We have come to a part of the year in which we have a cluster of Jewish holidays. Some of these holidays are quite ancient, like Passover, Lag BeOmer and Shavuot. But there are also three important modern holidays that come around this time.
First, there is Yom Ha-Shoah, literally “Holocaust Day.” That occurred on April 24.
In Carlisle, Congregation Beth Tikvah has, for years, observed this holy day of remembrance, along with many in the community, in a joint Beth Tikvah-CARC (Carlisle Area Religious Council) Holocaust Remembrance program. This year it was held April 24 at the First Lutheran Church in Carlisle.
The speaker was Harold Swidler, a longtime resident of Carlisle, who survived the Holocaust. He was a 6-year old child in Belarus when the Germans took over his town. His entire family escaped and lived in the woods for two years. Miraculously his immediate family — parents and siblings — all survived. The memories he shared were difficult to hear.
Lovely flute music was provided by Lori Elliott, a member of the West Shore Symphony. The opening prayer was given by Rev. Lisa Leber of First Lutheran Church, and the closing prayer was offered by Rev. Donna Hale of First United Church of Christ. Members of Beth Tikvah and the Carlisle Jewish community are very grateful to the members of CARC and to the entire Carlisle community for their ongoing support of this annual program, and for their ongoing friendship.
May 1 is another modern holiday, mostly observed in Israel, called “Yom Ha-Zikaron,” or day of remembrance. This is a holiday like our Memorial Day, in which Israeli soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country are remembered.
In Israel, this is observed by a moment of silence for those lost. A siren is sounded throughout the country, and people stop everywhere, even on highways, and stand at attention for the moment of silence.
The next day, May 2, is Yom Ha-Atzmaut,” or Israeli Independence Day. As you can guess, this is like July 4 in this country — a day to celebrate the founding of the country in 1948. In Israel, and in some cities in the United States, this day is celebrated with parades. Beth Tikvah members have on numerous occasions joined in Yom Ha-Atzmaut marches in Harrisburg with the Harrisburg Jewish community.
The next holiday is Lag Be-Omer, which will be on May 14. I need to give a bit of background to explain this holiday.
We started celebrating Passover with the first Seder on April 11. At the second Seder on April 12, we began the “Counting of the Omer.” Omer means “sheaf” of barley. We count the Omer each day for 50 days; those 50 days end with the holiday of Shavuot. We recite the prayer “Today is the first (tenth, fifteenth, fortieth, etc.) Day of the Counting of the Omer,” adding this recitation into our daily prayers.
Why do we count sheaves of barley? Passover marks not only the miracle of the Jews deliverance from Egypt, but also marks the beginning of the barley harvest in ancient Israel. Most ancient people depended entirely on agricultural yield, like the barley harvest, to feed them throughout the year. Spring was a period of great concern, because they were running out of stored food, and because it was uncertain how good the harvest would be.
Therefore, during the period of the counting of the Omer, Jews refrained from celebrations, from dancing, from feasting and from holding weddings until after the harvest was in. It was as though they felt that they needed to refrain from happy events until they were sure of the harvest yield.
However, there is one day on which weddings and other celebrations may occur during the period of the Omer counting. This holiday, known as Lag Be-Omer, meaning “the 33rd day of Omer,” occurs this year on May 14.
Lag Be-Omer is a holiday based on events that occurred 60 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era. At that time, Bar Kochba led an unsuccessful revolt against the Romans, who were attempting to impose their religion on the Jews. During the spring of that year, many of the students of Rabbi Akiva were sickened by a terrible plague.
However, the plague suddenly stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer. Also during this period of time, many famous rabbis were in hiding from the Romans, who forbid them from teaching. Rabbi Simeon Ben Yochai lived in secret in a cave in the Galilean hills for 13 years. Each year, the children of Galilee would visit the Rabbi on the 33rd day of the Omer, dressed as hunters and carrying picnic lunches, to fool the Romans.
This was the origin of the holiday Lag Be-Omer, which is now the only day between Passover and Shavuot on which Jewish weddings are allowed. The holiday is also known as Yom ha-Moreh, the day to honor teachers.
The counting of the Omer continues for 50 days (seven weeks) and ends on the holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which will be on May 31-June 1 this year. I’ll talk about Shavuot in my next article.
In the meantime, please enjoy the beauty of spring!