No lockdown, but ministers ban bonfires, close off Meron ahead of Lag B’Omer

Cabinet said to reject National Security Council recommendation to impose another holiday curfew next week to prevent outbreak

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather around a bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer in Bnei Brak on May 6, 2015. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather around a bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer in Bnei Brak on May 6, 2015. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Ministers on Wednesday night reportedly gave the green light to a ban on lighting bonfires and to seal off the Meron pilgrimage site in northern Israel ahead of next week’s Lag B’Omer festival, to prevent gatherings amid fears of a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus.

The emergency regulations came after the cabinet rebuffed a National Security Council recommendation to reimpose a lockdown on the country over the festival, on May 11-12, according to Hebrew media reports.

Instead, the ministers voted on a proposal to ban all bonfires across the country and close off Meron — the center of the holiday’s religious rites — to visitors from Thursday until May 13, with entry exceptions made for residents and workers of the town surrounding the site. The town of Meron will be reopened on May 13, but the tomb site will remain closed to visitors through the weekend, until May 17.

Renting rooms or guesthouses to non-residents of Meron is forbidden under the rules through May 17. The health regulations also cancel public transportation to the northern Israel site.

Violators who light bonfires anywhere in the country or rent out rooms in Meron will be fined.

The holiday usually sees hundreds of thousands of Israelis throng the Galilee’s Mount Meron, famed as the burial site of the famed 2nd Century CE sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Children and teenagers across the country also celebrate the holiday with local bonfires.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 6, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The tomb at Meron — the second most visited Jewish pilgrimage site in Israel after the Western Wall — is overseen by a subdivision of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The regulations approved by the cabinet will permit the religious affairs minister to sign off on a special dispensation for three Lag B’Omer celebrations at Meron for prominent rabbis, with the lightings staggered and each gathering capped at 50 participants. It said these events must ensure fair participation, including equal representation of women and men.

Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum lights a bonfire marking the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, Sunday, May 18, 2014 in the Hasidic Village of Kiryas Joel, NY. (AP Photo/Tom Bushey)

The decision comes as government containment measures introduced to stem the outbreak successfully brought the number of daily cases down to dozens. Lockdown measures were introduced over Passover, Memorial Day and Independence Day to prevent the spread, and continue to be in effect in some areas for the monthlong Ramadan Muslim holiday and fast.

In recent days, though, the government has opened the country back up, rescinding restrictions on movement and allowing most stores and businesses to reopen.

Lag B’Omer has become 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.

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