Literally hundreds of thousands of Jews — observant and secular — flocked to the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai starting late Saturday night, and more than half had arrived in time to see the lighting of the first bonfire that signals the start of the massive celebration that each year seizes the mystical Mount Meron for the next 20 hours.
The first of this year’s 18 (the numerical equivalent of ‘chai’ – the Hebrew word for ‘life’) official bonfires began burning at around 1:30 am Sunday morning, with the last one scheduled to be lit at 7 pm in the evening, in the Toldos Aharon compound.
At Meron, the celebration of Lag B’Omer is set against the backdrop of music, prayer, dance and non-stop fire. In between, there is the sound of people coming and going and laughing and singing and praying and shouting and wishing ‘Mazel tov!’
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Deputy Defense Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan were in attendance overnight, as were many other top Israeli government officials, gazing over the immense sea of dancing Jews moving in time to the endless music.
A non-stop chain of little 3-year-old boys proudly presented by their emotional fathers are receiving their first-ever haircut sometime during this holiday. The event is called a “halaka” in Hebrew, an “upsheren” in Yiddish and marks the formal start of a little boy’s Torah education, beginning with learning the aleph bet, the Hebrew alphabet. This is also the day on which observant Jewish boys receive their first new fringed garment, on which they will learn to make a daily blessing, as well. Singles of both sexes are praying passionately at the Tomb for Rabbi Shimon to help them find their “bashert” – their Divinely intended other half – the person to whom they will surely become engaged to be married soon, after prayers at this holy site.
By 4 pm Sunday, volunteer medical personnel from the United Hatzolah emergency response organization treated more than 612 people in Meron since Thursday. According to spokesperson Raphael Poch, “most cases have involved injuries due to falls, cuts, bruises, burns and respiratory problems.”
The majority of the patients were treated at the United Hatzolah medical clinic on site at Meron, Poch said, and did not require evacuation.
During the daylight hours, however, Poch said the medical problems differed from those of the night. “Many additional people required treatment… for heat stroke, faintness, and dehydration due to the warm temperatures and large crowds in tight spaces causing a lack of breathable oxygen.
“EMS teams in the field have asked that parents do not bring small children to the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai itself during the afternoon hours as it is dangerous due to the heat, lack of oxygen, and threat of being trampled,” he warned.
It is still not known how many people have reached the mountainside grave site, and how many tried but didn’t make it. There are also no numbers — at least yet — on how many people already were successful in finding their “other half” on this day, how many little boys were launched into the first step of the yeshiva world to join the rest of observant Jewish brotherhood, and how many other special blessings were realized at this holy site (for healing, for livelihood, and for other personal matters.)
The 6 am nightmare of police shutting down the buses going in to the site, leaving the site, and miles of traffic backed up along the road, all gets wiped away the second the passenger reaches his destination and becomes one with the dancing crowd. One look at the laughing young men giving each other a boost to climb into open bus windows as they stood waiting in a parking lot (this is one that readers can easily find on YouTube) as they try to catch a ride down the mountain, makes it clear that whatever the nightmare, the night’s dancing was worth it all.