Some 5,000 police officers were to be deployed at Mount Meron on Thursday to oversee annual Lag B’Omer celebrations at the holy site where attendance has been cut back from the usual hundreds of thousands of revelers from all over the country.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, only 10,000 people at a time will be permitted to enter the main celebration area, which is focused around the gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands are expected to arrive at the site.
Two people were arrested Thursday morning after clashes between worshipers and police at the site. Eyewitnesses said the trouble started when police arrived and asked worshipers already present to clear space so that they could set up barriers to control the crowds expected later in the evening, the Ynet website reported. When the worshipers refused a scuffle broke out leading to the detentions.
Lag B’Omer is usually celebrated across the country with bonfires and celebrations that continue through the night, though the largest event is held at Mount Meron in the north of the country.
Only those who have a so-called Green Pass indicating that they have been vaccinated or recovered from coronavirus infection will be permitted to enter the area. Just three large bonfires are to be lit, instead of the more than a dozen that are usually installed, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
The fires will be spaced out to enable participants to adhere to Health Ministry guidelines for social distancing.
This year Lag B’Omer falls on Friday with celebrations beginning the night before. However, though festivities are usually spread over two or three days this year, celebrations will be limited to around 36 hours due to the start of Shabbat on Friday evening, circumstances that are expected to cause increased crowding due to the narrower time slot.
Though there is a cap on the main festivities, there will be no limits placed on the number of people who come to Meron or the various parking lots in the area.
Access to Mount Meron will only be permitted via public transportation or organized tour buses. In order to cope with the expected volume of arrivals by bus, there will be free shuttle services from some of the more distant drop-off points to and from the Meron site, the Haaretz daily reported.
The northern district fire service has stressed that it is prohibited to camp out anywhere except in authorized locations due to the danger of forest fires.
The decision to allow mass celebration at Meron has been criticized by Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, who warned that mass Lag B’Omer gatherings at the Galilee pilgrimage could drive an outbreak of the coronavirus.
In an interview with Channel 13 news on Wednesday, Alroy-Preis said: “It’s a disgrace.”
“We worked for weeks on a framework. It was approved by all the parties, by the police, by the Religious Affairs Ministry, by the Interior Ministry — everyone. But in the end it fell because no one would take responsibility for enforcement,” she said, accusing government authorities of passing the buck.
With hundreds of thousands of people in Meron, “there is a danger of contagion,” she said.
A further complication is the predicted heatwave with temperatures expected to soar to 30 degrees Celsius or higher across the country. Police called on the public to not attend this year’s event in Meron if they suffer from any kind of medical disorder.
In addition, the Firefighting and Rescue Commissioner has prohibited bonfires from being lit anywhere in the country except at specially approved locations.
According to the instructions, fires lit in pits should not be started in wooded areas, including at locations where campfires are usually permitted.
Open fires that are not in pits must be at least 300 meters from any wooded area and at least 40 meters from any natural gas or gasoline storage. Bonfires must also be at least 20 meters from power and telephone lines and at least 50 meters from buildings.
The commissioner also ordered that five meters’ distance be kept between bonfires and that the base of bonfires should be no larger than three meters. Additionally, bonfires should not reach a height of more than 1.5 meters.
Though the commissioner issues similar orders each year, they are often ignored, especially in urban areas where large bonfires are lit in some neighborhoods.
This year’s celebrations at Meron, though still limited, will still see far more people permitted to attend than last year when stiffer restrictions were in place due to the coronavirus outbreak. Nonetheless, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men were arrested as they tried to break into the site to hold celebrations.
There were also violations of orders against public gatherings at other locations around the country with bonfire celebrations held, in some cases attended by thousands of people.
This year, in the wake of a national vaccination program that has already inoculated over half the population, infection rates have plummeted, enabling outdoor events to be held, though with social distancing orders still in place.
Lag B’Omer has become a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition, said to be the day of the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, and the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar.
It also marks the end of a minor mourning period recognizing the deaths of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva in a plague.
In recent years environmentalists have raised concerns over the impact from the bonfires lit across the country.