I noticed that the popular, very cool new Hasidic reggae artist, Matisyahu, made a single appearance this spring, right here in Seattle. When I asked about his lone tour date, the answer I was given was that Matisyahu will only sing on L'ag Bomer or after for religious reasons. What is this all about?
As a fan I had better find out where and when! But regarding your question, welcome to the world of the dynamic Jewish calendar! There are three layers to the phenomenon of "no live music" in between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot.
The first layer is the Biblical injunction found in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 23. We are commanded to count seven full weeks of seven days, starting from the second day of Pesach. This is called the counting of the omer, named after the measurement of new flour offered on the second day of Pesach in the ancient temple. Traditionally this count is seen as a spiritual progression moving the People Israel forward from being broken slaves to becoming a liberated nation ready to stand at Sinai and open to receiving the Torah.
This steady seven-week movement still speaks to us today as we ritually recite the blessing and verbally count the omer each night. It is as if we too are moving from slavery to Sinai. Just as at the seder, when many of us on the path of the Baal Shem Tov articulated our personal enslavement struggle and our personal redemption, we also need to feel this deeply personal advancement to Sinai and the holiday of Shavuot. We accomplish this with additional attention to our spiritual well-being and our thoughtful behavior toward others. We are in a period of spiritual uplift.
Now the second layer: the first century C.E. was a hugely difficult time for our people. Under the Roman authority, our temple was destroyed and the very fabric of our people was threatened. The rabbinic leaders of the day heroically defended Judaism for all time with their courageous actions of preserving the Torah and its practice.
Spectacular personalities stood on the stage of Jewish history at the time, many who still live in the texts that tell their stories; individuals you and I can only dream about emulating: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Meir. These are people whose thinking informs our practice and whose lives fashion our national creative memory.
According to the Talmud, in Yevmot 62b the great sage Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students who passed away during this time period, right after Passover. The explanation offered for the tragedy is that though they were the students of the great Akiva, who is most celebrated for emphasizing the love one should have for one's fellow human, his students did not behave with honor toward each other.
Thus the period of time immediately after Pesach is designated as a mourning period for those students. To remember this tragedy, the phase of time between Pesach and Shavuot now takes on an added layer of meaning. These 49 days no longer signify the days of spiritual uplift from slavery to Sinai -- now a second layer has been added. These are also days of semi-mourning. There are no weddings, no joyous public events, and no live music.
Let's not see this custom as a cumbersome burden of the calendar, however. When we are careful to observe this custom we are repairing the pain of the students of Rabbi Akiva. We can hopefully recognize the pain and disregard of the past as we embrace humility and display care for others.
Some wonder about this imposed, burdensome, almost-2,000-year-old mourning period. It seems excessive. I suppose the big Jewish idea here is that we are a people long of memory and the strife reflected in the deaths of students of Rabbi Akiva is a strife that you and I perhaps still need to work on today.
To avoid confusion, I should explain different patterns of observance: some mourn the entire period of Pesach to Shavuot; some start after the new month of Iyar; and some end their mourning on the L'ag Bomer, the 33rd day of the omer.
What's so special about the 33rd day of the omer that we break from mourning and listen to live music -- Matisyahu, for example? This is where the third layer of this phenomenon comes in: this is a layer of comfort and relief. On day 33 of the omer, none of the students died. This is the day that is called Hilula D'Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a day celebrating the life and teachings of the great sage who, according to tradition, revealed the teachings of the Zohar, the mystical secrets of the Torah.
The practices of L'ag B'omer, such as bonfires, picnics, and carrying bows and arrows, can all be traced back to the Hilula D'Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The bonfires represent the blazing light of the Zohar, which means brightness or great light. The revelation of the Zohar is seen by Kabbalists as a tremendous moment and a great gift, and is therefore celebrated with much enthusiasm, even by non-mystics.
The outings remind us of the festive pilgrimages to the grave of the sage, and the bows and arrows represent the rainbow, which is said to never have appeared during the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The rainbow is a sign of God's treaty with the human race never to destroy the world through a flood. When we see a rainbow, we are subtly reminded of the possibility of a flood, meaning that the absence of rainbows is a good sign. The children's bow then reminds of the no-rainbow period of time during the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Our practice is to plan fun days for kids, have weddings and other festive events on this day of respite from the mourning.
I find it deeply moving that our calendar is layered in this very richly textured fashion: Sinai, plague and celebration. It tells a unique story that is very human, where days and times can take on different nuances. But remember, this mourning period also kicks off the Jewish summer, only to be followed by three weeks of mourning for the temple and four weeks of repentance before the High Holidays. So enjoy that concert while you can!