Celebration in Meron
Celebration in Meron Elishama Sandman

Rabbi David Yosef of Har Nof in Jerusalem, son of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z”tzl and brother of current Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, sharply criticized organizers of the Lag Ba'omer celebrations in northern Israel this year. By failing to heed the pleas of many rabbis – who asked that the celebrations be postponed to Sunday night – the organizers were responsible for mass desecration of the Sabbath on the part of thousands of police and rescue workers, who were forced to go to work in order to prepare for the masses of people expected.

“Tens of thousands of police and security workers were required to be on duty, with police stationed at their posts already on Shabbat morning. Why? So the hareidi and hassidic groups could fulfill the 'positive mitzvah' (Torah commandment) of 'going up' to Meron,” Rabbi Yosef said facetiously. “They get to do their mitzvah, while the rest of us suffer with the Sabbath violations this entails,” he said in an interview with hareidi radio station Kol Baramah.

Celebrating Lag Ba'omer is not a Torah commandment but a custom of some Jewish sects, particularly hassidic and other groups who relate to the mystical works of Talmudic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

“If the groups had waited until Sunday night, or even Sunday morning, when it was still Lag Ba'omer, police could have begun organizing after Shabbat on Saturday night,” he said. “But with people showing up already right after Shabbat, police had no choice but to prepare early, on Shabbat itself. Can anyone say that we as religious people were not responsible for these Sabbath violations?”

If the state could push off Memorial Day and Independence Day so that they did not begin on Saturday night – as they would have this year – in order to avoid violations of the Sabbath, “should we be worse than the secular state? When we ask them to delay these things because of Shabbat, they respond positively – but when it comes to us, we have to fulfill this 'great mitzvah' of going to Meron,” Rabbi Yosef said.

The Chief Rabbinate had asked that Lag Ba'omer celebrations be delayed by a day this year, to ensure that there are no Sabbath violations.

Lag Ba'omer marks the 33rd day between the festivals of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot. It is widely celebrated as the date of the passing of the Talmudic-era sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi). The commentary on the Pentateuch called the Zohar (Shining Light), a classical source of Jewish mysticism, is usually attributed to Rashbi, who lived in the 2nd century CE, passed away on Lag Ba'Omer and is buried in Meron.

The Talmud tells how Rashbi was forced to hide in a cave with his son for twelve years in order to escape the Roman authorities in Israel, who wanted to kill him for dissent.

During this period, the Talmud relates that a carob tree and spring of fresh water were the pair's only sustenance, and that he and his son reached spiritual heights in Torah study and kabbala that made their return to the everyday world a difficult transition.

Before he died, Rashbi - widely revered as a mystic, supremely pious sage, who did not engage at all in worldly pursuits - requested that instead of mourning his death, his students should celebrate his teachings. As a result, many Jews celebrate the day by visiting his tomb in Meron.

On the night of Lag Ba'Omer, the Grand Rabbi (Rebbe) of the Boyaner Hassidic sect lights the first flame of the festivities at midnight and the thousands who have come to Meron continue to sing and dance through the night, chanting the refrains of various songs praising Rashbi, expressing the joy of being a Jew, calling on G-d to deliver His people from danger, and describing their confidence that He purifies them from transgressions.