Hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world ascended to the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, lovingly called “Rebbe Shimon,” for Lag B’Omer on Wednesday night and through Thursday, marking the yahrtzeit of the illustrious second-century Torah sage who authored the foundational book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar.
The annual celebratory event was overseen by Israeli police and security services, with hundreds of buses unloading group after group of primarily Orthodox Jews at the pilgrimage site in Meron, a Galilee town close to Tzfat.
The 33rd day of the Omer count, a biblically mandated period of counting days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, also represents the end of a semi-mourning period for the students of Rabbi Akiva—24,000 of whom were said to have died around the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion due to disrespect between Jews.
According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai—one of the foremost students of Rabbi Akiva—told his followers to celebrate the day of his passing as a “day of joy.” As such, Lag B’Omer is commemorated with bonfires throughout Israel, in addition to music, food and drink.
Meron’s massive bonfire is meant to symbolize the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans and the light of the secrets of the Torah revealed in the Zohar. It also serves as a large yahrtzeit candle to commemorate the deaths of all those who died in sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) throughout the ages.
But this year, the event was the source of some controversy.
On Wednesday night, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu banned Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the founder of the Shavu Banim yeshivah in Jerusalem and a leader of the Breslov Chassidic movement, from attending Lag B’Omer festivities in Meron and being honored as one of the many lighters of the Meron bonfire. This was in light of his recent conviction for sexual assault and a body of evidence that he took advantage of his leadership position to commit immoral acts against women and girls who sought his guidance.
“Mount Meron is a holy place, and thousands of people from across Israel who come do not want to seek impurity on this day,” Rabbi Eliyahu said in an interview with Arutz Sheva. “Such a person who impersonates a Chassidic rabbi is an abomination, and he should be removed from Meron.”
Nonetheless, Berland was sighted at festivities in Meron on Wednesday night.
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