Jewish Celebration Photo Essay: Lag BaOmer in Meron

Buses keep arriving in the Galilee town of Meron, as Jews sing, dance and pray in the merit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag BaOmer.

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Hillel Fendel and Yishai Fleisher,

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.

Press "Play" below for IsraelNationalRadio coverage of the hundreds of thousands at Meron.

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.

The tomb compound is filled with rooms and halls for prayer and dance. Tents, large and small, have been set up by the pilgrims to this special event.
Meron is part of a beautiful forested mountain range. The city of Tzfat is situated on the next mountain over.

The light of Rabbi Shimon's teachings is commemorated by massive candle lighting... morning the candles have burned up, but spiritual batteries have been charged up for the year
Morning prayer begins at sunrise. Large groups congregate for a 'minyan', that is, a prayer group made up of at least ten men.
Crowds meander through the main artery leading up to the the tomb of Rabbi Shimon
A massive picture of the Lubavitche Rebbe towers above the throngs of celebrants.
Giant poster of Rabbi Yisrael Odesser - the founder of the Na Nach Nachman MeUman sect of the Breslov chassidic movement

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

The first haircut that a child receives, known traditionally as the Challekeh, occurs when he is three years old.
It is considered especially auspicious to perform the Challekeh haircut in Meron on Lag BaOmer.

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...

A Chassid inspects the freshly slaughtered sheep that will soon be Lag BaOmer BBQ
Mr. Malka is a Morrocan Jew and has been attending the Lag BaOmer celebration in Meron ever since he was a kid
The beat of a spontaneous drum circle draws in the crowds

"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..."

A chassid prepares to give out free material. Tons of free psalms and pamphlets are handed out during Lag BaOmer

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)

Motorcycles of Israel's ZAKA emergency service, are at the ready in case help is needed.
As buses head up to Meron from all parts om Israel, police issue a sticker which reads "Meron 2007 - [this vehicle has] passed security check"
Due to the massive crowds, a special lost-persons center is set up. Regular public announcements help reunite family and friends.
Politics, too: A Moshe Feiglin poster accompanied his recorded voice with a message of reform for both the Likud and Israel
"Free Pollard" activists use the large gathering to get their message across
Pizza Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) gives new meaning to 'mystic pizza'

Click here for last year's Arutz-7 coverage of Lag BaOmer in Meron

(Photos: Yishai Fleisher)