Today the minor holiday of Lag ba-Omer is being celebrated in Israel with picnics, bonfires, and pilgrimages to Mount Meron in the Galilee, the purported burial place of the 2nd-century sage Simon bar Yoḥai. While this holiday, which marks the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot, is ancient, its exact origins remain something of a mystery to historians and rabbinic scholars alike. One possible interpretation, which gained prominence only in the wake of the Jews’ return to Israel, connects it to the failed anti-Roman rebellion of Simon bar Kokhba in 132-35 BCE, which was the last credible attempt to restore Jewish sovereignty by force of arms prior to 1948. Eli Kavon writes:
With the founding of the state of Israel, it is fascinating how Simon bar Kokhba has become the epitome of heroism. Rabbinic views of bar Kokhba are critical of this military leader, [seen by some rabbis as] a failed messiah [and] the source of great suffering. That negative assessment of bar Kokhba endured for 1,800 years.
While messianic activism has many dangers, of which bar Kokhba should be a reminder, the Zionist movement has actually done history a great service by rehabilitating this military leader. Indeed, while his revolt was eventually crushed, it was a success for two years and caused great loss and suffering to the Roman empire’s best legions.
Bonfires and field days are the perfect antidote to a malignant understanding of that rebellion solely as a failed messianic adventure that was doomed from the start.