“Yom” is Hebrew for “Day,” and I am writing to you from the land of Israel, where several days this month are marked out as special commemorations on the Jewish calendar. In the upcoming Jews for Jesus Newsletter you can read about how this season between Passover and Pentecost is all about marking time, counting down the 50 days that separate these two important biblical feasts. This countdown is called “sefirat ha’omer” or “the counting of the omer.”
Perhaps it is because the Lord commanded us to count these days that Jewish people, especially Israeli Jews, have taken the occasion to mark out several other days as important, though they are not biblical feast days.
The most prominent of these days is called Lag BaOmer, coming up on May 1-2. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet stands for a number, and if you add the numeric value of the letters in Lag, they total 33. So the name of this day is rather prosaic: the “Thirty-third Day of the Omer.”
According to tradition, the omer period is a time of mourning, during which many things are forbidden, including haircuts, shaving, weddings and parties. The Bible does not command this, but according to Jewish tradition, we mourn in memory of a plague said to have killed twenty four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer, is the day on which the plague was said to be lifted, so on that day, all the rules of mourning are suspended.
Lag BaOmer is also known as “the scholars’ festival.” Some say Akiba was killed on this day while fighting the Romans. Others say he defied the Romans by taking his students out to study Torah on this day, cleverly instructing them to bring along bows and arrows so the Romans would think that they were only out for a good hunt!
It is a day filled with colorful customs. Children may play with toy bows and arrows, some say in remembrance of Rabbi Akiba. Among some religious Jews, it is customary for three-year-old boys to receive their first haircut on this day. This is why some young ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic) boys may look like little girls—because their hair remains long until they are three years old! Proud parents pass out wine and sweets for the occasion. Other Lag BaOmer celebrations include picnics and bonfire cookouts. The latter is so common in Israel that some building contractors post extra night watchmen at this time of year to prevent children from stealing wood for bonfires.
Many people also marry on Lag BaOmer, or have other celebrations that are prohibited during the rest of the omer period. According to one tradition, Lag BaOmer is the first day God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness.
Another important yom (day) in this period is Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was observed on April 11-12. The date falls close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest Jewish revolt that took place during the Holocaust. Since the omer period is one of mourning, it is appropriate to reflect on what took place during the Holocaust. Yom ha-Shoah serves both as a reminder and an opportunity to educate the public about the horrors that befell the Jewish people at that time, as six million Jews—one third of the world’s Jewish population—perished.
Yom ha-Zikkaron is a memorial day to honor those who died fighting on behalf of Israel. It falls on April 19.As Yom ha-Zikkaron ends, sudden explosions of fireworks and dancing throughout Israel usher in the next special day! Yom ha-Atzma’ut, the twentieth day of the omer, is Israel Independence Day, on which we commemorate the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel. This is a day of public celebration throughout Israel on April 20 (outside of Israel, Jewish communities often celebrate on a Sunday close to the same day). In the same way that Lag BaOmer provides a break in the mourning character of the omer, many see this as an additional day for rejoicing.
One more observance commemorated in Israel during this time is Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Day, on May 12. This day commemorates the recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. It does not have quite the status of Yom ha-Atzma’ut—not nearly as many Israelis observe Jerusalem Day as they do Independence Day. Nevertheless it is a day to remember an important event in Israel’s modern history.
There seem to be so many special days marked for so many different purposes—no doubt some people do get carried away. In the United States it seems there is a day set aside for just about every cause under the sun. Aside from the more traditional Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we have “Secretary’s Day” and “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” There is even a day for drowsy driver awareness. Some have suggested that greeting card companies are behind the proliferation of so many of these “special” days—everyone is out to make a buck.
Even so, I see real value in noting events and setting apart special times and seasons. Some days are set apart with noble meanings, while others are whimsical. Moishe Rosen used to declare a random day as the Apostle Paul’s birthday at Jews for Jesus. Who else celebrates the special accomplishments of such a special servant of the Lord? We would close our San Francisco office and go out to a nearby park where we would picnic and fly kites. Since Moishe had no way of knowing when the Apostle Paul’s birthday actually was, we never knew when this holiday would fall, but it seemed like a good occasion to mark a day with a special celebration.
Some people don’t need an excuse to celebrate, but most of us can benefit from setting apart certain days for special occasions. Ultimately, it is the Lord who gives true meaning to life, and that may be why He gave Israel so many days to remember and to celebrate.
The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” (Psalm 90:12). It isn’t hard to recognize how numbering our days can help us develop wisdom. How many of us have wistfully noted how fast time flies? Parents who watch their children grow up and move out of the house can’t be faulted for feeling a bit of melancholy at the passing of time. We wish we had made more of this passing of time, or more of this or that event in our lives.
For some, the marking of time is to remember a season with joy, for others to remember something in sadness. What about the widow who is reminded each year of the passing of a loved one? How do we mark a day like that? Days of joy and days of sorrow should each be marked for what they teach us about the transient nature of life this side of heaven.
One staff member sends me a card every year to mark the day when I became the executive director of Jews for Jesus. I so appreciate her doing this because I sometimes forget to remember how God led me to such a huge task and responsibility. Remembering these events—the passing of time, the important things that God has done for us—help us to avoid walking through life unaware, numb to the significance of the challenges and opportunities that continually confront us.
Each and every day can take on greater significance when we remember, “This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). I am thankful that God is the One who ultimately numbers our days. He is the One who gives significance to the passing of time. And I don’t think He has any displeasure in the efforts we make, no matter how feeble, to mark the fact that each day, lived for God, truly does matter in this life. Each day is an extraordinary opportunity to do what is right, to serve God to the best of our ability and to live lives wholly dedicated to Him.