600 Missing buses threaten to jam up Lag BaOmer in Meron

It's complicated, but because of the official intention to "keep the Sabbath holy," buses will be in short supply on Sunday.

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Hillel Fendel,

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The official desire to prevent Sabbath desecration on Lag BaOmer Eve takes some getting used to – and until that happens, the traditional Lag BaOmer bonfires and celebrations in Meron, Galilee are likely to turn into one big mess.

The Knesset's Interior Committee held a session on the topic today (Sunday), and it appears that preparations for the upcoming event – at which no fewer than 400,000 people are expected to take part – are not yet complete.

Aside from the built-in issues with controlling such a large number of people under any circumstances, the issue is complicated this year by the following developments: In an effort to prevent Sabbath desecration in the form of preparations for the scheduled Saturday night bonfires all around the country, the Education Ministry decided this year to postpone the Lag BaOmer vacation from Sunday to Monday. As a result, the bonfires will be held on Sunday night, thus obviating the need for Sabbath preparations.

However, in Meron – the epicenter of the commemorations – the Sabbath issue was dealt with slightly differently. Not wanting to push off the bonfires and celebrations of the saintly author of the Kabbalah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for a full day, the organizers decided to delay the commemorations for merely a few hours. That is, the central bonfire will be lit not at nightfall, but at 1:30 AM Sunday morning. This means that while schools will be open on Sunday as usual, the celebrations will also be taking place in Meron. Eighteen different bonfires in four compounds are scheduled for Lag BaOmer in Meron.

Wherefore is the problem? It lies in the fact that many buses that would ordinarily be loading up passengers from all around Israel and bringing them to Meron on Lag BaOmer – will this year be busy on their usual school routes!

In fact, it was made clear at the Interior Committee session that this could be the number one problem on Lag BaOmer this year. Committee Chairman David Amsalem (Shas) raised the issue, and Dror Gonen of the Ministry of Transportation explained: "There are not enough buses. We have been preparing since December, working closely with the police and readying for an increase of 20-30% in the number of participants. The State is subsidizing transportation to Meron to the tune of 12 million shekels, and there are to be buses coming from 30 different points around the country. The numbers of expected travelers are tremendous, and buses are being enlisted from eight different public companies and many other private companies. But this new decision to push off the school vacation has monkey-wrenched much, because the buses are needed to take pupils back and forth to school. We will be short 600 buses, more than a third of what we need!"

Gonen said that people are likely to use private transportation, "but this will cause great traffic jams. The country will be jammed up on Sunday." Private cars will not be permitted to reach Meron, but will rather be directed to somewhat-nearby Hatzor, Carmiel and Kibbutz Tzivon, from where they are to be shuttled, free of charge, to Meron.

Chairman Amsalem was not happy: "This means that 70,000 people won't have a way to get to Meron. The Religious Affairs Ministry has to convene a meeting, urgently, to figure out a way to solve the problem, at least partially."

Amsalem was also surprised to learn that no official permit has been issued for the event, nor is one required. "How can it be that a permit is needed whenever 200 people gather for some event," he asked, "but for this mega-event of 400,000 people, there are no permits and no one is responsible?"

An answer was supplied by the legal counsel for the Northern Police District: "An outside event that needs a permit is when someone asks to hold an event. But here, no one is asking; people just come on their own! It is therefore considered a spontaneous event that doesn't require a permit." Amsalem said, "Are you serious? Lag BaOmer in Meron is a spontaneous event?!" The police spokesman for the religious/hareidi sector chimed in: "Yes. With or without us, people come to Meron. On Lag BaOmer, the people of Israel speak with their legs!"

Amsalem concluded with a request that the Religious Affairs Ministry take responsibility for the event, and that the police allow buses to travel to Meron all Sunday evening and return throughout the night.

Many rabbis have supported the decision to push off the Lag BaOmer commemorations. They note that the Sages of the Talmud even canceled Biblical commandments such as the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah (when it fell on Sabbath) in order to avoid possible Sabbath desecration.