Lag is not really a word, but is Rabbinical shorthand for writing the number 33. B' means "of" or "in". An omer is a measure of volume.
On Shavuot an omer of wheat was waved as an offering. In Leviticus 23:15-16, God commanded the Israelites to count fifty days between First Fruits and Shavuot. These fifty days became known as the Days of the Counting of the Omer.
So Lag B'Omer literally means "33rd of Omer", but in context means "The 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer".
The fifty days between First Fruits and Shavuot are a time of introspection and repentance.
In Exodus 20:19, we read of the Israelites being afraid of God at Mount Sinai, and asking for Moshe to be an intermediate between themselves and God. Judaism recognizes that because of this sin, Israel became a nation with priests instead of a nation of priests. Some time before the first century a tradition began in which every year, on the night of Shavuot, the people of Israel held an all-night prayer vigil, repenting of their fear, asking for forgiveness, and declaring their willingness to be a nation of priests.
This was why all of Yeshua's followers were gathered in an upper room on the night before Pentecost. In that year the prayer vigil was answered and God allowed his people to become a nation of priests (see Acts 2 and First Peter 2:5,9).
It is still appropriate to use prayer and introspection during the Days of the Counting of the Omer, to ensure we are ready to be effective as priests of God.
To explain this holiday requires a short history lesson, about three tragedies.
The First Temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, in a year most scholars say was 586 B.C. This was a terrible tragedy, involving much loss of life, but it was in many ways its suffering was eclipsed by the Jewish people's repentance and return to the land.
In the year 66, the Zealots lead the "Great Revolt" against Rome. This was an even more terrible tragedy. The Second Temple was destroyed. Over a million Jews died from war, starvation, and sickness. Others were led away into slavery and exile. (The Jewish people were still allowed in Judea, just not in Jerusalem.) Even though tiny revolts continued, the Roman General Titus considered Judea a past problem and erected the Arch of Titus, a victory monument, in Rome, proclaiming Judea Capita: "Judea is kaput".
At that time most Jews did not belong to any sect of Judaism. But Rome related to the Jewish people through the leaders of the different sects.
According to Josephus and the Talmud, the Sadducees and Pharisees both opposed the revolt. After the "Great Revolt" the Sadducees lost influence, for the Temple they ran was gone. So the Pharisees were chosen by Rome to lead the Jewish people.
The Roman general Vespian granted a request of Yochanan ben Zakkai to make Yavneh a place of Jewish religious authority, run by the Pharisees. Rome treated the Jews unfavorably with official insults and a unique tax. Seeking to keep the Jewish people controlled, Roman guidance and favors gave the Pharisees, led by Gamaliel II in Yavneh, increasing influence over Jewish society.
In the year 132, there was a "Last Revolt" against Rome. The cause of this "Last Revolt" is debated by historical sources. Most likely it was the Roman Emperor Hadrian's decision to build a pagan temple on the Temple mount and rename Jerusalem "Aelia Capitolina".
By this time the sect of the Pharisees had evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, even though the Talmud was not yet completed, and it would another four hundred years before it became the norm for Jews to belong to Rabbinic Judaism rather than be sect-less. The "Final Revolt" was led by Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the man perhaps most responsible for initially defining Rabbinic Judaism. During the revolt he declared Simeon ben Koziba to be the messiah; Simeon changed his name to Bar Kochba, "son of a star", to reflect the messianic prophecy of Numbers 24:17. Thus the "Last Revolt" is also known as the Bar Kochba Rebellion.
The Bar Kochba Rebellion was the greatest Jewish tragedy yet. More than five million Jews (one third of all those alive at the time) died due to war, starvation, and disease. Many others were again led away into slavery and exile. The Jewish people were expelled from the land of Judea, and as a final insult the Romans changed the land's name to Palestine. It was the beginning of the Diaspora.
The Bar Kochba Rebellion solidified Rabbinical control over the Jewish community. Nearly all the Jews of Judea participated in the rebellion. The Jewish followers of Yeshua were excommunicated from the rebellion and mainstream Jewish culture after they were unwilling to also proclaim Bar Kochba as messiah. They, and any other Jews who did not participate, were later blamed for the rebellion's defeat.
The Talmud, in Tractate Yevamot 62b, describes a plague that happened during the Bar Kochba Rebellion. During the Days of the Counting of the Omer, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died. The Talmud interprets the plague as a punishment sent by God because these students did not show proper respect to one another. But perhaps God was instead trying to show his people the error of Akiva's revolt and appointing of Bar Kochba as messiah.
The 18th day of the month of Iyar (the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer) was the only day none of Akiva's students died.
To remember the plague, Orthodox Jews treat the month of Iyar as a time of mourning (or sometimes all the Days of the Counting of the Omer, or just the first 32 of those days). Weddings, parties, haircuts, music, and dancing are prohibited during that month—except on Lag B'Omer. That day, when the plague did not kill anyone, became a day of celebration when Rabbinic Jews would enjoy weddings, haircuts, music, and dance. Picnics, campfires, ball games, archery, and a boy's first haircut (at age three) became added traditions for the day.
