MOUNT MERON, Israel – With songs, dances and bonfires, nearly half a million Jews marked on Wednesday the celebration of Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron in Galilee, a small hill that becomes the center of the country for a few hours on this Jewish festival.
A festive crowd expectantly waited for a rabbi to light a bonfire made of cotton at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, considered a great sage and mystic who revealed the secrets of “Kabbalah” (Jewish mysticism) on the day of his death in the 2nd century.
Only men were able to enter the enclosure where the fire is lit, which they welcomed with songs and dances in an overcrowded space, while women followed the ceremony, many of them praying, from the doors of the enclosure.
“It is the largest Jewish event in the world,” Yitzhak Vaknin, Israel’s minister of religious affairs, told a group of journalists about the festival, which is technically a minor holiday in the Hebrew calendar, although many Jews, from secular to ultra-orthodox, follow it en masse.
“Here, 2,000 years ago, there was a very sacred man who taught us things about Judaism,” Rifka, a woman from Mea She’arim, a well-known ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem where bonfires were also lit this day, told EFE, pointing out that Bar Yochai deepened the connection between body and soul.
Rifka has been attending the event ever since she discovered it 30 years ago, despite the fact that she received warnings that it was “an event for primitive people,” a misgiving possibly caused by the fact that some see pagan roots in a festivity in which fire plays a fundamental role.
According to tradition, the date, which has been commemorated for centuries, coincides with the birth and death of Rabbi Bar Yochai.
Yitzhak Pindros, a member of parliament from the United Torah Judaism party who also traveled to Galilee, told reporters that it has to do with the “mystical” interpretation of the festivity, marked by happiness and during which three-year-old children have their hair cut for the first time in order to obtain the characteristic curls that some Jews wear.
Pindros tells the story that is repeated nowadays among those who want to clarify the uncertain origins of the event.
In the second century, 24,000 Torah students died in a little more than a month “because they did not treat each other with respect.” However, from day 33 after Passover, the “Lag,” “they stopped dying,” and only five survived, one of whom was Shimon Bar Yochai, he explained.
The festival thus marks the end of a period of mourning, when the most Orthodox do not allow haircuts, weddings or even listening to music.