Jewish World Review / May 13, 1998 / 17 Iyar, 5758

Yonoson Landman

The crowds may be huge, but Lag BaOmer in Meron ain't exactly Woodstock

THE UPPER GALILEE is full of mountains and valleys. When traveling east from Acco on the coast to Safed, one senses the spiraling effect of ascending through mountain ranges. Not far from Safed, just off the main road, stands Meron in the foothills of towering mountains.

Meron is neither a city, town, or even a village. Its sole claim to fame is an underground cave, long since sealed from curious eyes. There is buried the Tanna, or Talmudic-era sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elozor.

Naturally, Jewry ties Meron and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai together with Lag BaOmer. One of the first images those in Israel think of when hearing the words "Lag BaOmer" is of a huge bonfire where both adults and children sing the song Bar Yochai. In Israel, all young children spend the weeks before Lag BaOmer combing their neighborhoods for wood and other fuel to make a large pyre to light on Lag BaOmer eve "in honor of Rabbi Shimon."

Throughout the Jewish world, the thirty-third day of the Omer -- the period that begins on the second night of Passover and ends on the holiday of Shavous, a time, according to the Sefer HaChinuch that we count-down (or rather "count-up", if you will) in order is show our yearning to once again re-enact the giving of the Torah -- is marked with special festivities including weddings which were prohibited, listening to music, cutting little boys' hair for the first time and not saying certain prayers of reflection.

What is the background behind these customs and laws, both historically and allegorically, and what significant message are we to take to heart on this day?

A bonfire symbolizes the esoteric dimensions of our Torah, and on this day Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed some of the most elevated facets of the Kabbalah. Lag BaOmer was not just another day of Torah dissemination for Rabbi Shimon, it was his last day on earth and he had been given special permission to divulge the deepest mysteries of the Torah.

For this reason, Lag BaOmer, as the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon, has been a time to pray at the tomb of the tzaddik (saint.) Thus, for many generations Jews have come to Meron in the Upper Galilce mountains to be at his tomb and pray and study there. The date also marks the point when, during Talmudic times, a plague that killed 24,000 of the generation's most promising leaders ceased.

Rashbi and Meron

Nearly 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Roman governorship of Eretz Israel was at its zenith. With the backdrop of blatant anti-Semitism and harsh decrees against the powerless Jewish colony, a generation of Torah Sages took root. Rabbi Eliezer HaGodol, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were among the great luminaries of the era.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known by his Hebrew-language acronym, "Rashbi," was one of the most prominent disciples of Rabbi Akiva. Their relationship was so close, in fact, the young disciple even endangered his life to visit his mentor after Rabbi Akiva had been imprisoned by the Romans for disseminating Torah to the masses.

"More than the calf wants to suck from its mother," Rabbi Akiva responded to his disciple's pleas to teach him, "the mother cow desires to nurse her offspring." Yet, under such dangerous circumstances, Rabbi Akiva restrained himself for the safety of his disciple.

Rashbi, a master of Jewish Law, participated in many Talmudic debates, and his opinions are quoted over 300 times in the Mishnah. However, it was for his accomplishments in the realm of Kabalah which so far exceeded those of his contemporaries that he was compared to the biblical Moses. Just as Moses was the greatest of all the prophets, Rashbi was the greatest of all the mystics.

Mysteries of the Torah had been passed from generation to generation by men of great caliber since the encounter at Sinai. Due to the exalted nature of the secrets, they were merely alluded to and not spelled out in detail. Now, for the first time, Rashbi taught them to his students. Amidst the natural beauty of the Galilean Hills, in his yeshiva at Meron or on one the many excursions, the Divine presence hovered over Rashbi and his disciples and illuminated their way.

The Zohar, the book of the Kabalah that Rashbi penned, became his legacy to Jewry. Transcribed by Rabbi Abba, the teachings are cloaked in homilies, stories and parables, which can be understood on many levels. Only the initiated can fully fathom the true depths of these mysteries.

The Courtyards of Meron

Today, the complex at Meron, where Rashbi and his son, Rebbe Elozor, are buried is comprised of two large courtyards, synagogues, and a number of living quarters on the second floor.

The first modest structure was built by Rabbi Avrohom Galante, one of the leaders at Safed during the end of the 16th Century. Over the next 200 years, more rooms and chambers were built to shelter the wayfarers who journeyed afar to Rashbi's tomb. At the end of the 19th Century, further expansion and renovations were completed, leaving it essentially the same way we see it today.

The guiding force that brings so many people to Meron on Lag BaOmer is unknown. Today, many thoroughly secular Israelis claim they come for a family picnic and to have a day off from work, a place to enjoy company and enjoy roasted shish kabob on an open fire.

The fervently-Orthodox come directly to the tomb and fervently pray, dance and sing songs praising Rashbi.

Others find themselves somewhere in the middle. What seems to united them all, however, is the universal call that wakes up something inside each and every one visitor. For some that call becomes their heartbeat for the coming year and others, it lies dormant under a thin facade that can be removed by the sound of the great shofar blow.

Lag BaOmer

Days before Lag BaOmer, tents and pavilions are set up wherever there is level ground. Police cordon-off certain areas for security reasons. And the private and public bus companies are organizing their parking lots according to a master plan. A cheerful hecticness pervades.

The activities in Meron's courtyards are similar. The spirit of unity by those whose job is to organize the material sustenance of tens of thousands of pilgrims is positive, and the Ashkenazic and Sefardi authorities discuss how to handle the different situations. What was once left in the hands of spontaneous efforts is now organized to the last detail.

By the eve of Lag BaOmer, thousands of people begin to stream to Meron from all over Israel and around the world. The steady influx will continue throughout the night and all the following day --- uninterrupted. This phenomenon is unmatched, and can be sensed by sitting for a while and watching the endless procession of Jews of every denomination and cultural background coming and going. There is a Jewish tradition that a male child's hair isn't cut until he's three years-old. This first haircut, accordingly, fulfills the biblical commandment of leaving locks of hair around his ears (peyess), and serves as an initiation rite from babyhood into boyhood. This is also the time when the child begins to learn the Hebrew alphabet and dons his first pair of tzitzis. For those who observe the custom, it's a significant lifecycle event.

Although most children are not born on Lag BaOmer, it has become the custom, when possible, to give the first hair cut at this time.

Like everything else in Judaism, there is an accompanying ceremony. The child's father dances in the Meron courtyard with his son on his shoulders and accompanied by men singing the son, Bar Yochai. He then accords various people the honor of snipping a lock of the boy's hair. With a hearty toast of L'chaim! and praises of MAZEL TOV!, the child's appearance is slowly transformed, by nightfall his initiation is complete.

The impact on the child is undeniable. He is the crown prince of the day. Even years later, many children fondly recall that day in Meron. And even those who don't remember the event, their souls have been touched and elevated by their initiation into Torah observance at the tomb of Rashbi on Lag BaOmer.

On this festive day, one might assume that prayers and supplications are inappropriate. Hardly! Lag BaOmer is a particularly auspicious time for soul searching, for pouring out our hearts to the Almighty, and for inspiring to greater meaning in our lives.

The anniversary of the passing of a Jewish saint is an opportune time to make personal requests of the Creator. For the soul of the tzaddik returns to his tomb on this day, and may be a vehicle to sort of push one's prayers "over-the-top" because the saint is no longer cloaked in human form. it.

Yonoson Landman is a writer at Yated Ne'eman, the premier Chareidi weekly.


©1998, Yated Ne'eman