LAG B'OMER, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer1, is the anniversary of the passing of one of the spiritual giants in Jewish history, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Rabbi Shimon...the author of the teachings of the Zohar...responsible for revealing to the world the wisdom of the Kabbalah...
Rabbi Shimon, who lived in Israel under Roman occupation around 165 CE, was an extraordinary scholar in Jewish Law2 and also the author of the teachings of the Zohar, the most basic Kabbalistic work, through which he was responsible for revealing to the world the wisdom of the Kabbalah, a new era in the development and exposure of Jewish mysticism was initiated. The most significant revelation came about on the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, on which he expounded for many hours on the most intimate secrets of the divine wisdom. That day was Lag B'Omer.

Centuries were to pass before the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) would proclaim, "In these times, we are allowed and duty-bound to reveal this wisdom," and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) and his disciples were to make them accessible to all via the teachings of Chassidism. But Lag B'Omer remains the day on which "Jewish mysticism" made its first emergence from the womb of secrecy and exclusivity.

Before his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to observe his yahrzeit (the day of his death) as a time of joy and festivity3 since the day of a person's death marks the culminating point of all that he achieved in the course of his life on earth.4 Since then, Jews the world over, especially at his resting place in Meron, Israel, celebrate this day with singing, dancing, Torah study and an increase in acts of love and unity.

Playing with the Bow

One particular custom practiced on the day of Lag B'Omer is unique: Children go to parks and fields to play with bows and arrows.

What is the reason for this peculiar custom?

One well-known explanation (B'nei Yissaschar, Ma'amarei Chodesh Iyar 3:4) has to do with the fact that during Rabbi Shimon's lifetime, no rainbow ever appeared in the sky. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9:2) This is profoundly significant, because Genesis relates (9:11-17) that the rainbow represented G‑d's covenant never to destroy the world again even if the human race would degenerate to its status prior to the Flood. But as long as Rabbi Shimon was alive, his merit and piety alone were enough to ensure that G‑d would not regret His creation, with no need for the rainbow. On the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, however, the world was in need of the rainbow. Thus, each year on that day we recall this man's greatness by playing with the bow.

This explanation, however, poses two problems. It seems far fetched to associate the archer's bow with the celestial rainbow, just because they share the same term in Hebrew – keshet5 (also the word 'bow' in English).

Second, according to this interpretation, playing with bows and arrows on the day of Lag B'Omer constitutes a negative symbol. It reflects the tragic ability of the human race to destroy G‑d's world.
Why the need to focus...on the power of mankind to sink to the lowest depths?
But why would we institute a custom that might hamper the intense joy of the day as requested by Rabbi Shimon himself? Why the need to focus on such a special day on the power of mankind to sink to the lowest depths? On the day of Lag B'Omer we ought to focus on the life of Rabbi Shimon, not on his death! Especially that he himself requested it be a day of joy, not melancholy.

It is therefore logical to assume that the bow and arrow game professes a profoundly positive connotation as well, one that fits with the joyous nature of the day, celebrating the life and vision of Rabbi Shimon. Indeed, the Zohar, states: "Do not anticipate the coming of Moshiach (Messiah) until you see the shining colors of the rainbow." From this perspective, the bow represents a deeply positive symbol! (Zohar, vol. 1, p. 72b; Tikunei Zohar, Tikkun 18)

Two Types of Weapons

To understand this, we must analyze the significance of a bow and arrow both from a literal and spiritual point of view.

The first weapons devised by man were designed for hand-to-hand combat: the sword, the spear, the ax, and the like. But a person's enemy or prey is not always an arm's-length, or even within sight; soon the warrior and hunter were inventing an array of weapons capable of reaching targets that are a great distance away, or that lie invisible and protected behind barriers of every sort.

Chief among these new weapons was the bow and arrow, invented early on in human history. The Bible, too, speaks of the bow as a weapon. Isaac and Jacob both discuss it with their sons. (Genesis 27:2; Ibid. 48:22) For many countries and cultures, the bow and arrow has served as the main projectile weapon for a very long time. In his work "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State," Frederick Engels comprehensively covered the subject of the bow, the conditions under which it was invented and the value of its invention. Engels wrote:

"The bow was already a very complex weapon representing a long period of accumulated experience, refinement of mental power and the coordinated understanding of the relationship between a range of other inventions. Even at its simplest, the bow is rather complex in its overall constitution, combining as it does the bow itself, the string and the arrow shaft, which must interact mechanically in a complex fashion... The bow and arrow became the decisive weapon in an epoch of savagery. Their appearance heralded a high level of development, and through them, hunting for game became one of the normal branches of labor."
...the deadly arrow must first be pulled back toward one's own heart in order to strike the heart of the enemy...
In the writings of Chassidism one dimension of the bow is emphasized.6 The man who invented this device had to grasp the paradox that the deadly arrow must first be pulled back toward one's own heart in order to strike the heart of the enemy; and that the more it is drawn toward oneself, the more distant a foe it can reach.

Two Types of Enemies

One of the fundamental ideas of Jewish mysticism is that every physical invention and phenomenon originates in the realm of the metaphysical. Consequently, the two types of weapons, the sword and the bow, designed for two different types of foes, exist also on a psychological and spiritual plane.

Every human being professes two types of foes both within his psyche and within his environment: exposed enemies and hidden ones. Exposed foes are the conscious patterns and behaviors in our lives that openly and overtly threaten our well-being: negative and promiscuous temptations, addictions, acts or words of immorality. When you realize that you are addicted, to alcohol, weed or promiscuous intimacy for example, it is hard to deny that you are deteriorating. Your enemies, your demons, in this instance are open and naked.

