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Biggest public gathering in Israel since start of pandemic

Officials warn of COVID spread as thousands of pilgrims descend on Mount Meron

Traditional Lag B’Omer festivities on northern mountain see scuffles between police, worshipers over restrictions meant to limit contagion

Jewish pilgrims seen at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Jewish pilgrims seen at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Two people were arrested in scuffles with police at a northern pilgrimage area on Thursday afternoon as officials warned that traditional Lag B’Omer celebrations at the site could turn into a mass-contagion event that would set back the fight against COVID-19.

Tens of thousands of revelers gathered throughout the evening for traditional celebrations on Mount Meron in the northern Galilee, which include visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.

The event turned into the largest public gathering in Israel since the start of the pandemic, worrying health officials.

“Whoever goes to Meron needs to know he’s taking his life into his hands and is likely to be exposed to those infected with the coronavirus who will roam the place unsupervised,” an unnamed health official told the Kan public broadcaster earlier on Thursday.

Jewish pilgrims at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee, ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The government failed to reach an agreement on how to handle the celebrations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly wary of angering Haredi political parties by imposing restrictions.

Last year, the celebrations were severely curtailed over contagion fears.

But police and health officials have instituted their own rules at the site to try to keep the pilgrims from congregating at close quarters for lengthy periods of time.

Visits to the gravesite itself, which is indoors, are limited to a few minutes per person; no more than 10,000 people are allowed at any one time at the bonfire site, police said; and only pilgrims with “green passes,” certificates indicating they were vaccinated against COVID or have recovered from the coronavirus, will be allowed to board the buses taking worshipers to the bonfires.

Jewish pilgrims seen at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Despite the rules and the deployment of 5,000 officers to safeguard the event, police officials said they lacked the manpower to enforce the “green pass” requirement. Organizers would not be able to guarantee that unvaccinated people won’t be in the crowds.

Some worshipers arrived early on Thursday hoping to visit the gravesite before the lines grew long. Scuffles ensued when some resisted the new restrictions.

Footage from the site showed some Haredi protesters hurling insults at officers, including shouts of “Nazi.”

Bar Yohai is a mythical figure in the Jewish mystical tradition and is traditionally identified as the author of the most important work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. Lag B’Omer is traditionally considered the date of his death.

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