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=(ì"â-
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
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
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! 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! 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
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
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