Two stories you probably have not heard about Mount Meron and Lag B’Omer
Ita Silberman (80) was born in Tzfat. Her family arrived from Ukraine in the 16th Century when Isaac Luria (HaARI) drew many Jews from Spain and other parts of Europe. Ita’s grandfather, who features in her first story, was Tzfat Chief Rabbi Abraham Leib Silberman. Her father, Rabbi Berel Silberman, was nicknamed “Iron Feet” because he would lead the Lag B’Omer dancing at Mount Meron throughout the night. He is also the one who discovered the burial places of the sages in the area around Meron and Tzfat.
Ita, herself, studied music at Juilliard even while maintaining her haredi lifestyle, and you can hear her at the Klesmer Festival in Tzfat. For many years, she was responsible for the National Service programme at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. I spoke with her on the phone about Lag B’Omer.
The First Story
The date was April 30, 1945. The place was Mount Meron in Israel’s Galilee region, the burial site of a number of important Jewish sages, especially Shimon bar Yochai, reputed to perform miracles even after his death. Ita’s grandfather was poised, ready to light the traditional bonfire at the tomb. However, a cloud covered the moon and he decided to wait until the cloud had passed. Jewish historian Rabbi Jeffrey Wolff explains that the moon, in its waxing and waning, symbolizes the Jewish People and the cloud hints at something hidden. So Rabbi Silberman waited.
The moment the cloud moved aside, there was an outburst from the crowd.
“The radio just announced that Hitler committed suicide,” a man shouted out.
“NOW we can light the bonfire,” said Rabbi Silberman, amidst tumultuous rejoicing from all.
* * * * *
Tradition holds that Shimon bar Yochai, a charismatic teacher and scholar of Jewish Law and ethics, wrote the Zohar, a major Kabbalistic work. The Meron area, in which he spent the latter part of his life, is considered to have mystical properties. Kabbalistic sages who fled the Spanish Inquisition gravitated to this region and lived in the nearby city of Tzfat.
“Some even believe that the Messiah will come from here,” says Tzfat native Yaakov Pedhatzur (74), Ita Silberman’s cousin.
It is here that religious Jews customarily give their sons their first haircut at the age of three. The boy, now with sidelocks, enters a new stage of development as a member of the community. Infertile couples hope that their prayers for a child will be answered. And others believe that worship at this mystical and holy site will bring health, success, marriage, and more. Yaron (45), who has made the pilgrimage several times, says that the happiness at the site is palpable and that being there energizes him.
Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag B’Omer, which means the 33rd day of counting the Omer. In Hebrew numerology, 33 is represented by the letters L-G (hence, pronounced “lag”). The Omer is the counting of the days between the Exodus from Egypt (marked by the last day of the Passover holiday) and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It represents the transformation of the Israelites from slaves to a People.
Rabbi Akiva was an important rabbinic sage who taught Torah in spite of it having been prohibited by the Roman occupiers of the Land of Israel. In his time (the years 50-135 CE), a plague raged during the counting of the Omer. It decimated all but five of his 24,000 students, bar Yochai being one of the survivors. This counting the Omer, then, became a period of mourning, and, as in any other period of mourning, observant Jews do not listen to music, dance, get married, shave or cut their hair. The plague stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer, the same day that Shimon bar Yochai died years later.
Before his death, bar Yochai requested that the anniversary of his passing be a day of rejoicing. Some say it is because of Divine secrets that were revealed to him on that day. Others because that was the day the plague ended. From that time on, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration. The main stage for these celebrations is Mount Meron and the dancing and merriment after the first 32 days of the Omer is infectious. But not only there.
It is a national holiday in Israel. Schoolchildren have the day off and the night before is marked by community bonfires in city parks and empty lots. For a month leading up to Lag B’Omer, children have traditionally “borrowed” shopping carts and use them to carry off wood they find. Alone or in groups, they would collect broken furniture waiting for disposal trucks on the streets, wooden pallets and other scraps from construction sites, dead tree branches, and sometimes even wood that was not intended as trash. For safety reasons, however, these ad-hoc bonfires are now prohibited.
Children in religious schools are taught about Shimon bar Yochai and his contemporary, the military leader Bar Kokhba. Bar Kokhba rebelled against the Romans and fires were used as a means of communication among the different units of warriors. Secular pupils learn only about the latter. Therefore, for the religious, the bonfires represent the spiritual and mystical lessons of Torah taught by bar Yochai while for the secular, they represent the fighting spirit of the Jewish People.
Lag B’Omer is barely celebrated outside of Israel. Aside from the fact that weddings can be scheduled on that day, Diaspora Jews do not mark it as a holiday. Professor Wolff explains that it is hard for Jews outside of Israel to identify with what is essentially a nationalist holiday. “Even though there is a mystical element,” Wolff says, “it is not really a religious holiday.” The Orthodox Hassidic Chabad Movement does hold Lag B’Omer parades around the world, making it a child-friendly holiday.
Pedhatzur related how before the establishment of the modern State of Israel, one could even find neighbouring Druze participating in the Lag B’Omer dancing and singing on Mount Meron. They shared an attitude of respect for holy men and came to honor the Jewish sages buried there.
The Second Story about Mount Meron
Food and drink were traditionally handed out free of charge to pilgrims, regardless of how many there were. Ita Silberman tells the story of a time in the 1930s when Rav Herschel Shemesh was preparing refreshments for the pilgrims about to come to Mount Meron. He saw a group of people on horses at the bottom of the hill and, from their elegant dress, he assumed they were of some importance. He took a bottle of water down to them and found out that one of the men was Chaim Weitzmann, a biochemist who became the first president of the State of Israel.
Weitzmann told Rav Herschel that he was building a kind of school for the sciences in Rehovot. That “kind of school” was, in fact, the famous Weizmann Institute. He then asked Rav Herschel if there was anything he needed. Rav Herschel said he needed running water at the top of the hill for all the people who come on pilgrimage. Weitzmann took out a gold coin and, handing it to Rav Herschel, said it should be enough. It was more than enough.
From the 1950’s on, the number of Lag B’Omer pilgrims to Mount Meron grew from thousands to tens of thousands. In the past few years, there have even been hundreds of thousands participating.
Two years ago, there was a stampede that caused the deaths of 45 men and boys and 150 injuries. Lessons learned in the investigation into the reasons behind the tragedy led to strict security arrangements from that point on. Police presence has been increased and the number of people allowed on the site is limited to 16,000 at a time, among other changes. While many balked at the restrictions, everyone made it safely home last year and the same is anticipated for this year.
It was not only Lag B’Omer 2021 that saw such massive overcrowding at Mount Meron. Warnings were issued beginning in 2008 about inadequate safety measures. Aside from faulty construction in 1911 that caused 11 to fall to their death from a balcony and 40 to be injured, no other incidents took place.
Each year, some would say it was a miracle that nothing happened.
Until it did.
Sometimes miracles require human intervention — even at a mystical and holy site.
Feature Image Credit: Jonathan Stein, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons