400,000 Head to Mt. Meron for Lag B'Omer


by Zalman Nelson - Meron, Israel

May 11, 2009

(lubavitch.com) Every 20 seconds, another bus arrives at Mt. Meron in Israel’s Upper Galillee. Lag B’Omer, which begins Monday night, is one of the liveliest days in Israel, and Meron, where the second century mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, who died on this day was buried, becomes a magnet for some 400,000 visitors.

150 shuttles run full time to bring people close to the gravesite. Car travel in the immediate area is restricted and newly constructed pedestrian tunnels run under the main road to aid traffic flow. Religious and nonreligious, Jew and gentile, from every part of Israel and abroad, join the festivities.

In a meeting last week at the tomb of the great sage, Tourism Ministry Director Stas Misezhnikov, Knesset Members Moshe Gafni, Rabbi Menachem Moses and Reuven Edry, and Police, Ambulance and Security officials met with Meron Area Director and Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Halperin to review preparations for the  festival, centered largely on Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or RASHBI, an acronym for his initials by which he is commonly referred to, revealed some of the deepest mystical secrets of the Torah before he passed away, and asked his students to treat the day with great joy and celebration. Besides praying at the grave site, musicians play, visitors dance, hospitality tents provide group meals and large bonfires are lit in memory of the fire surrounding the rabbi’s home during his final teachings.

"The central event on Lag B’Omer attracts around 400,000 people, and around a million visitors visit the site throughout the entire year," said Misezhnikov about the ministry’s involvement in the site. “This place has huge potential that hasn't been fulfilled yet. It is the second most visited religious site in Israel, after the Western Wall.”

Misezhnikov, who will join the festivities on Tuesday night, toured the $2 million construction and infrastructure projects initiated last year by the Tourism Ministry to accommodate the large crowds which include pedestrian tunnels, roadway upgrades and facility improvement.

As director of the Meron village which includes the gravesite of RASHBI, Rabbi Halperin coordinates with local officials and worked with the Tourism Ministry to implement their development plans. “That many people packing into one location requires months of coordination and planning. It’s the largest event the police department faces all year,” Halperin told lubavitch.com by phone as he directed final arrangements.

“The assistance from the Tourism Ministry will make a big difference and I think visitors will really enjoy themselves.”

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, (135-170 C.E.), led the Jewish people during the dark and difficult times after the destruction of the second temple. He was the first to publicly teach the Torah’s esoteric dimension, or Kabbalah, and authored its fundamental work called Zohar. His teachings continued to provide strength and encouragement to generations of Jews forced into exile. As it is written in the Zohar, “In the merit of this book, the Jews will return from their exile.”

RASHBI’s passing and burial was described by his students as a spectacular event, complete with fire issuing forth from his burial cave, and a heavenly voice encouraging all to “Come, come up and come in to the celebration of RASHBI.”

The Lag B’Omer festivities established at the Meron burial site by his students, represent a celebration of bar Yochai’s life, and his continued impact through his mystical teaching which have been expanded upon by the great teachers in subsequent generations. The practice waned in the centuries when Israel lay desolate. In the 1500s, as Jews began repopulating the land, Rabbi and mystical sage Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the ARI, who settled in Safed, greatly expanded the teachings of the Zohar and revealed the locations of many burial sites in Israel which had become unknown through the years. He is credited with reviving the customs surrounding bar Yochai and the celebrations in Miron.

Mount Meron is the largest mountain in Israel’s northern Galillee, reaching 124,000 meters above sea level. An IDF army base and early warning station, as well as one of Israel’s largest natural preserves are part of the landscape.

A week in advance of Lag B’Omer, families stake out campsites and various nonprofit groups are on the scene setting up hospitality tents. A spokesman for Agudat Hillula DeRashbi said the group’s tent is already completed and supplies are being trucked in. “We anticipate distributing 100,000 liters of soda, 40,000 chocolate milk drinks, and 40,000 bread rolls to anyone who walks through our doors. All are welcome.”

Yakov Hershkopf, a contractor from Jerusalem, has worked on setting up the Meron site every year for various religious groups since he moved from Brooklyn, New York 10 years ago. While building the facilities gives him an even greater appreciation for the massive number of visitors on Lag B’Omer, he said that there is a special feeling of unity that transcends differences.

“There are so many buses and so many people that keep coming in wave after wave all day. But it’s very calm and I’ve never seen a problem. It is the only place I know of where religious and nonreligious are praying together and eating together. Come experience it for yourself.”

In the 1970s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, asked Chasidim to put great effort into Lag B’Omer activities at Meron. Chabad’s hospitality tent is manned by rabbis and students, and includes outreach, a tefillin donning station, learning, book sales, and food and drink for visitors.

Over a 24 hour period, groups are assigned designated times to visit the inside of the burial site complex for personal prayers. In the courtyard immediately outside the tomb, volunteer musicians play nonstop. Participants dance in circles within circles. Dancers hoist men up on their shoulders, sometimes as many as two and three high.

There is a custom to give three year old boys their first hair cut at Meron on Lag BaOmer. The haircut marks the beginning of a boy’s formal training in Jewish observance, starting with the commandment to leave the sideburns, or peyot.

Schools in Israel will be closed on Tuesday, as well as many places of work. Those not traveling to Miron customarily go out to the fields and parks, enjoying the outdoors and joining in bonfires and barbeques. Wood scraps are hard to come by, as children have been feverishly collecting scrap wood since Passover in anticipation of making a bonfire.

The Rebbe encouraged making children's parades in every city and town on Lag B'Omer in celebration of Jewish unity. Upwards of 250,000 Jewish children participate in Chabad sponsored parades with music, floats and marching bands. Outside of Israel, many communities make bonfires on Lag B’Omer, extending the festivities to Sunday with large parades and community wide picnics.

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