The success of this year’s Lag B’Omer festivities is in the eye of the beholder: To the government and the organizers, Wednesday night was a resounding triumph, with all of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who ascended to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai safely making their way back down. To most of those pilgrims, however, the event, known as the Hillula, was a pale shadow of its former self, lacking all the joy and vibrancy of the past.
Last year’s gathering saw 45 people trampled to death in a mass panic in the worst civil disaster in Israel’s history, prompting sweeping — arguably draconian — changes to the format of the event to ensure the safety of the participants. So far that aim has been achieved.
“Thank God, as of now the Hillula has passed peacefully. Tens of thousands of people celebrated the Hillula of Bar Yochai on Meron tonight,” Deputy Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana said in a video statement on Thursday morning.
A small number of pilgrims clashed with police on Thursday morning in protest of the new safety precautions, but the incident was relatively minor and ended quickly.
The event began on a somber note on Wednesday evening before sundown with a memorial service for those killed at the site last year; their names were read out and 45 candles were lit in their memory. But after nightfall and the recitation of evening prayers, the Lag B’Omer celebrations began to look much as they did in previous years, albeit with far fewer people and far more barricades and guardrails. This included a set of two rails that led next to Bar Yochai tomb but prevented worshipers from actually approaching the grave as they normally would be able to. These rails, resembling those used to direct livestock, prompted some pilgrims to accuse the organizers and police of treating them “like animals.”
Despite these initial grumblings, shortly after 8 p.m., the head of the Boyan Hasidic sect lit the ceremonial bonfire to mark the start of the holiday and a Klezmer band immediately launched into a traditional song about Bar Yochai, prompting the 16,000 people on the mountain to break into a frenzied dance.
In previous years, such revelry would continue uninterrupted until the wee hours. This year, it ended — or was at least paused — at around 9:30 p.m., when an announcement came on amid the music. “The police have decided that no more people can come up until this [particular] event ends, so we must therefore end the event. Please make your way to the exits slowly and carefully,” the announcer said in both Hebrew and Yiddish.
To encourage people to leave after their allotted time was up, the music was stopped, leaving an awkward lull in the festivities, during which time visitors milled around, chatting or reciting psalms — a far cry from the raucous all-night celebrations of the past.
Over the following nearly two hours, more than 10,000 people made their way off the mountain, making room for another group of pilgrims to have their turn, due to a strictly enforced limit of 16,000 people allowed on the site at any given time. During this changeover, the mood on Mount Meron shifted from ecstasy to boredom, as people walked around aimlessly, waiting for the festivities to begin anew.
But while most of the participants recognized the need for changes to prevent a recurrence of the disaster that took place last year, many griped over the consequences: the long waits in parking lots, extended stretches without music, and the lost general atmosphere of jubilation.
“We needed solutions. But shuttering it? That’s a solution?” one pilgrim, a student at a religious seminary in the Jerusalem area, told The Times of Israel, asking to remain nameless.
“Where’s the music? Where’s the dancing?” he added, motioning to the people milling around and chatting.
One of his friends pointed to a group of police officers standing nearby and joking with one another. “The only people who look like they’re having a good time are the police,” he said. (Police officers who refused to speak on-record to reporters did not, in fact, appear to be having a good time but were instead on edge throughout the night.)
The students disagreed about the specific cause of last year’s tragedy and what was necessary to prevent another, but they did recognize that there was a problem that needed solving. Other pilgrims were less sympathetic.
“So Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai] took 45 righteous souls. That means we all have to suffer?” one man yelled, in a tirade against the changes. He also accused the government of plotting to wrest control of Bar Yochai’s tomb from the Hasidic sects that currently manage it.
When the luck ran out
The holiday of Lag B’Omer, which marks the 33rd day of the seven-week period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, commemorates Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century mystic and rabbi traditionally credited with writing the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. He is believed to have died on Lag B’Omer and to have instructed his followers to hold festivities on the anniversary of his death, known as Yom Hillula.
Though it was once a relatively minor custom, in recent years on Lag B’Omer it has become massively popular for Jews — mostly, but not only, Hasidic Jews — to ascend Mount Meron where Bar Yochai is buried, with tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people visiting the sprawling complex of compounds and courtyards on the northern Israeli mountain.
Unlike other major pilgrimage sites in Israel that are controlled by the state, the compounds on the mount are mostly owned by various Hasidic sects, which often constructed and renovated them without legal permits and without abiding by safety standards. The celebrations on Lag B’Omer were similarly not run by one central body but organized slipshod by various poorly coordinated groups.
Despite sometimes-dire warnings of safety concerns, year after year the Hillula festivities passed without major incident. Multitudes of pilgrims would ascend the mount, coming on foot, in cars or on privately organized buses, to take part in one of the biggest celebrations held in Israel, with music and dancing and ceremonial lightings of bonfires from nightfall to dawn and into the next day with wild abandon.
However, that luck ran out last year, when thousands of people made their way down an illegally constructed ramp and staircase from the compound controlled by the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect. A massive bottleneck formed and in the resulting panic, 45 men and boys were crushed to death and more than 150 others were injured.
Determined to not allow such a thing to happen again, the government formed a commission of inquiry into the disaster, hearing testimony from those involved. Late last year, the commission released a series of recommendations for how the event should be organized, almost all of which were adopted and implemented this week.
The most striking of these changes was the restriction on the number of people allowed up to Mount Meron at any given time, from the tens of thousands in years past to no more than 16,000 at any given time this year. Unlike in the freewheeling celebrations in previous years, where anyone could simply walk up to Mount Meron, this year reservations were required in advance and people could only arrive in buses organized by the Transportation Ministry.
The format of the event itself was also changed. Instead of having multiple bonfire lightings throughout the night in different compounds, this year there was only one central lighting. (There was also a wildcat bonfire lighting on Thursday morning by the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect.) This was meant to prevent the mass flow of crowds from one location to another, which caused the trampling last year.
In recent weeks and months, the government has also invested millions of shekels into fixing the infrastructure at the site, demolishing the ramp where last year’s disaster took place and fixing stairs and walkways around Mount Meron.
The new restrictions were strictly enforced, with police and private security guards setting up barricades at the entrances to the site, which frequently saw tense standoffs as pilgrims sought to cajole or shove their way inside.
“I was here last year. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Just wait and as soon as we can let you in, we will. Please don’t fight us,” one officer told those waiting.
One responded, accepting the officer’s request, albeit with a thinly veiled threat. “There are dozens of us here. If we wanted to, we could send this barricade flying. We’re not doing that,” he said.
Some 8,000 police officers were deployed to the area around the tomb to ensure the safety of attendees, along with a small number of Israel Defense Forces soldiers from a search-and-rescue battalion and medics from the Magen David Adom, United Hatzalah and Zaka emergency response services. Kahana, the deputy religious affairs minister, was at the site throughout the night to monitor the situation, as were Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai.