Lag Ba’Omer in Meron

The final resting place of Shimon bar Yohai is a source of blessings for many.

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I’d never been to Meron before that night.

Ostensibly, there was no reason to travel there. Meron is a tiny town situated on a mountain in the woods of northern Israel. It barely has a main street, let alone a strip mall or hotel. Perhaps its only claim to fame is that it serves as the final resting place for famous rabbinic figures: Hillel, Shammai, and, Shimon bar Yohai (also known as Simeon ben Yohai).

It’s also the site of one of the biggest parties in Israel.

Bar Yohai’s Request

Bar Yohai was a second century rabbi whose teachings are found in the Mishnah. Traditionally, he was thought to be the author of the Zohar, the seminal kabbalistic work, though modern scholars have questioned this theory. Before he died, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai requested that on his yahrzeit–which falls on Lag Ba’Omer–his students mark the day by rejoicing, instead of weeping.Lag B'Omer in Meron

So every year on Lag Ba’Omer, this small town is overrun by nearly a million people, joining together in celebration.

It is a diverse crowd: male and female, old and young, ultra religious and completely secular. In the area near the top of the mountain, tents pop up everywhere. The hundreds of thousands of visitors build bonfires, sheht animals for feasts, and pray. Benevolent people give away thousands of homemade sandwiches and salads. Anybody is welcome to partake.

Young religious zealots dance to trance music or to the sound of their own drums. Chabad Hasidim are out in force luring tourists into donning tefillin. The entire mountainside is transformed into a promenade where superstars of the Israeli religious music scene participate in impromptu jams with the tourists. The festive meals–often picnics or barbecues–are yet another opportunity to break into song, storytelling, prayer, telling jokes, and simply spending time with family or friends.

At first glance, the tiny hilltop town looks like complete mayhem. But Meron also becomes a place where strangers become friends. Perhaps when Shimon bar Yohai envisioned his followers celebrating rather than mourning, he knew that a party this good would come out of it.

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Matthue Roth's newest book is Automatic. He is also the author of three novels and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. His screenplay 1/20 is currently in production as a feature film.

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