Later, the founder of Jewish mysticism, Shimon bar Yochai, died on Lag B'Omer. He was one of Avika's few surviving students. His teaches became the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah. According to one tradition, as he faded into death a great light of joy filled the city of Meron, where he lived, because of how much revelation he had received.
Thus Lag B'Omer remembers three events:
For followers of Yeshua, the historical events associated with this day are not ones to celebrate. But we should learn what this day is about, to teach us about history and prophecy.
Many prophecies of scripture are fulfilled more than once, often in slightly different ways. Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 are two well-known examples.
Most of the prophecy in Matthew 24 and the Book of Revelation was fulfilled during the Bar Kochba rebellion.
Because prophecy may be fulfilled more than once, the fact it has been fulfilled already does not establish which prophetic event will be the next one to occur. But learning how the prophecy of Revelation has been fulfilled once does teach us about to what degree prophecies are literal.
Watch out! Don't let anyone fool you! For many will come in my name, saying, "I am the Messiah!" and they will lead many astray. You will hear the noise of wars nearby and the news of wars far off; see to it that you don't become frightened. Such things must happen, but the end is yet to come.
The "Last Revolt" began in the year 132 A.D. and lasted 3 1/2 years. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef declared Simeon Ben Koziba was the messiah. Most of the Jews of the time believed this lie and flocked to Bar Kochba. For two years he led them in recapturing Judea.
Next I watched as the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living beings say in a thunderous voice, "Go!" I looked, and there in front of me was a white horse; its rider had a bow and was given a crown; and he rode off as a conqueror to conquer.
This rider is the false messiah, Bar Kochba. His description resembles the true Messiah's well enough to fool people (Revelation 19:11-16). The crown indicates he leads a nation (Daniel 7:8, 24). Bar Kochba's early army had 200,000 men.
Bar Kochba, even though he was a false prophet, had a life controlled by God. He was released by God to fight his war (2nd Thessalonians 2:6).
Bar Kochba's army was amazingly successful for two years. Both Roman legions in the area were defeated: an unprecedented blow to the Roman Empire. Roman reinforcements sent from the Trans-Jordan, Syria and Egypt were also defeated.
And I saw a beast come up out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten royal crowns and on its heads blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, but with feet like those of a bear and a mouth like the mouth of a lion. To it the dragon gave its power, its throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast appeared to have received a fatal wound, but its fatal wound was healed, and the whole earth followed after the beast in amazement.
This beast is a king, not a nation (Revelation 17:10-11). It is actually a type of king: a blasphemous ruler over the land of Israel. Its seven heads represent seven nations that have had such blasphemous kings. It is a composite of the first three animals described in Daniel 7.
Five of the heads represent past nations: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, MedoPersia, and Greece. The sixth head is Rome. The seventh head is Israel under Bar Kochba.
The beast arrives in Israel from the western shore, which refers to Bar Kochba's conquest of Judea. The seventh head has ten horns, which represent the ten rabbis Bar Kochba had as his key men. Israel, which had "appeared to have received a fatal wound" when the Temple was destroyed 62 years before; yet Bar Kochba proved the nation still had some fight left.
Bar Kochba was very proud, even to the point of blasphemy. He is even recorded as praying before his soldiers before a battle, "O Lord, do not help the enemy. As for us, we need no help." All the world did watch in amazement as Bar Kochba did to Rome what no rebellion had ever done or would ever do again.
It [the beast] was allowed to make war on God's holy people and to defeat them; and it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.
The Roman Empire, which was tiring of its paganism and becoming ripe for the influences of Constantine's Christianity, was already producing thousands of converts to Judaism. There were even Roman converts to Judaism in Rome's senate. Because of this widespread sympathy with the Jewish people, the prospects of Bar Kochba toppling Rome were quite real.
But Bar Kochba was interested in ruling Israel, not defeating Rome. He stopped his armies at the borders of Syria. Other Roman colonies were sympathetic with his revolution, but he did not court or organize their help.
Foreigners did join Bar Kochba's army. At its largest it had 350,000 men—more than the Roman army.
Bar Kochba recaptured Jerusalem. Soon afterwards all of Judea had been freed from Roman control. Bar Kochba had achieved his dream of being a political as well as a military leader. He printed coins with the emblem of a star over the Temple, his name, and the phrase "Liberator of Jerusalem".
Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth. It had two horns like those of a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence; and it makes the earth and the inhabitants of the earth worship the first beast...
This second beast is Rabbi Akiva, the "false prophet" of Revelation 16:13 and 19:20. He was a shepherd until he was forty years old and married a rich woman, allowing him to study Torah; that personal history is the "coming up out of the earth".
Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students were the core of Bar Kochba's army and government.
