for the first three years (see Leviticus 19: 23). But the custom is usually traced back to Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the 16th-century founder of the Lurianic School of Kabbalah, who assigned special mystical value to the ear-locks.

In my reflections this Friday evening, rather than dwelling on the length of my hair or lack of it, I am pondering some sayings associated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who has a particular association with this minor holiday:

‘To deceive anyone by words is worse than cheating him out of money.’

‘He who lets arrogance get the better of him is like the heathen worshipping idols.’

In the Ethics of Our Fathers, he says, ‘There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excels above them all.’

Shabbat Shalom

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
20 May 2022 (Psalm 86)

‘Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy’ (Psalm 86: 1) … street art seen near Harcourt Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in this season of Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 86:

Psalm 86 is found in Book 3 in the Book of Psalms, which includes Psalms 73 to 89. In the slightly different numbering scheme in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is psalm is numbered as Psalm 85. In Latin, it is known as Inclina Domine.

Psalm 86 is one in a group of psalms at the end of Book III within the 150 psalms, from Psalm 84 to Psalm 89. These psalms attempt to provide hope to the exilic Israelite community. But, despite their celebration of the historic traditions of the Jewish people, they remind the reader that these elements no longer provide the hope they once did.

Four psalms of this group – Psalms 84, 85, 87 and 88 – are attributed to the Korahites, who are described as the doorkeepers of the tabernacle in the Book of Chronicles. However, Psalm 86 is the only psalm in Book III of the psalms that is ascribed to David as ‘A Prayer of David.’

Psalm 86 is one of five psalms labelled as a ‘prayer’ (tephillah), and bears a resemblance to Psalm 17, which also has this title. (Psalm 90 is known as the ‘prayer of Moses.’)

This psalm includes frequent parallels and repetitions, such as an eightfold ‘for’ (verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13), the repeated ‘Lord’ eleven times (verses 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, 17, with seven of them being Adonai (verses 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 15), and the four others as YHWH. The psalmist is named the ‘servant’ of YHWH (abdeka, ‘your servant’) in verses 2, 4, 16, which may indicate literary patterns. A chiastic structure identifies verse 11 as the centre of the psalm.

In this prayer, David gives glory to God (verse 8-10, 12, 13), seeks grace and favour from God, that God would hear his prayers (verses 1, 6, 7), preserve and save him, and be merciful to him (verses 2, 3, 16), and that he would give him joy, grace, strength and honour (verses 4, 11, 17). He pleads for God’s goodness (verse 5, 15) and speaks of the malice of his enemies (verse 14).

This psalm may be divided into three parts:

1, verses 1-7: this is a plea for help that talks about the psalmist’s piety (verses 1-4) and ‘the character of God’ (verses 5-7).

2, verses 8-13: these verses form a hymn, interrupted by a call on God to teach the psalmist (verse 11), and conclude with thankful confidence for answered prayer, and a vow to offer praise or to sacrifice a thank-offering (verses 12-13).

3, verses 14-17: are renewed prayer, ending with a request for a sign of God’s favour. Verse 16 is a paraphrase of the middle part in the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6: 25).

‘Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul’ (Psalm 86: 4) … street art in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Psalm 86 (NRSVA):

A Prayer of David.

1 Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 3 be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
4 Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
6 Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
7 In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
9 All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
10 For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name for ever.
13 For great is your steadfast love towards me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

14 O God, the insolent rise up against me;
a band of ruffians seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.
15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving-maid.
17 Show me a sign of your favour,
so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Advocacy in Brazil.’

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (20 May 2022, World Bee Day) invites us to pray:

Today we celebrate bees, which play a vital role in our ecosystem. May we work to safeguard nature and put the wellbeing of the earth at the centre of our politics.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org