Hundreds of thousands of Jews joined each other in the town of Meron, just a mountain away from the northern Israeli city of Tsfat, for Saturday night and Sunday, participating in the annual celebration of Lag Ba'Omer, "Hillula deRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai". The Hassidic Rabbis of Stolin-Karlin and Boyan each lit a central bonfire at different times Saturday night and the all night festivities began.
Travelling in busses and some even on foot, hundreds of thousands had arrived in Meron, some for the Sabbath and the rest of the massive crowd after Sabbath ended. Private cars were not allowed in the city,but free busses took celebrants from totally full enormous parking lots to the crowded area of the festivities. The unseasonal rains did not put a damper on the event.
Traditional Lag BaOmer songs were sung and klezmer music played by well known musicians, such as clarinetist Musa Berlin, who come to Meron every year and play till the early morning hours. One of the most famous songs is a melodious chant in alphabetical order with the repeated refrain Ashreinu ma tov chelkenu, "How lucky we are and how pleasant is our lot". The song includes a prayer for "healing the sick completely" and "mitigating any punishment we deserve" as well as destroying our enemies, all, according to the rest of the refrain, "in the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the festivity-Hillula-- held in his memory."
Lag Ba'Omer is the 33rd day of the 50 day count between the holiday of Pesach (Passover), at which time the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, and the holiday of Shavuot, at which time they received the Torah at Mount Sinai. However, it is also the day of the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (sometimes known by the acronym Rashbi), was a rabbi in the time of the Mishna, after the destruction of the Second Temple. The pre-eminent disciple of the great Rabbi Akiva, he was – like his predecessor – a vocal opponent of the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel, and was forced to go into hiding for 13 years with his son, Rabbi Eliezer, in order to avoid imprisonment by the Romans.
However, Rabbi Shimon's foremost legacy is the Zohar, the fundamental work of the Kabbalah, the teachings of Jewish mysticism. It is primarily for this reason that the day of his passing is celebrated by the Jewish people. Tradition records that on the day of his death, Rabbi Shimon revealed to his students the deepest secrets of mysticism, causing a day which would have been sorrowful and bitter to become a day of celebration and rejoicing. He was buried in Meron. Nearby Tsfat was the seat of Kabbalah (Jewish hidden lore) study from the days of the Ari Hakadosh, Rabbi Isaac Luria, in the sixteenth century.
Moreover, prior to this day, the 33rd day of the Omer corresponded to the end of a plague which ravaged the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (though some interpretations say many of the students died participating in the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans, an effort in which Rabbi Akiva was a leading figure), causing the day to be one of celebration independent of a relationship to Rabbi Shimon.
Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, recommended to visitors to understand that just as there are often obstacles to overcome when striving toward a more perfect spirituality, so are there physical obstacles that invariably accompany the trip to Meron. Because of the huge convergence of people, there is traffic and crowding – Rabbi Eliyahu is urging visitors to maintain a positive attitude and remember their love for their fellow Jew as they join the throngs in making their way to the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon. "A person may be inclined, unfortunately, to get angry because of checkpoints or having to walk on foot," said Rabbi Eliyahu, "so every person should decide before they set out for Meron to maintain positive thoughts and love for the nation of Israel, that he should not get weighed down on the way… by harsh thoughts."
Approximately 4,000 police officers with cars, helicopters, and a Zeppelin aircraft are on hand to guide and protect the pilgrims. Magen David Adom emergency medical services personnel are present.
On Sunday, many of the celebrants, some having flown from abroad for this purpose, will give their three year old sons their first haircut, known as chalaka, another tradition for Lag BaOmer in Meron. From this point on, the little ones will be expected to wear a kippah, skullcap, and tzitzit, a fringed garment to go along with their more grownup appearance.