...and it [the false prophet] was allowed to cause anyone who would not worship the image of the beast to be put to death. Also it forces everyone—great and small, rich and poor, free and slave—to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead preventing anyone from buying or selling unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Early in his conquests Bar Kochba instituted a test of valor for his soldiers: he required them to cut off one of their own fingers. Many rabbis protested, and Bar Kochba changed to test to uprooting a young tree while charging on horseback.
When he broke the second seal, I heard the second living being say, "Go!" Another horse went out, a red one; and its rider was given the power to take peace away from the earth and make people slaughter each other. He was given a great sword.
After two years, Emperor Hadrian, in desperation, sent for his best commander, Julius Severus. Julius Severus was recalled from Wales, and imported legions from the lands of Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Rome was so badly hurt that Julius Severus, upon returning to the Roman Senate, omitted the customary greeting of "I and my army are well." His army then proceeded towards Israel.
For people will fight each other, nations will fight each other, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various parts of the world. All this is but the beginning of the "birth-pains".
Julius Severus did not confront Bar Kochba, but used the Roman army to turn Judea into a barren desert in a (successful) effort to cut off supplies to Bar Kochba's army.
The Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote of the success of this program: "All of Judea became almost a desert."
At that time you will be arrested and handed over to be punished and put to death, and all peoples will hate you because of me. At that time many will be trapped into betraying and hating each other, many false prophets will appear and fool many people; and many people's love will grow cold because of increased distance from the Torah.
The Jewish followers of Yeshua could and would not accept that Bar Kochba was the messiah. They would not fight for him.
As the Roman army began to retake Judea, the non-believing Jews blamed the lack of support from the Jewish followers of Yeshua for the defeats, banned them from mainstream Jewish life, treated them as traitors, and even persecuted them when rumors of treasonous acts started to spread.
When he broke the third seal I heard the third living being say, "Go!" I looked, and there in front of me was a black horse, and its rider held in his hand a pair of scales. Then I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living beings say, "Two pounds of wheat for a day's wages! Six pounds of barley for the same price! But don't damage the oil or the wine!"
When he broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living being say, "Go!" I looked, and there in front of me was a pallid, sickly-looking horse. Its rider's name was Death, and She'ol followed behind him. They were given authority to kill one-quarter of the world by war, by famine, by plagues and with the wild animals of the earth.
The fields are ruined, the land is in mourning, for the grain has been ruined, the new wine has failed, of olive oil only a trickle.
Julius Severus sent Judea into famine. At the same time, a strange plague broke out among Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students. This plague, along with Bar Kochba's killing of a Rabbi named Elazar, convinced Rabbi Akiva that Bar Kochba was not the messiah after all.
So when you see the abomination that causes devastation spoken about through the prophet Daniel standing in the Holy Place...that will be the time for those in Y'hudah to escape to the hills...For there will be trouble then worse than there has ever been from the beginning of the world until now, and there will be nothing like it again! Indeed, if the length of this time had not been limited, no one would survive; but for the sake of those who have been chosen, its length will be limited.
-Matthew 24:15-16, 21-22
As Julius Severus retook Judea bit by bit he eventually retook Jerusalem. The Roman Emperor Hadrian, often compared to Antiochus Epiphanes, built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount, just as Antiochus Epiphanes had once rededicated the Temple to Zeus. Yeshua was warning his followers that all the battles between Bar Kochba and Rome so far would be nothing compared to what was soon coming.
Bar Kochba and his army fled to the mountain stronghold of Betar, which they defended for a year. On the ninth of Av (the same date that twice marks the destruction of the Temple) the Roman army broke into the city and killed every inhabitant. Yeshua's advice to be sure to abandon the fighting when Jerusalem again became Roman was accurate.
Then I saw heaven opened, and there before me was a white horse. Sitting on it was the one called Faithful and True, and it is in righteousness that he passes judgment and goes to battle...He was wearing a robe that had been soaked in blood, and the name by which he is called is, "The Word of God". The armies of heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses...I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to do battle with the rider of the horse and his army. But the beast was taken captive, and with it the false prophet who, in its presence, had done the miracles which he had used to deceive those who had received the mark of the beast and those who had worshipped his image. The beast and the false prophet were both thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword that goes out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
-Revelation 19:11, 13-14, 17-21
The years of warfare, and the climactic defeat, cost Bar Kochba's army dearly. The historian Dodio Cassius reports the death of 580,000 Jews during the revolt. Another estimate is that one third of all Jewish people died, and more than half of the Jews of Judea.
Notice that the above passage from Revelation does not mention a siege against Jerusalem: Betar is an appropriate fulfillment of this passage. God's involvement in this historical event is evident in that the siege ended on the ninth of Av. The "armies of heaven" are angels, not believers; this is the usual Hebrew phrasing.
Bar Kochba was killed in battle when Betar fell (as predicted by 2nd Thessalonians 2:8).
Rabbi Akiva was one of the ten rabbis martyred by the Romans (he got flayed with an iron comb).