Feature: The Bonfires of Meron
The Lag B’omer celebrations on lush, verdant Mount Meron occupy a singular place among Israeli holiday events. Each year, for a night and a day, the past and the present, the religious and the secular, the quiet and the raucous join in a unique confluence of time and space.
According to legend, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the great mystic who lived in the Galilee 2,000 years ago, returns to his burial site on Mount Meron every Lag B’omer to speed along the entreaties of those who pray there.
The earthly visitors, however, are easier to verify. As many as 200,000 take part in the annual pilgrimage to Mount Meron, a mystical medley of picnic, prayer and party that is one of the biggest Jewish gatherings in the world.
For seven weeks, from the second day of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, observant Jews literally count the passage of each day out loud, a tradition called counting the omer. In biblical times, this culminated in bringing a special grain offering—an omer of wheat—to the Temple. But horrific events in Jewish history darkened the weeks immediately after Passover. During the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome in the second century, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in an epidemic. In the 11th century, Crusaders slaughtered the Jews of the German towns of Worms, Speyer and Mainz on their way to Jerusalem. In 1648, Bogdan Chmielnicki’s fanatics carried out pogroms against the Jews in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. Consequently, the first 32 days of the counting became a sad and sober time. Even today, weddings do not take place in this period in Israel. Many Jews, even those who aren’t strictly observant, refrain from getting haircuts.
Lag B’omer is literally the 33rd day (“Lag” is an acronym for the Hebrew letters for the numbers 30 and 3, lamed and gimel respectively). On Lag B’omer, this year on May 6, the epidemic ended. The date also coincided with the yortzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, considered to be the author of the kabbalistic text, the Zohar.
To honor his memory, chartered buses carry men, women and children from all over Israel to this oak tree-covered mountain near Safed, blooming with wild flowers and anise-scented herbs. The police cordon off giant parking lots, and Hasidic courts stake out areas along the mountain.
Chabad emissaries, black hats tipped slightly forward, are the first to greet visitors with music and a large screen showing movies of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Farther up the mountain, white-capped Bratslav Hasidim draw men of every background into leaping dance circles. A mood of joy envelops the mountaintop.
Late arrivals join the crowd slowly moving up the hill toward the tomb of Rabbi Shimon. Some are Hasidim dressed in long black frock coats and fur hats, but there are plenty of other Israelis, in jeans and sweaters, wearing colored headscarves, Turkish tarbushes and Moroccan fezzes. Individuals, families, playful kids and groups of students share an exuberance of spirit and the hope that their prayers will be answered. To aid the process, vendors peddle segulot, good luck charms: hand-shaped hamsas, red threads and blue beads for protection against the evil eye. Israel may be the country with the most home computers and university degrees per capita, but on Lag B’omer, on Mount Meron, logic is suspended and the mystical reigns supreme.
At nightfall, pyres are built of old rags and ignited with oil—often olive oil left over from Hanukka. As the flames leap upward against the sky, symbolizing the light and warmth of the Torah, ecstatic dance circles form. After all, if you light a memorial candle for a loved one, then a righteous tzaddik such as Rabbi Shimon deserves a bonfire. The partying continues all night and through the next day. Everywhere, stands offer free drinks and snacks.
Families pitch tents all over the hill, not only because the weather in May is pleasant but also to honor Jewish defiance of the Roman ban on Torah study during the Bar Kokhba rebellion. The tents recall the students who went into the countryside carrying bows and arrows and pretending to be on their way to hunt, when instead they were off to study Torah. Today’s celebrants spread blankets, pass out pita and hummus and roast hot dogs on charcoal grills. With the ban on haircutting lifted, 3-year-old boys with ponytails ride on their fathers’ shoulders on the way to their first haircut. The event is heralded as a transition from babyhood to an age when a child can start his education. Relatives take turns clipping the youngster’s long locks and present him with his first talit katan, a ritual garment with knotted fringes on its four corners. Other revelers hold thanksgiving ceremonies, and families bring sheep and await itinerant ritual slaughterers to kill and render the animals kosher before the barbecue.
On his death, Rabbi Shimon’s body is said to have flown through the air to a cave on Mount Meron. A complex of white domed buildings and courtyards stands on the spot. Outside, the air is sweetened with the scent of thousands of candles, each lit with a wish or a prayer. Inside, the clamor recedes. The chambers where men and women pray separately are quiet and cool. Supplicants rock back and forth, eyes closed, hands gripping siddurim and lists of requests from friends who could not come.
Rabbi Shimon’s wish was for future generations to rejoice with him on Lag B’omer. If his spirit hovers nearby, he must be pleased indeed.