From the second night of Passover, for forty-nine nights to the eve of Shavuot, we count the Omer. This year, that’s from the 16th of April to the 4th of June. This time of year has become associated with tragedy and persecution over the course of Jewish history, particularly during the course of the crusades. One factor in this is surely the passions (pun intended) stirred in the medieval Christian community by the Easter holiday, paired with the blood libel which was often levied against the Jews at the time of Passover. For all the dramatic pathos of accusations of deicide, ritual murder, and cannibalism, there is the corresponding bathos of a second reason this season saw violence against Jews throughout the Middle Ages: spring weather is more conducive for a rampage than cold winter.
A striking example of this pattern followed the coronation of Richard I of England (yes, the one in the Robin Hood stories) in the fall of 1189. When Richard was crowned, deadly riots broke out against the Jews of London after some Jews were expelled from the coronation banquet, where they had come to pay homage to the new king, apparently unaware that Jews were forbidden to participate in the celebration. After a quiet winter, the violence erupted anew in the spring of 1190, including the collective suicide of the entire Jewish community of York under siege by a violent mob at Clifford’s Tower, on Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover.
The dark mood of the Omer period is punctuated by the raucous celebration of Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day of the count, which falls on May 19th this year. While the origins of this celebration are a little opaque, it is a popular occasion on the modern Israeli calendar, celebrated with parades, picnics, archery, and bonfires, as well as a lot of weddings (which are customarily avoided during the Omer prior to this day). While the observances are laden with Kabbalistic significance for those of that inclination, particularly the Chasidim; for Israelis, it is also simply a day that celebrates going outside and enjoying the beauty of the land of Israel.
This part of the calendar also includes Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), scheduled to coincide with the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and modern Israel’s Memorial and Independence days. The State of Israel quite movingly scheduled these national holidays back-to-back, so that Israel’s independence is only celebrated after acknowledging the sacrifice of those who were martyred to give their brethren a state “on a silver platter” and those whose lives have been taken on the battlefield or by acts of terror in the years since. Sadly, that roll of martyrs has grown even in recent weeks, as enemies of the Jewish nation once again look to spring as the season of rampage. May God thwart their evil plans.
Finally, let’s not forget that this corner of our calendar culminates in the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of Torah and the Revelation at Sinai. For some reason, Shavuot is the “forgotten man” among the major Jewish holidays. This is likely because it often falls past the end of the Hebrew School year, as families are looking ahead to summer vacation, and perhaps also because it lacks a corresponding Christian holiday to bring it attention in the American civic consciousness. Compared with its “peer” holidays, Sukkot and Pesach, Shavuot comes and goes quickly (though we spend seven weeks counting up to it!), and doesn’t require any major advanced preparation like construction work or intensive housecleaning. But Shavuot has its own charms, from Tikkun Leil Shavuot (a late-night or all-night study session to kick off the holiday), to the Ten Commandments, to the Megillah of Ruth, to cheesecake, blintzes, and other dairy delicacies instead of meat. Barring any major step backward in the pandemic situation, you’ll be able to join us in the synagogue for all of the above for the first time in a long time on June 4-6 this year. For those unfamiliar, I offer the same advice about Shavuot as about the cheesecake: try it, you’ll like it!