While bonfires were lit Monday night across the country, those at Meron are participating in traditional ceremonies, in keeping with an age-old custom, including singing, dancing, praying, sharing food with guests, and lighting bonfires which represent the "light of Torah" disseminated by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his teacher Rabbi Akiva.
The holiday of Lag BaOmer - the 33rd day of the Omer period between the Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost) holidays - marks the anniversary of the death over 1,800 years ago of Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose teachings comprise the text of the primary Kabbalah sourcebook, the Zohar.
The date, the 18th of the Jewish month of Iyar, also marks Bar Kokhba's revolt against the Romans, and the end of a period of mourning for thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, who died in a plague in the preceding 32 days.
Arutz Sheva's live webcast will run until 8 PM Tuesday (1 PM Tuesday, EST). A small charge to help cover the costs of this unique event is required for viewing. The broadcast includes views from inside the burial cave, the courtyard - and even from the air. Viewers can submit prayers and supplications via an online form.
Background on Rabbi Shimon
To fill the spiritual vacuum left by the death of his students, the great Rabbi Akiva chose a select five men to whom to pass over the secrets of the Torah. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai stood out amongst them and eventually wrote the secrets of the Torah - the Kabbalah - in his work, the holy Zohar.
Recognizing that no other mortal would understand the full depth of the secrets contained in the Zohar, Rabbi Akiva comforted his student Rabbi Shimon, saying, "It's enough that I and your Creator recognize your strengths and powers."
Rabbi Shimon's Funeral
When Rabbi Shimon passed away, many communities demanded that the holy sage be interred in their local graveyard. Jewish legend records that when his funeral began, a ring of fire encircled Rabbi Shimon's coffin, which proceeded to propel itself like a hovercraft to the hillside of Mt. Meron in the Galilee. All then understood that this site was to be the sage's final resting place.
When Rabbi Shimon's son, Rabbi Elazar, later passed away, he had been living in the village of Akbara. The Jews of the town left his body in an attic for 22 years, during which no deaths, sicknesses, or tragedies befell the town. They dared not move his body, nor enter the attic.
However, after 22 years, Rabbi Shimon appeared in a dream to select people, instructing them to bring his son, Rabbi Elazar, to be interred next to him in Meron. The Jews of Akbara refused to comply with the request, recognizing Rabbi Elazar's resting place as a source of great blessing. On Yom Kippur eve, when the townspeople were busy preparing for the holiest day of the year, the select few who had been charged by Rabbi Shimon to transfer his son removed the body from the attic and brought it to Meron.
At the entrance of Rabbi Shimon's burial cave, a great serpent stood on guard. The pallbearers told the serpent, "Move aside and allow us to deliver the son to his father." The serpent moved aside, only to return to its post upon their departure from the cave.
The actual entrance to the burial cave was later sealed, and no one has accessed it since. According to Rabbi Shraga Shnitzer of Ohel Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon's Tent] institutions, the few instances in which people tried to reach the burial chamber ended in tragedy.
Miracles at the Site
It has been an age-old Jewish tradition to pray to G-d at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar. In addition, many traditional "first haircuts" are given to 3-year-old budding Torah scholars at the site.
Five hundred years ago, the famed Mishna commentator Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenora wrote that many men and women who were not able to bear children were blessed with offspring after visiting the site and making a pledge.
At the end of his Hebrew-language Arutz Sheva interview, the aforementioned Rabbi Shraga Shnitzer of Ohel Rashbi tells of another miracle at the tomb to which he was an eye-witness.
There was once a 3-year-old child who had a fever of 41 degrees Centigrade (105.8 F). The child could not move. That Friday was Lag B'omer and the father, himself a master of the Torah and the Kabbalah, decided to take his son to Meron to give him his "first haircut" and pray for his recovery.
The mother panicked at the idea and brought a doctor to convince the father that the child should not be disturbed. The doctor explained that the child was in serious danger in his bed, and that moving him would endanger him more. Against the advice of all present, the father ordered a cab and left with his sick son for Meron at 7 A.M. that morning.
When the father and son returned from the tomb of Rabbi Shimon at 4 P.M, all the neighbors were gathered at their home to comfort the mother as she anxiously awaited their arrival. As the cab pulled up, a tense quiet overtook those gathered. The cab door swung open, and the child came running out joyously into his mother's arms.
Arutz Sheva's Yoni Kempinski asked Rabbi Shnitzer: "You were an eyewitness to this scene?"
Rabbi Shnitzer: "That child was none other than me."
Lag BaOmer and the Rebellion Against the Romans
Israel's Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, in his work B'Maaglei HaChayim, notes that the custom of playing with bows and arrows on Lag BaOmer is "apparently because tradition tied this date with the Bar Kokhba rebellion." One tradition has it that Rabbi Akiva's students were the main force of Bar Kokhba's army, which succeeded in defeating both Roman legions that were then in the Holy Land, restoring Jewish independence for four years. According to many, they also began rebuilding the Holy Temple. For more on the "failed Messiah" Bar Kokhba, the spiritual/military war for independence, and Rabbi Akiva's role in these events, see this article by Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the OU and NCSY.