No one knows exactly how many people will have visited or spent a few hours or days at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai by the end of this Lag BaOmer weekend, but it's in the hundreds of thousands. Buses have arrived at the site since the end of the Sabbath at a rate of one every 3-4 minutes.
The central Lag BaOmer celebration, at the Galilee town of Meron, featured the traditional bonfire-lighting by the Admor [Hassidic Grand Rabbi] of Boyan at 11 PM. Many thousands of people spent the Sabbath there, and only non-Jewish policemen policed the site, in order not to cause Sabbath desecration. Some people have been there for the past two weeks.
In addition, dozens of Hassidic Admorim and rabbis and their followers lit their own bonfires, with their followers, in honor of Lag BaOmer - the day the saintly scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passed away 1,850 years ago.
In keeping with traditional ceremonies several centuries old, Lag BaOmer in Meron features singing, dancing, praying, sharing food with guests, first haircuts for 3-year-old budding Torah scholars, giving charity and lighting bonfires representing the "light of Torah" disseminated by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his teacher Rabbi Akiva. The non-stop celebration of Lag BaOmer is perhaps the largest Jewish celebration in the world, attracting Jews of every stripe and type: secular, religious, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Hassidic, and Litvak.
Below is video of last year's Lag B'omer celebration
IsraelNationalRadio's Yishai Fleisher spent several early Sunday morning there, from before 4 AM until about 8. A summary of his impressions:
"Wherever you go, there are women and girls praying with total dedication... holding Psalms or prayerbooks, sitting in the woods, on the street, wherever... The music is blaring and non-stop - bands take turns playing at the main spot above the tomb, with crowds dancing below; the music is soulful, very Jewish - unique to Meron... It is definitely not a social scene, but rather one of mysticism, modesty and giving... Food is given out freely with no limits, soda, grape juice, whatever.... Prayer books, too, are distributed... There are all types of people - Breslovers, religious-Zionist, Yitzhar-types (giv'onim), hareidim, hassidim, non-religious, traditional Sephardim from Morocco... From time time, a rebbe walks in with all his followers, and an open space is suddenly formed for them to walk through... You get a sense that you're seeing people from all over the country...
"There is one large fire, and smaller fires here and there, and candles all over... Smoke is a pervasive smell, and there is also a certain area where you smell meat - sheep are slaughtered and ritually kashered, with all the work that goes into it... So many people! And if you just walk a little bit to the side, you find yourself in the middle of a beautiful forest - and you can even see Tzfat in the distance... The name of Rabbi Shimon is on everyone's lips - talking about the miracles that happened in his merit, or pouring you soda in his merit, or whatever... There is mysticism in the air..."
The 33rd day of the Omer period between the Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost) holidays, Lag BaOmer marks the anniversary of the death some 1,850 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.
To fill the spiritual vacuum left by the death of his students, the great Rabbi Akiva chose a select five men, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, to whom to transmit the secrets of the Torah. One of the most oft-quoted rabbis in the Mishna, where he is known simply as Rabbi Shimon, he raised the ire of the ruling Romans because of his disparaging remarks about their regime. He refused to credit them for their impressive building of roads, bridges and bath-houses, saying they did this only for their own self-interest and to collect taxes.
Upon learning that the Romans were pursuing him for what he said, he ran away and hid in a cave for 12 years, where he learned the deepest secrets of the Torah together with his son. Upon exiting the cave, he was unable to understand why people did not spend every waking moment in spiritual endeavors - and his all-penetrating gaze even caused the death of a simple farmer. He then returned to the cave for another year, after which he became one of Jewry's most renowned and saintly leaders. (See Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 33a)
(Photos: Yishai Fleisher)