Lag B'Omar in Meron

    June 1998         
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Meron on Lag B'Omer

By Dovid Rossoff

Days before Lag B'Omer, tents and pavilions are being setup wherever there is level ground in the Galilean hills of Meron. Police are corridoring off areas for security reasons. Private and public bus companies are organizing parking lots according to a master plan. A cheerful hecticness pervades. The activities in the courtyards of Meron are similar. The spirit of unity by those whose job it is to organize the material sustainance of tens of thousands of pilgrims is positive, and the Sefardi and Ashkenazi authorities discuss how to handle various situations. What was once left in the hands of spontaneous efforts is now organized to the last detail.

By the eve of Lag B'Omer tens of thousands of people begin to stream to Meron from all over the country. This steady influx will continue thoughout the night and uninterrupted all the following day .

This phenomenon is unmatched, and can be sensed by sitting for a while and watching the endless procession of Jews coming and going.

Every year the media estimates a larger and larger crowd, until a few years ago the number skyrocketed to over 250,000 people. Coming from all walks of life, Jews feel some kind of identity with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Meron. Something is awakened in their hearts that even the most distant from traditional observance, choose of their own volition, to take the time and expense to come to Meron.

Let us examine more closely some of the background elements behind this festival and see if we can't gain a better appreciation of it.

Click on small picture to see large picture of the celebrations in Meron in the middle 1920's

Lag B'Omer in Tradition

The is a commandment to count the days of the Omer (a measure of grain which was cut and brought to the Temple in Jerusalem), between Pesach till Shavuos (Vayikra 24:15-16). In Talmudic times, a plague killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva during the first month of the Omer. On the thirty-third day (Lag=("- the plague ceased. In remembrance of this, the sages instituted different signs of mourning, such as no weddings, haircuts, and music. Lag B'Omer, however, became a day of grace, an hour of joy, a time of life.

Also, on this day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away, revealing some of the most sublime secrets of the Torah and allowing a Divine illumination to come into the world. As we know, the day of death of a tzaddik (a truly rightgeous man) is a special time to bind ourself to Hashem in prayer and ask that in the merits of the tzaddik our prayers should be heard. And more, may the tzaddik's soul, which is being elevated still higher on this day, speak on our behalf before the heavenly throne.

A Day of Joy

Lag B'Omer is a day for rejoicing. One of the best expressions of joy is through song and dance. All day and all night long the courtyard is filled with men's singing and dancing.

One Lag B'Omer hundreds of years ago, the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzhak Askenazi, one of the greatest Kabbalists, known as Arizal) came to Meron with his disciples. While they were dancing, another group of pilgrims danced nearby led by a tall, well-statured old man dressed in white. Suddenly, the Arizal joined the other group and began to dance alone with the old man. They danced together for a long time, ecstatically, while his disciples looked on with joy in their hearts.

When the Arizal returned, he immediately took the hand of a simple Jew of Safed and began to dance alone with him before his disciples. They danced together for a long time, the Arizal's face full of joy.

Later his disciples politely asked their mentor for an explanation of why he had danced with such a simple Jew, not in keeping with his stature as the greatest mystic since the Rashbi.

The Arizal laughed. "If that old man dressed in white, who was none other than the Rashbi, chose to dance with that `simple Jew,' then who am I to say that it is not dignified to dance with him!"

That `simple Jew' was Rabbi Elazar Ezkari, the author of Sefer Charedim. At that time his greatness was hidden from the masses, and he was thought to be a simple man, the beadle of one of the synagogues of Safed.

Celebration of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai)

The intensity of Lag B'Omer in Meron may be measured in different ways. The vibration level of noise is like a constant rhythmic drumming, even when standing far away from the courtyards. It captivates and excites you, bringing with it renewed energy. Glimpsing around at the people is no less then viewing world Jewry bond one with each other. Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Chassidim and irreligious, Russians and Americans, young and old, rich and poor; a microcosm of Yidden from all walks of life.

Back in the fifteenth century, a vistor found over a thousand pilgrims at Meron. The road from Safed to Meron was lined with people traveling on horses and mules and by foot.

Families came from as far away as Damascus and Baghdad. Bonfires were lit in honor of the Rashbi, and the men danced to the beat of drums and flutes. Beside the tomb, men and women prayed fervently, and off to the side sat scholars studying the holy Zohar.

Today the picture is much the same, except that the numbers are much greater. Where once stood a thousand pilgrims, stand fifty thousand, and instead of traveling a few hundred miles to Meron, people come from all around the world.

Initiation into Boyhood

There is an ancient tradition not to cut a male child's hair until he is three years old. This first haircut then fulfills the commandment of leaving the locks of hair around his ears (peyos), and is like an initiation rite from babyhood into boyhood. This is the time when he begins to learn the Hebrew alphabet and dons his first pair of tzitzis. Obviously, this is a very significant event for the child.

Although most children are not born on Lag B'Omer, it is still customary to give the first haircut, called chalaka, at this time whenever possible. Others bring their child on 7 Adar, the day of deathof Moshe Rabbeinu, or on the child's birthday itself. In Jerusalem, some take their offspring to the cave of Shimon HaTzaddik to perform this ceremony.

