MOUNT MERON, northern Israel — The COVID-19 crisis on Monday night transformed the world’s biggest Jewish party, normally characterized by hordes of ecstatic dancers, into a series of small subdued ceremonies.
Less than one-thousandth of the normal crowd was present on the Galilee hilltop, which usually sees a wild annual celebration with bonfires and music that can be heard far away.
In regular times, the festival of Lag B’Omer, held Monday night and Tuesday, sees some 250,000 people, Israelis and pilgrims from across the Jewish world, gather at the Galilee tomb of second century rabbi and mystic Shimon Bar Yohai.
This year, fewer than 200 people were allowed to celebrate at the site, divided into three groups, each allocated an hour and a half of bonfire flames and joy, and then told by police to leave.
One of the few laughs of the night came when the ultra-Orthodox singing star Mendi Jerufi declared from stage that there was a great “energy,” as people suspected a hint of sarcasm.
He told The Times of Israel after the set that he wasn’t being sarcastic, and believes that even with reduced numbers the event was special, but was well aware of the sadness that hung over it.
“It’s a happy day, but in a sad situation,” Jerufi said, talking through a face mask. He added that it was “very emotional” to take to the stage, as he felt like he was singing his sacred songs “for the many people who wanted to come but who couldn’t.”
The evening saw three celebrations by denomination, one after the other: Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist. With each given no more than 90 minutes, they struggled to squeeze in speeches, lightings of miniature bonfires, and some music. While singers tried to generate some festive atmosphere, the gatherings felt less party-like and more ceremonial.
Nissim Khabit, 48, who lives near Meron, said the scene was “very unfortunate,” adding that he normally celebrates alongside people from all over Israel and visitors who fly in for the occasion from America. “All of the Jewish People should be at this site, feeling the huge sense of unity that you normally experience here.”
Police officers at the event far outnumbered revelers. Many of the police force stood close together and flouted the requirement to wear masks that they were themselves enforcing — but they did manage to strictly limit numbers at the events.
Dozens of roadblocks were set up around the religious site, and only the few who were allowed in could get anywhere near it. “There are 2,500 police officers securing the event,” Shabtai Garbachik, police spokesman for religious events, told The Times of Israel, adding that there were numerous attempts by unauthorized people to enter “but we were ready for it.”
Accreditation was mostly limited to leading rabbis, a few of their disciples, some locals, and a few politicians. The rabbis played a major role in determining who received accreditation — and selected an almost exclusively male guest list.
Though a petition was filed with the High Court of Justice earlier in the day by women representatives calling for greater representation, it was rejected as coming in too late to be considered.
The successful enforcement of coronavirus regulations on Mount Meron wasn’t mirrored everywhere in Israel. In some places, including Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, people flouted the rules and gathered in large numbers to celebrate. According to a government statement, National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat has expressed concerns that such behavior was liable to lead to coronavirus outbreaks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “strongly condemned the violation of the rules.”
The annual Meron gathering takes place at the grave of Bar Yohai, as Lag B’Omer is believed to be the anniversary of his death. And some of the people present were convinced that, from heaven, Bar Yohai would play a part in ending the pandemic.
“I believe that in his merit, coronavirus can stop,” said Naftali Tzemach, 30, from Jerusalem. Netanel Dawa from Bnei Brak voiced a similar hope, saying it’s a logical expectation as he was “a great tzadik [righteous person].” They said they believed efforts to honor Bar Yochai’s death anniversary would help to secure his intervention in heaven.
Lag B’Omer has long been associated with the theme of plagues. It’s said to be the day when, during Bar Yohai’s life, a plague was ended after killing 24,000 top Torah scholars. Tzemach, Dawa and others cited a belief that the spiritual power of Bar Yohai, who survived the plague, was actually responsible for ending it.
The claim has circulated in religious communities recently, and has surprised some Jewish historians. “I actually just heard this for the first time yesterday,” said Jeffrey Woolf, Orthodox rabbi and professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
He said that while a source for the claim may surface, he wasn’t aware of one. Woolf added: “Even if there is a source, the fact that this story is surfacing now is a powerful indication of the search for answers and remedies in a time of plague.”
At Meron on Monday night, the cloud of the pandemic hung heavily over the entire event. “This has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced here on Lag B’Omer,” said Tzvi Tessler, a Haredi newsman for Channel 20, saying that it lacked excitement.
He told The Times of Israel: “I’ve been coming here since I was on my father’s shoulders, and also during the last seven years when it’s become more massive than ever. This couldn’t be more different.”
Motti from Bnei Brak, who didn’t want to give his last name, exclaimed: “There’s room to move! You usually can’t move here. Every year it’s crushed.” He said that limiting numbers was “the right decision, but really, really sad.”