Jewish World Update Jul/Aug 2021

The Lag BaOmer Tragedy
Jewish people the world over are still grieving over the loss of more than 45 people who were crushed to death in a horrific stampede that broke out at a bonfire-lighting ceremony at Mount Meron in Israel during Lag BaOmer in April. The area was so jammed with people that more than 250 ambulances and six helicopters were called to the scene to evacuate all the injured.

Approximately 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews attended the festival, which some call a “Jewish Woodstock.” It involves picnics, live music, all-night prayer, and whirring Hasidic dance. But the tragedy in April also has prompted many to ask, “What is Lag BaOmer?”

Lag BaOmer is a minor holiday known for weddings, bonfires, and haircuts. It falls during the otherwise solemn, restrictive period between Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) and has a heritage in Jewish mysticism.

Lag BaOmer is celebrated on day 33 of a 50-day counting period (Lev. 23:15–16) known as the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover1 and ends on Shavuot. The word Lag is made up of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, which have the numerical value of 33.

Ultra-Orthodox men, women, and children gather on this day to remember second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, considered the first rabbi to teach publicly “the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah,” according to Chabad.org. Chabad said Rabbi Shimon “is the author of the classic text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. On the day of his passing Shimon instructed his disciples to mark ‘the day of my joy.’”2

Each year, multitudes who love, revere, and follow Rabbi Shimon’s teaching travel to Meron, the small mountain village in Galilee where he is buried, to enjoy the great outdoors, sing, dance, and celebrate his life and legacy. It is the only day during the Omer when Jewish law permits weddings and haircuts.

Both at Meron and around the world, children traditionally play with bows and arrows, and boys who turn three during the Omer receive their first haircuts. Their hair is cut short, but the sidelocks are not touched so they can grow into the long curls (payis) worn by Orthodox men. Giant bonfires light the sky “in honor of the shining spiritual light Rabbi Shimon brought into the world,”3 and people dance and sing.

Jewish tradition ascribes the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah, to Rabbi Shimon. The Zohar is extrabiblical and an extremely mystic school of thought that interprets the Hebrew Scriptures from a mystical viewpoint, as opposed to a literal one.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994) of Brooklyn, New York, the ultra-Orthodox, Lubavitcher rebbe whose followers even today pray to him (some claim he is the Messiah), pioneered the grand Lag BaOmer celebrations:

Beginning in the 1950s, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, encouraged Jewish children to join together in grand Lag BaOmer parades as a show of Jewish unity and pride. Held in front of the Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, the parades attracted—and still attract—thousands of children from all walks of life. In 1980 the Rebbe gave instructions that Lag BaOmer parades and children’s rallies should take place not only in New York, but across the world, especially in Israel. Thousands of children participated in the tens of rallies that took place that year, and to this day, Chabad organizes hundreds of Lag BaOmer parades around the world every year.4

ENDNOTES
        1. Biblically, Passover is one day, followed by seven days of Unleavened Bread. Today the entire eight days are referred to as Passover.
        2. Menachem Posner, “What Is Lag BaOmer?” Chabad.org (tinyurl.com/CH-Laagg).
        3. Yerachmiel Tills, “Lag B’Omer Laws and Customs,” Chabad.org (tinyurl.com/CH-Laagg2).
        4. Posner.

      Facebook Shuts Down Largest Pro-israel Page
      At the peak of Israel’s recent war with Hamas, Facebook suddenly shut down the world’s largest pro-Israel website, with 77 million followers, reported author Joel Rosenberg for allisraelnews.com. Created in 2002 by Mike Evans, an evangelical Christian in Dallas, Texas, the Jerusalem Prayer Team page was accused of “violating the rules” and evidencing “inauthentic behavior.” Evans said the site is not just for Christians. “We have 18 million Muslims who were happy members of the Jerusalem Prayer Team because Muslims also pray for peace,” he said. On Wednesday, May 19, “over 800,000 hate comments and posts came within an hour.” Evans told Rosenberg the site became the target of “the biggest cyberattack on Facebook in Facebook history” by radical Islamist groups throughout the Middle East. “Our team was trying desperately to contact Facebook” to get help, Evans said, “but we were ignored. The same thing happened Thursday and again on Friday,” he said. Evans said Facebook has “some of the best security in the world” to prevent hate speech. But rather than protect the Jerusalem Prayer Team site, Facebook allowed it to get hit with “2 million examples of hate speech,” then shut it down, Rosenberg reported.

      Austria Flies Israeli Flag to Show Solidarity
      As Hamas missiles pummeled Israel in May, Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hoisted an Israeli flag atop the Austrian Federal Chancellery and tweeted, “The terrorist attacks on Israel have to be condemned in the strongest way!” saying Austria “stands by Israel’s side.” Austria’s Foreign Minister tweeted, “In the face of relentless rocket attacks on Israel, we stand in solidarity with our Israeli partners,” reported The Jerusalem Post. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cancelled his meeting with Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg, while a spokeswoman for Schallenberg said, “For us it is as clear as day that when Hamas fires more than 2,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel then we will not remain silent.” Austria also officially recognized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

      Did He Or Didn’t He?
      Republicans are calling for an investigation into charges that when John Kerry was U.S. secretary of state, he gave Iran intel about covert Israeli military operations. The New York Times reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif alleges in an audiotape that Kerry told him Israel attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times. Kerry denies the conversation. ABC, CBS, NBC, and MSNMC failed to cover the growing controversy. Some Republicans want Kerry to resign as special presidential envoy for climate if the charges prove true.

      Vaccine Passports: Too Much Like Nazi Germany?
      Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) and other political activists are comparing the Biden administration’s idea of COVID-19 vaccine “passports” to Nazi Germany’s forcing Jews to wear yellow stars during World War II. “Supporters of the idea say it will allow vaccinated people to enjoy a relative return to normalcy while encouraging others to get the vaccine,” reported The Jerusalem Post. Cawthorn, however, said, “Proposals like these smack of 1940s Nazi Germany. We must make every effort to keep America from becoming a ‘show your papers society,’” said the freshman congressman. “The Constitution and our founding principles decry this type of totalitarianism.”

      Half of 2,000-Year-Old Lamp Unearthed In Israel
      A rare 2,000-year-old oil lamp “shaped like half of a grotesque face,” discovered in Jerusalem in May, has a match discovered in Budapest, Hungary, in 2012, reported timesofisrael.com. The lamp is thought to be from the late 1st century or early 2nd century AD. It was “the first finding of its kind in Israel, and one of just a few worldwide,” the news source said. Hungarian archaeologist Dr. Gabor Lassanyi wrote to Ari Levy, head of the Jerusalem excavation, telling him his team “found a remarkably rare object: at the bottom of the building, we discovered a bronze half-lamp depicting the right half of a face shaped like a Roman theater mask” in Budapest. Israel Antiquities Authority researchers believe the lamp was used as a foundation deposit—a ritual burial of an offering—to bring good fortune to the Roman-period building’s residents, timesofisrael.com reported.

      For news about Israel updated daily, log on to foi.org/news.

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