Facets of Faith: Holidays of May cover many events

The next few weeks have several religious holidays.

May 18 Lag B’Omer/Judaism

Lag B’Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that has roots in Scripture and marks some tragic events in Jewish history.

Lag B’Omer falls between Passover, which marks the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and Shavuot, which celebrates God giving the Ten Commandments to his people.

Leviticus 23:9-16 describes these two festivals and Omer, the period between them.

Omer is a time of mourning when there are to be no weddings or night work. Other prohibitions, including no shaving or haircuts, were added later.

Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of Omer, is first mentioned in the 12th century. It commemorates the end of a plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. But many other tragedies happened during Omer through the years.

People say this combination of tragic events leads to the somber nature of Omer. Lag B’Omer allows a joyous break from mourning, allowing normally prohibited activities.

SOURCES: American Jewish Desk Reference; acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Calendar_ Index.html#Omer

May 14 Visakha Puja/Buddhism

Visakha Puja, or Buddha Day, honors the birth, the Enlightenment and the death of Buddha. However, as with many things in Buddhism, the observance may not take place on that date.

In some countries, Buddha’s life events are celebrated on separate days. For example, in Japan, the birth is marked on April 8, the enlightenment on Feb. 15 and the death Dec. 8. Other countries celebrate all three events on the full moon day of April or May.

The holiday carries many names: Wesak/Vesak, Saga Dawa Duchen, Visakha/ Vesakha or Buddha Purinama.

In most of Asia, Wesak is a public holiday.

Buddhists use the day to emphasize goodness and virtue. Many Buddhists use it as a day to renew their commitment to the faith.

Some Buddhists observe the holiday with a week’s fasting and silence.

Others celebrate the day with parades and dancing. Some people hand out food to passers-by.

People donate to the poor or give blood. Some decorate their homes and temples and monasteries. The day ends with communal vegetarian meals and candlelight processions.

Sources: The Buddhist Religion, Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson; The Buddhist Handbook, John Snelling; theholidayspot.com/buddha_purnima/

May 27 Lailat al Miraj/Islam

Islam has three night festivals, of which Lailat Isra wa al Miraj, will be celebrated in May this year.

Often shortened to Lailat al Miraj, it marks the night journey and ascent of the Prophet Muhammad into heaven. (Lailat is night. Isra is journey. Miraj is ladder or ascent.)

The exact journey of the night has several versions, some quite elaborate.

The Miraj may have influenced Christian literature: Dante’s “Divine Comedy” used many similar motifs, including many levels of heaven.

The story says Muhammad is prepared to meet God by the archangels Gabriel and Michael while he is asleep in the Kaaba, the shrine in Mecca.

The angels open his body to remove all traces of error, doubt, idolatry and paganism. They fill the space with wisdom and belief, making him pure.

Gabriel woke Muhammad, and they traveled to Jerusalem and then levels of heaven, eventually reaching the throne of Allah or God where Allah tells Muhammad about salat (daily prayers).

These instructions on prayer are very significant. Salat is performed five times a day and is considered the second of Islam’s Five Pillars, or requirements.

Many Islamic holidays are celebrated as families, but Miraj is celebrated as a community. People gather in decorated mosques for prayers and singing. Children are told the tale of the journey and ascent. Sweets are passed out. Charitable projects are often a part of the celebration.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religion, Wendy Doniger, editor; HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith, editor; Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, Keith Crim, editor; interfaithcalendar.org/