But a human being also possesses an entirely different array of skeletons. 150 years before Sigmund Freud, the founder of the Chabad school of Kabbalah spoke at length of the destructive forces within our lives that are often invisible and indiscernible (11). These are subconscious, primal emotions and instincts that may live under cover for decades, infecting our lives but never exposing their face. Self-deception, buried feelings of vengeance, hate, selfishness, anger, jealousy, arrogance, fear, shame, insecurity, self-hate, loneliness, and many other subliminal streaks, are often buried beneath myriads of strata of identity, but which nonetheless execute profound influence over our daily lives and relationships.

At times, our inner destructive forces come disguised in masks of piety and holiness. Religion is but one example. People often employ religion as a tool to cover up for inner dysfunction or even evil. People often confuse themselves to be G‑d. ("He is a self-made man and he worships his creator.") People are sometimes pious externally, but deeply arrogant and unrefined internally.
The hidden forces of destruction are often more lethal than the exposed ones...
The hidden forces of destruction are often more lethal than the exposed ones, because their invisibility allows for profound denial. To deal with them, one cannot use the regular old-fashioned weapons, which can only be effective on close and open enemies. To confront the invisible enemy, one must employ an entirely new and different style weapon: the bow and arrow.

The "secret" of the bow and arrow, as mentioned above, consists of the paradoxical truth that the more one draws the arrow toward oneself, the more distant and invisible a foe it can reach.7

This is true on the psychological and spiritual plane as well. For a human being to conquer his inner disguised demons, his subliminal fears, his buried evil, he must have the courage to pull back and retreat to the core of his soul. Some problems in life can be solved by acquiring skills to deal with this or that impediment. Some trials, however, require not an outer change but an inner transformation; not a change of pace, but a change of heart. They necessitate the courage of going to places where you may have never gone, of trailblazing pathways that have never been charted. They demand of you to discover what you actually look like on the inside.8

The Essence of Kabbalah

Now we will understand the deeper meaning behind the playing with the bow on Lag B'Omer, the day that marks the birth of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.

The Torah, the body of Jewish wisdom developed over 3300 years, is generally comprised of two parts, reflecting the two streams of Judaic thought — the rational and the mystical, the exoteric and the esoteric, Jewish law and Jewish mysticism, the "revealed" part of Torah and the "hidden" dimension of Torah. Though together these two layers make up the colorful and multi dimensional mosaic of Torah thought, each has its own unique function and role. The former can be compared to the "sword," the latter to the "bow."
Jewish law and ethics is like the close-range weapon that helps man in meeting the open challenges of life...
The first stream of Torah, which discusses Jewish law and ethics, is like the close-range weapon that helps man in meeting the open challenges of life and the conscious demons in his heart. It teaches us to distinguish between good and evil, between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness, between the desirable and the disgraceful.

It focuses primarily on behavior, on our expressed life. The external body of Torah is our tool for meeting the obvious challenges of life. Do not kill or steal, it instructs us; feed the hungry, hallow your relationships with the sanctity of marriage, rest on Shabbat, eat only kosher foods—for thus you will fulfill your duty as a Jew to G‑d and preserve the order that G‑d instituted in His world.

But not everything is as up front as the explicit do's and don'ts of the Torah. Beyond them lie the ambiguities of intent and motive, the subtleties of love and awe, the interplay of ego and commitment. Who am I in my very essence? Beyond my daily schedule and duties -— who am I in my deepest and truest place?

How about the subconscious ills of the spirit? What about the underlying and primal attitudes and perceptions that never allow me to transcend my bubble and touch the Divine? How about my carefully guarded ego? How about the evil that often lies buried beneath religious zealousness?

And what about the deeper chaos at the core of the human consciousness? How about the profound void and sense of disintegration in the sub cellar of the human psyche? How about the existential loneliness and the deeply embedded demons beyond the conscious reach?

This is where the "hidden" part of Torah plays its primary role. The teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism have come to the world to tell the dramatic story of the interplay among the soul of man, the "soul" of G‑d and the soul of history, entangled with one other in a courageous attempt to bring the world face to face with its Creator.
...Kabbalah and the Chassidic teachings inspire the person to delve into the quintessence of his or her consciousness...
This part of Torah focuses primarily on the nature of the soul of man and the soul of all existence. Just like the bow, the Kabbalah and the Chassidic teachings inspire the person to delve into the quintessence of his or her consciousness, to uncover the "fragment of G‑d" that constitutes the core of human existence and allows him to encounter the true depth of life and stand up to the multitude of undisclosed demons that attempt to extinguish the light of G‑d in his soul and his world. It teaches how the complex notes of the human psyche and the world can be transformed into a symphony of G‑d.

That is why you need to learn both: People who only learn mysticism, are disconnected from the concrete, pragmatic and authentic expression of Torah. Conversely, the exclusive study of Jewish law may leave you with the lingering question, who are you for real? Are you serving G‑d or serving yourself? Do you have a real relationship with G‑d?

There was a time in history when the revealed part of Torah sufficed. The Kabbalah remained concealed from most of the people and only a select few passed it on from generation to generation. But as the world became a much more complicated place and humans became much more complex, Divine providence sent the great mystical masters, chief among them Rabbi Shimon, to teach us how to open windows to the super-conscious forces of our soul; how to discover that deep place in the human soul where man and G‑d are both strangers and brothers.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the man most responsible for the dissemination of Kabbalah, taught the Jewish people and the world how to use the bow and arrow.


Copyright © 2008-2012
Based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Lag B'Omer, 5711, May 24, 1951, as published in Torat Menachem Hitvaduyot, vol. 3 p. 77-81. For the preparation of this essay and its footnotes, I have borrowed from an earlier English rendition, by Yanki Tauber, first published in Week In Review (currently available at //