For many people, Mt. Meron has become synonymous with the holiday of Lag BaOmer. This is the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar, the main mystical text of Judaism), who is buried atop this small hill in Upper Galilee. Hundreds of thousands of visitors converge on the site to light bonfires, to dance and sing in his memory, and to ask him to intercede for them for good health, help finding a spouse, help having children or help making a livelihood.
And Mt. Meron and Rebbe Shimon are then forgotten for another year by most people.
The Label family has been regularly providing food for visitors to the gravesite for over seventy-seven yearsHowever, an increasing number of people have started to come more frequently to Meron, on the festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), the Shabbat when the blessing for the new month is recited, and even on a regular Shabbat. And many return with stories of the tremendous hospitality center which provides delicious Shabbat meals, cakes, kugels, drinks and wine for kiddush to all who come, no questions asked.
There are several groups providing this hospitality. One is a chassidic Jerusalem family continuing the tradition started by their parents, many years ago.
The Label family has been regularly providing food for visitors to the gravesite for over seventy-seven years. Long before the State of Israel came into being, Rabbi Yonah Label, a Breslover chassid, used to take the train from Jerusalem to Meron via Tiberias, to pray at the tomb of Rebbe Shimon. Being very sensitive to those around him, he noticed the obvious hunger and poverty of so many of those who made the trip to pour out their hearts at the gravesite. On each journey, he would bring more and more food to distribute on the way.
Reb Yonah wanted to offer these hungry travelers more than just the fruit and vegetables he carried with him, so he and his wife Hannah decided to provide cooked meals as well.
To begin with, they prepared the food in the courtyard adjacent to the tomb. One day, just before Shabbat, Reb Yonah saw a young, thin boy staring at him, walking back and forth but saying nothing. He realized that the boy was probably starving and couldn’t even wait until after the evening prayers for the meal. He beckoned him to come over and eat, which he happily did, and finished off several bowls of food, probably the first meal he’d had in days.
Later the Labels rented a room and moved their cooking apparatus indoors. Word soon spread, and the room became known to everyone as Label’s Room, or simply Room 13 (the number on the door), where everyone knew it was always possible to get food with a smile. They also brought along mattresses so that tired visitors, who could not afford to rent a room, could find a corner and sleep.
Reb Yonah died at the age of forty-six, almost fifty years ago, but his wife Hannah was determined to continue the hospitality center they had set up together. By now it had become a permanent part of Meron. Hannah, together with her children as they grew up, was there serving the visitors every single Shabbat, every festival and other important dates in the calendar which brought hundreds, and later thousands, of visitors to Rebbe Shimon’s tomb. She continued her devoted work right until her death four years ago.
Reb Aharon Label, one of their sons, now manages the center together with other members of the family and a small team of dedicated helpers. He recalls the time and energy his mother devoted, week in and week out, for the community on Meron. “From the beginning of the month of Elul—which precedes Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and the Days of Repentance—until after Yom Kippur, my mother was at Meron providing nourishment for the thousands who came during this time. Sometimes she would cook some of the food in Jerusalem and transport it to Meron. Some of the food she cooked there on the spot. She loved being near Rebbe Shimon and helping all his followers.”
Reb Aharon says that when visitors came to one of the famous rabbis at Meron, asking for a blessing for children, he would tell them to go to Rebbetzin Hannah, as her blessings for children were more effectiveNot surprisingly, the devoted Rebbetzin Hannah had her own followers, who would ask her for a blessing for whatever problems they had when they came to pray at Rebbe Shimon’s tomb. Reb Aharon says that when visitors came to one of the famous rabbis at Meron, asking for a blessing for children, he would tell them to go to Rebbetzin Hannah, as her blessings for children were more effective. Indeed, many families returned to Meron after their children were born to show Rebbetzen Hannah “her” child and to thank her.
The number of visitors and the requests for meals continues to grow. On a regular Shabbat they can serve up to 500–600 meals, and on festivals this can rise to 1,000 or more. Eventually the Labels rented a room above the burial site to use as a dining room, and this is where the meals are served today. However, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of portions are handed out as takeaways when the dining room is filled to capacity, and people eat in the courtyards or in the rooms they have rented in the village.
From where does the money come for all these thousands of meals? Reb Chaim Bushkin, Reb Yonah’s son-in-law, laughs when asked. “It comes somehow from good people everywhere. My mother-in-law never stopped to worry. She bought the food she needed, and always knew that G‑d would provide the means to pay for it. And he always did.”
“People now consider it a privilege to be part of this special project,” says Reb Aharon. “Many rabbis come to help out at the Hospitality Center when they come to Meron.”
Shabbat at Meron today is a far cry from the one that Reb Yonah and his wife first knew over seventy years ago. It is an amazing, eclectic mixture of all of the Jewish people. Some families rent attractive, comfortable rooms in the houses in the village of Meron. It’s possible to rent groups of rooms to sleep six or seven families all around one courtyard, with a dining room for all to eat together. Other groups of visiting men and boys sleep in the dormitories of the yeshivas. Others sleep in tents, lining the road and pathways around the tomb, or on mattresses under the stars. Jews from around the world and all walks of life can all be seen eating, praying, singing and dancing together.
And no matter how many people there are, there is room for everyone to pray and pour out his heart at the tomb of Rebbe Shimon, and plenty of nourishing food to eat in the kitchens above the tomb.