Lag BaOmer Dispatches From Meron

Once a year, on a lush Galilee hilltop, Jews flock to the tomb of the mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, celebrating Torah's mystical secrets and the Jewish tradition of revolt against opression.

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Ezra HaLevi, | updated: 18:10

10 AM, Monday – 32nd Day of the Omer
Tents can be seen dotting the hills around the hilltop of Meron, which faces the mystical city of Tzfat (Safed), in Israel's Galilee region. Nestled in a ridge behind the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are several rows of larger tents, which have been erected and fully furnished by Jewish families who make the pilgrimage to Meron each year – some arriving weeks before Lag BaOmer "to camp out with Rebbe Shimon," they say.
Tents fill the open areas around Meron.
The Levy family from the southern coastal city of Ashdod relaxes in the tent they have called home for the past two weeks.
"We live in Tel Aviv, except for every Lag BaOmer, when we move up to Meron!"

The elderly patriarch of the Yifrach family, with his children and grandchildren from the Beit She'an and Tel Aviv regions, can be found getting to work, rendering a freshly slaughtered sheep kosher for a gigantic barbecue to start at nightfall. "This fat," he says as he slices off a thin film from a piece of the raw meat and tosses it aside, "you can't eat it – G-d says so." He continues to painstakingly locate the forbidden fats - which in the time of the Holy Temple would be burned on the altar - and reaches the sciatic nerve, which Jews must remove from their meat ever since the angel struck the patriarch Jacob there. Locating and removing the nerve and the forbidden fats is a tradition that Mr. Yifrach learned from his father and grandfather – and which he is currently teaching his grandchild.
Israel National Radio's Yishai Fleisher holds the head of a freshly slaughtered sheep as Sabba Yifrach removes the fats and nerves proscribed by the Torah.
A recently slaughtered sheep awaits nightfall at the entrance to one family's tent.
Implements used to cut and clean the freshly slaughtered sheep.

Deputy fire chief Avi Hayon says his men are in place to ensure that the raging bonfires that will be lit in honor of the revolt against the Romans remain under control. He shares all sorts of logistical information about the number of trucks and where they are deployed, where the fire inspectors will be concentrated in order to avoid disaster – but in the end gestures heavenward and says, "The merit of Rebbe Shimon will hopefully protect us."
In one of the courtyards of the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The entrance to the inner maze of rooms in the tomb.

2 PM, Monday – 32nd Day of the Omer
Thousands of Jews making their pilgrimage to Meron on the eve of Lag BaOmer continue to climb the hill toward the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon. One man says he, his wife and their three-year-old son came all the way from New York. His son, whose name is Levi Yitzchak, is a direct descendent of the Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev on both sides. They came to Meron for the boy’s first haircut; his hair has not been cut since his birth, in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Three-year-old Levi Yitzchak, a descendent of the Hassidic Master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev on both sides, arrives in Meron from America for his traditional first haircut.
"My name is Hadassa [right] and I am here today to say I love all the Jewish people and love Rabbi Shimon for showing us how deep the Torah is and how deep and holy the Jewish people are."

4 PM, Monday – 32nd Day of the Omer
There is a tradition to distribute food free of charge in Meron on Lag BaOmer, in honor of the Rashbi (an acronym for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). Individual families take it upon themselves to give everybody a taste of the lamb that has been slaughtered for the occasion. The endless supply of food and drink do not end there, however. Charitable organizations and yeshivas set up kiosks distributing various pastries and warm noodle kugel to passersby. Alongside the food are taps labeled with different contents: coffee, tea, cold water and fruit punch.
Multi-flavored soda fountains line the walls of the main courtyard, as well as the sides of the building. Dispensing tons of soda to those dancing without running out.
Tasty food is offered free of charge along the roads leading up to the tomb.
The author, not planning to sleep, enjoys some of the coffee available on tap along the road. Tea, ice-water and fruit-punch were also available.
Individuals as well give out free food and drink, usually grape juice, to passers-by.
A plastic cup produced especially for the event lays in a garbage can after having served its purpose.

