Few sensations are more rewarding than the sight of the JC letters page lit up like the eighth night of Chanukah in sputtering indignation at something I wrote. I find it so life-affirming that I’ve come off the lockdown diet and gone back on latkes for breakfast.
The cause of protest was my attempt to explain why, for Chasidim, the flimsy festival of Lag Ba’Omer forges herd community. From the outrage I triggered you’d think I defended someone for driving 250 miles northeast in a car full of Covid droplets, a sick wife and an impermeable sense of privilege. Actually, that wasn’t me, dear readers. It was the Prime Minister.
I’ll come to matters of state a bit later, but I am not done yet with Lag Ba’Omer, that red-letter day whose origin is misted in myth. An essay by Rabbi Dr Aton Holzer in the new issue of Tradition, organ of thinking Orthodoxy, claims it was the date in 363 AD that Emperor Julian laid the foundations of a third Temple in Jerusalem. Unhappily, like Mahler’s tenth symphony, a joint kashrut authority and the third Heathrow runway, Julian’s plan remains a work in progress.
Rabbi Holzer, director of dermatology at a Tel Aviv clinic, goes on to argue that Lag Ba’Omer took a helluva long time to catch on. There is no mention of it in Europe until 1175, a time when pre-exilic Jews were still in England, linseeding their cricket bats for the new season. If Rabbi Holzer’s evidence holds up, there is reason to contend that Lag Ba’Omer ought to be banned — not so much under Covid rules as on the Chatam Sopher’s principle that anything new is forbidden by the Torah.
Myself, I’d question Lag Ba’Omer not on Old Testament grounds but on New. You may recall from school assembly that Jesus was arrested on Seder night, brought to court next morning and crucified before noon. The Gospels speak with one voice on the timing, although there is some doubt whether it was the first night of Passover or a couple of nights later. Either way, the resurrection took place, all concur, “on the third day” (Matthew, 16:21).
So do the maths. Jews count the Omer from second night Passover, right? If Jesus was seized on the first night and rose three days later, Lag Ba’Omer was the 30-day anniversary — in other words, the end of the shloshim of mourning. That would place the first Lag Ba’Omer in 30 AD, a full 100 years before Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s mystic moment. Whisper it not in N16, but might Lag Ba’Omer be a bit Christian? (And is that how Shavuot, our next festival, got known as ‘Jews for Cheeses’?)
Now before I get buried under a postal avalanche from Canterbury and the Sistine Chapel, let me avow that this is a personal hypothesis and by no means the editorial policy of the poor old JC, though it does stack up, doesn’t it? And since some churches already take note of Chanukah in their liturgy as a divine intervention without which Jesus would have been a Hellenist, is it too much to suggest that we have a joint Lag Ba’Omer bonfire next year with archbishops on the invitation list?
I suspect their Graces will be a lot more comfortable with Chasidic Jews than some US rabbis and JC readers whose Lag Ba’Omer outcry left the path of logic and verged on the pathological. I caught myself wondering whether this ferocity of denunciation was not a symptom of anxiety among suburban Jews that they might be mistaken, by neighbours behind privet hedges, for blokes in black hats with wild side-curls. After all, down in the mikveh, we’re all supposedly the same.
What I read analytically was not so much revulsion with Covid breachers as an Anglo-Jewish fear of the Other, of Jews from “over there”, Jews who were being fruitful and multiplying without the benefit of United Synagogue banns and burial, proudly asserting their place in the Daily Mail in defiance not only of the chief rabbi but of the modern world. It is no so long, after all, since Jews in kapotes were refused entry to United synagogues. And, dear readers, guess what: Covid or no Covid they are going to be out dancing again on Simchat Torah.
The thing about Jews is we don’t always obey rules. If we did there would be no theory of relativity, no State of Israel, no latkes, no Google. Jews have a healthy disregard for rules, including our own. We also like to shout at those who break them befarhesia, which is an Aramaic term for in flagrante (I know, there are children reading). Either way, we care. If ever you start feeling too much like a mainstream Jew, just remember: Black Hats R Us.