With the rising threat of war between Israel and its enemies to the north, hundreds of thousands streamed to the village of Meron, Israel, Wednesday night and Thursday to celebrate the annual Lag BaOmer festival at the resting place of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Police estimated as many as 600,000 made the annual pilgrimage to the historic site in the upper Galilee region on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, which is done daily between Passover and Shavuot.

“The first place people come to pray is the Kotel [the Western Wall], and the second place is the resting place of the Rashbi [acronym for Rabbi Shimon],” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Halperin, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Meron for the past 13 years, told Chabad.org while overseeing yeshivah students who came to conduct outreach activities during the festival. “They come here because they are seeking salvation. They know Rabbi Shimon can help them with what they need, even if they don’t know why. The Talmud says Rabbi Shimon is the main soul of all the generations—the one who can release everyone from negative judgments.”

Even before sunset and the official onset of the festival, throngs of determined celebrants coursed through the entrance gates on their way to the covered mountaintop tomb to beseech the soul of the venerated sage to intercede above on matters ranging from health and livelihood to shidduchim, (marriage partners), fertility and world redemption.

“There is something very strong spiritually here that gives a person a lot of energy and chayus [feeling of life] and joy,” said Avraham Brayman, 43, a kosher supervisor from the Chabad community of Elad, who has made the two-hour trek every year for the past 30 years. “It provides inspiration for the whole year.”

A Center of Celebration Since the 15th Century

Lag BaOmer has been a day of great celebration and prayer in Meron as early as the 15th century. In addition to being the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon, it marks the cessation of a plague that killed the students of his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, caused by their lack of respect for each other. On this day, the remaining students began correcting their ways.

A drone's-eye-view of the festivities.
A drone's-eye-view of the festivities.

Another reason for the celebratory tradition is Rabbi Shimon’s request before his death that his followers rejoice each year on what he referred to as “the day of my happiness,” rather than to mourn.

Rabbi Shimon is credited both as the author of the most prominent Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, and as one of the most well-known of the second-century Talmudic sages, whose mystical teachings are said to have been fully revealed the day of his passing.

In one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews in any one place, revelers en route to the gravesite stopped to hear impassioned words of Torah booming from multiple stages and loudspeakers, to eat and drink from free food booths, and to dance with abandon to a dizzying array of live and recorded music.

With his head pressed firmly in prayer against the perimeter wall immediately outside the covered tomb area, Sammy Fried of Jerusalem looked up long enough amid the jostling throng to share: “We travel here a few hours, and then have only a few minutes to muster our powers of concentration to tell Hashem [G‑d] what our problems are and ask for help. It’s a good thing it is easy to do that here.”

There was singing and words of Torah around a giant bonfire. (Photo: Channel One)
There was singing and words of Torah around a giant bonfire. (Photo: Channel One)

A Day Marked by Bonfires and Parades

Historically, in Jewish communities around the world, Jews ranging from the most pious to the virtually non-observant and from all factions of Jewry have followed Rabbi Shimon’s request and rejoice with bonfires, song, circle dances and children’s parades.

The bonfires signify the infusion of spiritual light brought into the world upon the passing of a righteous person of Rabbi Shimon’s stature. They are also symbolic of the candles customarily lit on yahrzeits.

The demonstration of unity such as at Meron’s annual mega-gathering stands in contrast to the lack of unity that caused the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Halperin
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Halperin

For Chana Weingarten, who traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband, Shlomo, to attend her first Lag BaOmer in Meron, the massive assembly brought on a feeling of protection.

“When there are this many people gathered together, it makes for a very powerful feeling,” said Weingarten, on a break from her job at a Chabad-Lubavitch preschool in Manhattan. “I feel like when we are in America, it is a bit scarier, and everything sounds scarier, but here it feels so safe. When we are gathered together with so many Jews, I think Hashem protects us all.”

For many at the festival, the co-mingling of celebration and impending conflict on this day hearkened back to words the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—spoke at a Lag BaOmer parade in May 1967, less than a week before the start of the Six-Day War. From a podium in front of Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, the Rebbe talked about the looming crisis and invoked a teaching of the Rashbi, issuing a call to increase in the fulfillment of the Torah as a vehicle for increased blessings.

“Rabbi Shimon established that in the merit of adding in Torah and mitzvot, a Jew can bring deliverance to everyone around him and bring them G‑d’s blessings in everything they need,” the Rebbe said that day. He then predicted that a great miracle would happen shortly, uniquely anticipating Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

The Rebbe addresses a crowd of 20,000 people at the Lag BaOmer Parade of 1967. In the emotional address, he tasked those gathered, especially the children, with assisting their brethren in Israel. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
The Rebbe addresses a crowd of 20,000 people at the Lag BaOmer Parade of 1967. In the emotional address, he tasked those gathered, especially the children, with assisting their brethren in Israel. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Women began arriving at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the afternoon before Lag BaOmer.
Women began arriving at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the afternoon before Lag BaOmer.
The Meron synagogue was more than packed throughout the night and day.
The Meron synagogue was more than packed throughout the night and day.
People from all walks of Jewish life traveled from every part of Israel, and many from abroad, to the resting place of Rabbi Shimon. (File photo: Jodi Sugar)
People from all walks of Jewish life traveled from every part of Israel, and many from abroad, to the resting place of Rabbi Shimon. (File photo: Jodi Sugar)