6:30 PM Monday – 32nd Day of the Omer
The Yifrach family, joined by others living in nearby tents, has gathered in a large tent, where some of the men pray the afternoon prayer as others sip coffee and listen respectfully. One man gets up and says, "Rebbe Shimon brings us all together here - all of Israel: religious, secular, Morrocan, Lithuanian, Hassidic – everyone!
One of the men speaks about Meron and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in a tent designated as the local Moroccan synagogue as night falls, between the afternoon and evening prayers.

The grills are being stoked and fires start to appear, dotting the hills as the sun paints everything orange and casts long shadows over Meron.
A man uses a "naf-naf" to stoke the coals as the skewered sheep meat cooks on the grill.

8 PM Monday – 33rd Day of the Omer (Hebrew date begins the previous night)
The blessing over counting the Omer is heard booming across the hills and valleys, as fires get larger and grills are covered with seasoned lamb.

The klezmer band perched over the crowd packed into the inner courtyard of Rabbi Shimon's Tomb begins piping out songs about Bar Yochai, the revered student of Rabbi Akiva. The sound of clarinet melodies can be heard reverberating through the town via loudspeakers.
Overlooking the giant courtyard behind the tomb where bonfires blazed and crowds sang and danced all night.

9 PM Monday – 33rd Day of the Omer
Israel National Radio begins a three-hour live broadcast, bringing the sounds of Meron to the netwaves. The show is archived and can be heard by clicking here. Hour 1, Hour 2 and Hour 3.
Israel National TV's field broadcast center at the Bar Yochai school next to the tomb. The live pay-per-view broadcast gave thousands a view of the festivities from across the globe.
INR's Binyamin Bresky prepares for the live broadcast.
Getting read for Israel National Radio's midnight live broadcast from Meron.

12 AM Tuesday – 33rd Day of the Omer
The celebrations are going strong and lamb is still being grilled in the tent city. A Morrocan family band is providing Mizrachi music for the occasion and strangers are continuously transformed into welcome guests, with their plates and cups filled.
Guests are urged to take seats alongside family as salads, meats and drinks are continuously brought to the table.
One family has a television in their tent, hooked up to a generator, on which they watch the coverage of the Meron festivities.

1 AM Tuesday – 33rd Day of the Omer
Thousands are dancing – jumping in the air simultaneously to the beat of Hassidic niggunim (tunes without words) and songs about Shimon Bar Yochai.
Bonfires are said to represent the light of Torah. They also recall modes of communication during the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans.
Famed musician Musa Berlin plays his glass clarinet on a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
Circles of dancers, large and small - as well as individual dancers - fill the large courtyard behind the tomb.

2 AM Tuesday – 33rd Day of the Omer
Candles line the streets around the town as people continue to arrive, having gotten in their cars after work from all over Israel to make it to Meron.
Candles line the streets and flicker between the cracks of stones along the walls and streets of Meron.

3 AM Tuesday – 33rd Day of the Omer
Thousands simultaneously attempt to enter the tomb. It is a physical feat during which people are wedged up against their neighbors and move forward to their destination by leaning slightly. It is a one-way journey through the tomb and people can be seen exiting in the back, after swimming in a sea of Jews, sometimes for hours. “The key,” one man says, “is to nullify yourself and your desire to get where you are going – just ride the wave of Jews.” Indeed, most people are praying, some smiling at those pushing them on all sides, but others attempt to violently break through the human mass to make their way to where they want to go. “The Jewish people are heading in the right direction,” he added, leaning his way forward.
Bows and arrows are a hallmark of Lag BaOmer festivities, recalling the weapon of choice used by the students of Rabbi Akiva in their successful battles against the Roman legions.
People camped out in the forests and hills around Meron. Some sleep for a few hours and return to the celebration.
A man reciting Psalms outside his tent Lag BaOmer morning.
Young man plays some early-morning music.

(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist and Ezra HaLevi)