Overview of Meron

A few miles from the Sea of Galilee, just north of the ancient city of Safed, stands Mount Meron. Many important sages are buried there, but Meron is most well-known for the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon, who lived in the 2nd century CE, was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah, and is the author of the basic work of Kabbalah, the Zohar.

Every year, on Lag BaOmer, the anniversary of his passing, hundreds of thousands converge in Meron for a joyous celebration of Rabbi Shimon's life and the revelation of the esoteric soul of Torah. In addition, throughout the year, families bring their three-year-old boys to have their first haircut there.

A little boy has his first haircut in Meron on Lag BaOmer.
A little boy has his first haircut in Meron on Lag BaOmer.

Spiritual Significance of Meron

The celebration at Meron is a celebration of the esoteric dimension of Torah. Until the Zohar was written, the deepest secrets of Torah were passed on only via hints and allusions. Rabbi Shimon was the first one to openly teach these secrets to his students. On the very day he passed away, he revealed some of the loftiest secrets and brought a new level of G‑dly light into the world. That is why the courtyards around the tomb are filled with singing and dancing on that day. The bonfires represent the light of Torah that Rabbi Shimon brought into the world.

The anniversary of a tzaddik's (righteous individual) passing is a particularly auspicious time to pray to G‑d in the merit of that tzaddik. The tzaddik is no longer in human form and is therefore even more accessible, especially in the place where he is buried.

The ancient synagogue at Meron (credit: Bukvoed).
The ancient synagogue at Meron (credit: Bukvoed).

There is a tradition that anyone who prays at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon, especially on Lag b'Omer, will be answered. Many miracle stories are told about people who prayed at Rabbi Shimon's gravesite. Children were miraculously healed; barren women gave birth.

First Haircuts

Also associated with Meron is the age-old Jewish tradition of cutting a little boy's hair for the first time when he turns three, known as an Upsherin. (This first haircut then fulfills the commandment of leaving the locks of hair in front of his ears, and symbolizes the transition from babyhood into boyhood.) Many families journey to Meron to conduct the ceremony there. Those whose children reach the age of three in the weeks before Lag b'Omer wait until that special day to celebrate the milestone in Meron. It is recorded that Rabbi Isaac Luria, who revolutionized the teaching of Kabbala and brought the teachings of the Zohar into the mainstream, brought his son to Meron, on Lag BaOmer, for his first haircut.

Jews stream to Meron to celebrate Lag BaOmer.
Jews stream to Meron to celebrate Lag BaOmer.

Rabbi Shimon and Lag BaOmer

Any discussion of Meron must begin with a discussion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was a prominent Talmudic sage who lived in Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. His expertise in Jewish law and tradition is evidenced by the fact that his name and halachic opinions are strewn throughout the Mishnah and Talmud.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai criticized the occupying Roman government and was forced to flee from the authorities who wished to execute him. Together with his son, he hid in a cave in nearby Peki'in for thirteen years. They survived thanks to a carob tree which miraculously sprouted near the cave and a stream of fresh water which sprung up nearby. It was during this time that Rabbi Shimon wrote the Zohar.

Rabbi Shimon died on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer), the 18th of Iyar. Before his death, he referred to the day of his passing as "the day of my happiness" and instructed his disciples that it be observed each year as a day of joyous celebration (see Attaining Immortality). Ever since, the day has been a festive day on the Jewish calendar.

Singing and dancing in Meron on Lag BaOmer.
Singing and dancing in Meron on Lag BaOmer.

As far back as five hundred years ago, over a thousand people were known to have congregated at Meron on Lag b'Omer. They lit bonfires, played music, danced, prayed and studied Zohar. Today, the numbers of pilgrims have increased astronomically.

Lag BaOmer falls sometime in May or June. As early as December, planning for the big day begins. Tents will be set up. Parking lots will be organized for the hundreds of buses; the highways will be closed to ordinary traffic. Vendors will prepare food for the surging crowds.

On Lag b'Omer itself, Meron vibrates at high velocity for the full 24 hours. Dancers circle the huge bonfires and sing traditional songs praising Rabbi Shimon, while ever-growing crowds press towards the tomb. Individuals study the Zohar and pray, and all around the tomb, people camp out and many make elaborate family barbecues.

An incredible 250,000 to 300,000 people visit Meron on Lag BaOmer. These numbers include Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Chassidim and non-Chassidim, religious and non-religious.

Throughout the year, people come to pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon and families come to celebrate the haircuts of their three-year-old sons.

The comlex at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon at Meron (credit: Bukvoed).
The comlex at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon at Meron (credit: Bukvoed).

The 2021 Tragedy

On Lag BaOmer, 5781 (2021), the celebration was marred by the tragic loss of 45 precious souls. Unbearable crowding caused hundreds to be crushed together in a tightly packed passageway, leaving 45 dead and hundreds of injured. Following calls from family members, Jews around the world have channeled the pain to become an impetus to do more good and increase in Jewish unity, reflecting the spirit of the holiday.

This is not the first time that tragedy marred the celebrations in Meron; in 1911, a roof collapsed on revelers and nine people died, ranging from an 8-year-old to a 65 year-old, but this is one of the worst civil disasters in recent history.

Meron Facts

  • Only a ten-minute drive from Mt. Meron and a mere stone's throw from the Lebanese border is Bar'am. In Bar'am, you can visit the remains of a beautiful synagogue from the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods (around the 3rd century CE).
  • When Rabbi Shimon passed away, many communities insisted that he be buried in their town. According to Jewish legend, a ring of fire encircled Rabbi Shimon's coffin. The coffin then lifted itself up and carried itself to Mt. Meron. This conclusively settled the dispute.

Note: According to most Halachic authorities, Kohanim are forbidden to enter the complex that houses the gravesite.