Why Do We Have Bonfires and BBQ’s On Lag BaOmer?

The little-known Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer starts tonight and goes through tomorrow. This day of late-spring fun interrupts a period of national mourning for the Jewish people. How did this annual pre-Memorial Day festival come to be?

Two thousand years ago, the great Torah sage Rabbi Akiva, who was considered to be the best teacher of the generation, had scores of his students die between the period of Passover and Shavuot. Because of this tragedy, observant Jews take on some aspects of traditional Jewish mourning by not listening to music, having weddings, or getting haircuts during this seven-week period.

Lag BaOmer is the exception to this, as on that day, the plague of Rabbi Akiva’s students miraculously stopped. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, went on to become one of the most holy and learned rabbis of all time and is credited for being the father of kaballah by authoring the Zohar (though there is debate on this topic).

The Zohar, which means “glow,” is considered to contain some of the Torah’s deepest truths. Bar Yochai died many years later on Lag BaOmer, and the day of his yahrzeit is celebrated annually as a remembrance of the light his teachings brought into the world.

This is actually the reason for the bonfires and barbecues, as they represent the light of Torah revealed by Bar Yochai. In the Middle Ages, the day became a celebration for Torah students known as Scholar’s Day, since they remembered the students that were spared during the plague.

Because of this, a tradition of going outside and enjoying the day with field races and games began. Archery is a common game associated with the holiday, because of another bow: the rainbow. A symbol of God promising never to destroy the world through flood again, rainbows were absent from the world during Bar Yochai’s lifetime according to a midrash.

Nowadays over 300,000 people travel annually to Bar Yochai’s grave in Meron, Israel for a huge party, often including the first haircuts (upsherins) for their 3-year-old boys. Lag BaOmer is celebrated worldwide with weddings, barbecues, bonfires and outdoor fun – all showing thanks for the great light of Torah we received on Lag BaOmer, both through Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s life being spared in the plague, and through his glowing teachings.

What better way to cook food on this day than by getting your grill on? Here is a quick and easy BBQ recipe to enhance your celebration.

Easy Apricot BBQ Chicken

1 cup BBQ Sauce
1 cup Apricot Nectar such as Ceres
1 package Kosher Chicken Strips
1 tsp Olive Oil

*     Wash chicken and place in Gallon Ziplock Bag with BBQ Sauce and Apricot Nectar, Marinate for 3-6 hours.
*     Heat grill pan with oil, place chicken on medium for approximately 10 minutes, flipping as needed until cooked through on both sides.
*     Enjoy!

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