Not everything Thought...
This week’s Makor Rishon featured an article (not yet online) about an Israeli Rosh Yeshiva, who is also an historien de dimanche. So far, so good. The news was his ‘startling’ discovery that the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer is based upon a ‘mistake.’ More specifically, he claims that it’s the result of a sixteenth-century scribal error. What was the nature of this error? He claims that in the authentic transcriptions of the writings of R. Haim Vital, the premier disciple of R. Isaac Luria זצוק"ל (a.k.a. the Arizal), Lag Ba’Omer is listed not as the day that R. Shimon bar Yohai died (יום שמת), but as the day of his ‘joy’ or ‘celebration’ (יום שמחת). His conclusion is that the whole idea of celebrating R. Shimon’s yahrzeit on that day is a mistake. As proof, he invokes the Hatam Sofer’s objections voiced by the (Resp. Hatam Sofer, II: Yoreh De’ah no. 233) against the entire institution of the Lag Ba’Omer celebrations in Meron. In addition, he notes that in the time of the Ge’onim Lag Ba’Omer was observed as a fast day, as evidenced by the survival selihot that were then recited. Finally, he notes that the tradition that the disciples of R. Aqiba stopped dying on Lag Ba’Omer is first mentioned by R. Menahem ha-Meiri, at the turn of the fourteenth century.
Now, far be it from me to object to the integration of history into the framework of Limmude Qodesh. Furthermore, the discussion of the possible error in the writings of R. Haim Vital is very plausible. There is any number of ways in which יום שמחת could morph into יום שמת. The reading יום שמחת could also be seen as a lectio difficilior.
Still and all, I have deep reservations about both the substance of the objection, and the wisdom of its publication.
First, the fact that Meiri is the first source that has survived to limit the period of mourning during Sefirat Ha’Omer, only tells us that it was an established tradition. Medieval halakhists did not, repeat, did not play fast and loose with customs unless they were convinced otherwise. The researcher has no idea whence came this idea (though, there were attempts to explain it textually). So, Lag Ba’Omer as a unique (and potentially festive) day is not thereby impugned.
Second, the author conjectures that the fast day referred to above is connected to the failure of the Jews to rebuild the Temple in the days of Julian the Apostate (360-363 CE). He bases this conclusion on the fact that according to some Christian sources, an earthquake (363 CE) hit the city on the evening after Lag Ba’Omer in the year that undid the preliminary work on the rebuilding. Julian’s death in battle, later that year, ended the project entirely. The problem is that Christian sources could have been expected to invoke an earthquake in this context, since that could be seen as an ‘Act of God.’ Less involved sources, like Ammianus Marcellinus, claimed that a fire destroyed the construction site (which, of course, raises the possibility of arson). This shows serious lack of homework. Furthermore, and I’m sorry to say this, the leap of conjecture that he undertakes reminds me of the mode of argumentation that characterizes Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
Third, and most seriously, what difference does it make whether the celebrations in Meron are in honor of R. Shimon’s yahrzeit or his celebration (according to the Arizal via R. Haim Vital ). In both of these instances, R. Shimon’s life and persona is being celebrated at the place most closely associated with him. Is a lexical error enough of a reason to inveigh against the very event? Is an academic insight a reason to throw cold water (even indirectly) upon a popular custom (something the Hatam Sofer explicitly refused to do)?
I am not a fan (to put it mildly), of the cult of sacred graves, and certainly not of the excesses that adhere to it. However, the events at Meron (and their equivalents), are a major part of the intense relationship to Judaism, spirituality and God that is maintained by an enormous part of the Jewish population of Israel, across the boards. Before someone goes and discredits them, it would be wiser to use the opportunity to bring the visitors closer to Torah and to ongoing growth in observance and Jewish commitment. [Those who know the story of the Bais ha-Levi and the ‘stupid shayla’ know to what I am referring.] Folksreligion is a valuable element in Judaism. We should nurture it, as a form of religious, spiritual and national growth before we try to deflate it (even out of good intentions).