The ceremony can be loosely described as follows. The father first dances in the courtyard with his son on his shoulders, accompanied by men singing the tradition song Bar Yochai. He then accords various people the honor of snipping off a lock of the boy's hair. With a drink of l'chaim and hearty praises of mazel tov, the boy's appearance is slowly transformed, and by the end of the day his initiation is complete.

The impact on the child is undeniable. He is the crown prince of the day. Even years later, many children fondly recall that day in Meron. And even those who don't remember the event, their souls have been touched and elevated by their initiation into religious observance at the tomb of the Rashbi on Lag B'Omer.

Miracles at Meron

In the merit of this great tzaddik, many miracles have occurred at Meron. A number of stories have been recorded, but one from the recent past exemplifies them all.

In 1923, Meron was filled with visitors for Lag B'Omer. Since the festival that year came out on a Friday, many of the two thousand pilgrims remained for Shabbos. While the men were praying the Shabbatmorning prayers inside the main hall, a loud wailing could be heard outside in the courtyard. A young Sephardi mother, hysterical, cried out that her three year old son had suddenly collapsed and lay unconscious. Within minutes a doctor arrived and pronounced the child dead.

The British police on duty announced that everyone inside the courtyard and upstair rooms would be quarantined there for several days until a full investigation of the incident could be conducted. This news threw a number of people into a panic and they dashed out of the courtyard and into the surrounding hills, leaving their children screaming as the British soldiers locked the gates. Yet the sobbing of the bereaved mother was heard above them all.

The child's body was placed in one of the small upstair rooms. His mother had brought him to Meron to have his first haircut, even though her husband was unable to attend, because she felt that the journey there was very important for the child's future. Now, heartbroken, she sat next to him in a state of shock.

Suddenly, she stopped crying and solemnly lifted this, her firstborn son, in her arms, carried him downstairs into the main hall and laid him by the tombstone of Rabbi Shimon.

"Tzaddik! Tzaddik! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai!" she cried. "Your maidservant came here to honor you with the traditional first haircut of she only child. I fulfilled my vow to bring him on Lag B'Omer, and yesterday, among the singing and dancing, his countenance shone, framed by his new earlocks. But now," she wailed, "how can I return home without my son?"

"Tzaddik! Tzaddik! Here is my son. Don't let me leave here ashamed and brokenhearted. Return him to life, and let him be as healthy as he was yesterday. Sanctify the name of G-d, and your name by letting the world know that there is a living G-d, and that the tzaddikim rule over the earth."

It was decided to leave the child alone in the chamber, and even his mother went out into the courtyard. Everyone waited as the main door was bolted and locked.

Within seconds the child cried, "Mother! Mother!" and as soon as the door was opened he ran out into his mother's arms. "Give me some water to drink," he asked, "I'm so very thirsty."

When the doctor came to re-examine the child, he said, "What has happened is not within the realm of science. It is clearly miraculous! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has resurrected the dead!"

The gates were unlocked and the quarantine lifted, as the exuberant crowd wished the child a long life, and pronounced the blessing "...who resurrects the dead."

A Day of Soul Searching

On this festive day we might think that personal prayers and supplications are inappropriate. Far from it! Lag B'Omer is a particularly auspicious time for soul searching, for pouring out our hearts to the Almighty, and for aspiring to greater meaning in our lives.

The anniversary of the passing of a tzaddik is known to be an opportune time to make personal requests, whether for health, livelihood, career, spouse, or children. The soul of the tzaddik returns to his tomb on this day, and may be a vehicle to elevate one's prayers to heaven because the tzaddik is no longer cloaked in a physical body and has direct access to the heavenly abode, while we are full of human imperfections and sin that prevent our prayers from ascending on high.

Many read the Book of Psalms, adding spontaneous prayers from their heart. Others choose to read from one of several books composed specially for this day, and others study from the writings of the holy Zohar and Sefer Tikkunim.

The only thing which one must be aware of is where to draw the line between "soul searching" and depression. The later is forbidden on this day -- for the core of Lag B'Omer is joy, pure undiluted simcha. Prayer of any form is to bind us to G-d, and should release us from the bondage of our personal shortcomings.

Click on small picture to see large picture of the celebrations in Meron in the middle 1920's

The Light which Never Wanes

The intensity of the spiritual light which emanates from Meron has gotten only brighter, even after 1,800 years. It is a beacon of triumph of the hidden light of Torah which never wanes. Now, at the darkest hour before the dawn, a glimmering of light can be seen which wakens the sleepy Jewish souls. Soon the revelations of the Zohar will come true, and the Mashiach will reveal himself in the Galilee. Surely this light on Meron is a preview of great things to come, may they be soon in our own time.

© by Dovid Rossoff The author, Dovid Rossoff, resides in Jerusalem over twenty-five years. He has written Land of Our Heritage, Safed: The Mystical City, and The Tefillin Handbook, among others. He is currently writing a Jewish history of Jerusalem from the Crusader period until the present.


from theJune 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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