Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Mount Meron in the northern Galilee Wednesday night for a festival of bonfires and prayers honoring the famed 2nd Century CE sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The celebrations were marred by the attendance of a prominent rabbi and convicted pedophile. Eliezer Berland, 80, who served five months of an 18-month prison sentence after eluding arrest for three years, was among the 20 rabbis who lit a ceremonial bonfire at Bar Yochai’s tomb.
His participation was condemned late Wednesday by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of nearby Safed and the official overseer of the Meron site, who called Berland’s involvement “an abomination and a disgrace” to the memory of Bar Yochai. But Eliyahu did not have the authority to block Berland from attending.
One of Berland’s victims spoke out against his participation, and several groups sought to have him banned from the publicly funded event.
Hours before the ceremony, Zionist Union MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin urged the attorney general to intervene to “protect the public from this dangerous offender.”
“It’s hard to understand how it’s possible that a convicted criminal, who holds the title of rabbi and bears public responsibility, will take part in a significant and widely attended event funded by the state,” she told Avichai Mandelblit.
But Mandelblit’s office said it did not have the authority to bar anyone from the event sponsored by the Religious Affairs Ministry.
The Meron pilgrimage, which takes place on the Lag B’Omer holiday, is one of the largest annual public gatherings in Israel, drawing mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Reports in Hebrew-language media said over 250,000 pilgrims attended the bonfire-lighting event. Tens of thousands more were expected to visit Meron throughout the day Thursday.
Thousands of police officers were deployed throughout the Galilee town, and roads surrounding Meron were closed to private vehicles.
This year, fire and rescue services placed restrictions on Lag B’Omer bonfires, citing hot and dry weather conditions. The custom of lighting bonfires to mark the day is a tradition that has no basis in religious law.
A number of city municipalities, including in Haifa, Nesher, Hadera, Modiin, and Tel Aviv, requested that residents not light bonfires, while the Education Ministry told schools that it would not approve any bonfire events organized to mark the holiday.
The Magen David Adom Emergency service said 44 people were injured across the country during the traditional bonfire night, with four needing hospitalization.
Lag B’Omer is a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition, said to be the day of the death of Bar Yohai, and also marking the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar.
Literally meaning the “33rd of the Omer,” the holiday falls during the seven weeks between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot that are treated as a semi-mourning period for the students of rabbinic sage Rabbi Akiva, who are thought to have perished in a plague during those weeks. The period before and sometimes after Lag B’Omer is thus traditionally a time when public celebrations are avoided.