Hundreds of thousands of Israelis flocked to Mount Meron in the northern Galilee Saturday night for a pilgrimage and festival of bonfires and prayers honoring the famed Talmudic sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.
The event, which takes place on the Lag B’Omer holiday, is one of the largest annual public gatherings in Israel, drawing mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Food preparations for the event include the distribution of 550,000 liters of water, 20 tons of vegetables and 45,000 cakes, according to the Ynet news site.
The festivities began Saturday night with the lighting of the first of 22 major bonfires, a ceremony attended by tens of thousands, among them Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay.
Access to the event is only possible via public transportation, including by bus lines organized especially for the event from major Haredi towns and population centers. Police said all major roads leading to the area were closed to private vehicles, including Route 86, Route 866 and Route 886. Route 85 is expected to be closed in the area later Sunday.
Lag B’Omer is a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition. It is said to be the day, in the 2nd century CE, of Bar Yohai’s death, and also the day when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar. Bar Yohai’s tomb is located at Meron.
Scholars believe the Zohar was collated and published in 13th century Spain, but the work itself, structured as a mystical interpretation on each week’s Bible reading, claims to be the handiwork of Bar Yohai and likely draws on ancient oral traditions.
This year’s event was marred by a scheduling fight between Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the many Hasidic groups that manage the annual pilgrimage.
The rabbinate decided last week to postpone the observance of Lag B’Omer from Sunday to Monday in order to prevent revelers from violating the Sabbath by traveling to Meron, or other sites of bonfires, before the end of Shabbat on Saturday night.
The decision to delay the holiday meant that the country’s public schools pushed off their vacation day from Sunday to Monday, angering many parents and leading to calls to return the holiday to Sunday.
The Hasidic groups also rejected the plan. Lag B’Omer, or the “33rd day of the Omer,” is a day during the seven weeks between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot that is not considered a day of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, Bar Yohai’s teacher, who tradition says perished in a plague during those weeks. The period before and after Lag B’Omer is thus traditionally a time when public celebrations are eschewed.