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Mt. Meron Catstrophe, April 30, 2021.

45 Jewish souls gone. Trampled to death last night in Meron. Among them an American student from New Jersey that was a classmate of my grandson Mordechai. Both of whom – together with many other American students have been learning in Shalavim this year.

The students and faculty there are beside themselves. As I’m sure the families and friends of all the deceased and injured are. This Lag B’omer is a sad day in Israel rather than the happy one it is supposed to be. Instead of celebrating the end of a plague that killed thousands of Rabi Akiva’s students, we are now mourning the death of 45 devoutly religious Jews. Who simply wanted to see the spectacle of the yearly bonfire in Meron on this day. A custom widely celebrated – most spectacularly in Meron.

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This is an unprecedented peace time tragedy. If I am not mistaken – more people died there last night than did in the worst terrorist attack by a suicide bomber  This was the lead story on CBS this morning. Which can be accessed here.

I don’t know what it is about bon fires that attracts so many people. You could not pay me enough to attend one of those. The crowds alone scare me because of the fear of exactly what happened.

I know there is some sort of Kabbalistic reason for setting these fires – having to do with Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. But I have never been a fan of Kabbalistic activities or events. I stay as far away from Kabala as possible because I do not understand it. Which  if you think about it, makes a lot of sense. Kabala is Nistar-  the unrevealed portion of the Torah. We aren’t supposed to understand it. It is called Nistar for a reason.  I have barely scratched the surface of Nigleh – the revealed portion of the Torah that God does want us to know. But I digress

Be that as it may, it has not stopped a lot of people from trying to understand it or celebrating events  based on it. There were by some estimates over 90,000 people crowded into a relatively small area in the dark of night near the Kever (gravesite) of Rabi Shimon in what was supposed to be a joyous night of bonfires, praying, singing, and dancing.

So how did this happen? How could it happen? I’m sure there will be investigations that will better determine the what and the why. As of now it seems like it was a version of the best of intentions gone awry. The police were involved in crowd control and closed off certain exits. But they did not realize that an entrance to that part of the event had people pouring into it. That made it extremely tight. People began pushing the walls to open up some space. Someone slipped and fell, and panic ensued. People were trampled to death. Or seriously injured.

When crowds grow to this level, it is an invitation to tragedy. It has happened before although not to this extent. When Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner died, the funeral attracted huge crowds. The streets were overflowing. People were crowded together as tightly as possible. When the funeral procession passed by, people tried to move aside. Things got out of control quickly and two people were trampled to death.  Charedi organizers learned from that experience and the next time a Gadol died, they managed to prevent an incident like that from happening.

The obvious point to be made here is that crowds like this are a dangerous place to be. A Makom Sakana. It is forbidden by Halacha to place oneself in a Makom Sakana.

And yet as true as that is… and as much as I am not a fan of this kind of affair, I understand the need for them. They are one of the few outlets for Charedi Jews in Israel to have some ‘Kosher’ fun. They do not go to theater. They do not go to movies.  They do not have TVs. They do not go to sporting events – and aren’t even allowed to participate in them in their leisure time. Even Jewish concerts featuring religious entertainers are barely tolerated. So when something like this comes along once a year, they jump at the chance to be there. Especially now just coming out of the restrictions of COVID.  (Israel has done a magnificent job vaccinating enough people to once again allow crowds like this.) This is their fun. It is ‘Kosher’ fun.

So I am not against having this event every Lag B’Omer. I am only against having crowds of this magnitude there. The chances of a tragedy like this happening again can be avoided or at least minimized.

There are things that can be done along these lines. Organizers have to limit attendance to a much smaller number of people. They should collaborate with the police and have security guards at the gates to enforce it. Every attendee should at least have elbow room and not be glomming on to everyone else.

One idea would be to require tickets – which could be obtained by mail, in person, or by email (if they allow it).  A limited number of tickets would be issued on a first come first serve basis. They could do it for free or charge a nominal fee. Whatever works best. Once they reach their limit no more tickets would be issued. People without a ticket would not be allowed in.

That might disappoint a lot of people. But it’s better than being hurt or dying because of overcrowding. There is an old saying that goes like this: ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ That should apply here. They can try again next year.

In the meantime my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones at this event. My hope and prayer is that those that were injured be healed quickly and fully. And that we never see suffering like this again.

{Reposted from the author’s blog)

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Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.