Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Lag B’Omer this year is Sunday, 18 Iyar, April 28. Immediately after nightfall on Motzaei Shabbos, the count and its blessing is pronounced aloud, ushering in a respite from the Sefirah mourning period.
This year, when Lag B’Omer is on a Sunday, many halachic authorities permit haircuts and shaving on the preceding Friday in order to honor the Shabbos. The Shabbos honors Lag B’Omer in that at Minchah we deliberately omit Tzidkoscha. The zenith of Lag B’Omer’s festivities at Meron takes place from 2 a.m. until after early Shacharis at the hallowed gravesites of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) and his son Rabbi Elazar. Other leading early rabbinical figures also buried in Meron are Hillel HaZakein, Shammai, and Rabbi Elozor ben Shimon.
On Lag B’Omer, the holy meduros (bonfires) in Meron draw hundreds of thousands of participants every year. This year, upwards of a half million people are expected to come to Meron to celebrate. Tens of thousands have already come to the surrounding cities of Tzfas, Teveria, Haifa, as well as Bnei Brak and Jerusalem for Shabbos. Meron is the highest geographic point within Israel’s pre-1967 borders (3,963 feet above sea level). The intensity of Lag B’Omer’s joyous celebrations and spiritual highs are incomparable and indescribable. The gravesite and yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai represent a singular combination of time and place of intense holiness. To those blessed to have been there on Lag B’Omer, no other experience is its equal. It is, literally, the single largest annual gathering of Jews anywhere in the world.
Little boys that reach the age of three during the time between Pesach and Lag B’Omer are traditionally given their first haircut on Lag B’Omer. What better place than Meron, in an atmosphere of joyous holy celebration. It is as if Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar are honored guests personally participating at the boy’s hair cutting, which indeed they are. The chalakah (hair cutting) at Meron on Lag B’Omer becomes the family’s historical treasure.
May A Kohein Visit Meron?
The visiting of a tzaddik’s gravesite by a kohein has always been an issue of debate. Many felt that a tzaddik’s gravesite is holy and pure, thus outside the realm of halachic tumah associated with ordinary gravesites. Other authorities felt that all gravesites have the same halachah of tumah for kohanim.
Another issue is that of stepping on or walking on gravesites. Plainly, all of us are not permitted to do so (Taz, Shulchan Aruch Yorah Deah 363:1). We are not permitted to benefit from the dead. However, if no other path is possible in order to bury a deceased or to visit another gravesite, then, and only then, is stepping on a grave allowed (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 200:14).
Vishnitzer chassidim who are kohanim do not visit any gravesites. Lubavicher chassidim who are kohanim are able to visit the ohel of the two last Lubavitcher Rebbes in Queens because the ohel has no roof and is internally partitioned. In addition, some kohanim get to the ohel by car or van, which represents a separate area on the wide roadway leading to the ohel. Other kohanim make use of a fenced path leading from the public street to the ohel. The fence partitions off all graves. Previously, kohanim stepped into a hand-held four-sided partition, a sukkah-like structure, separating themselves from the immediate surroundings, and then carried the four-walled partitions around themselves to the ohel.
Other than for an immediate family member, a kohein is not permitted to be within four cubits (approximately two yards) of a deceased (body or amputated limb). Further, when the grave of the immediate family member is sealed, the kohein must move away four cubits.
May a kohein visit Meron? This question has been raised through the years and has generated learned debates. Most recently, because of supposedly new findings, the question has been brought to many of today’s poskim for clarification.
Lag B’Omer Tragedy
On the way home from visiting Meron on Lag B’Omer 2010, a great tragedy occurred. A family of five were killed in a highway accident. They were Breslover chassidim. Many felt that the tragedy specifically struck a Breslover family because the plot of land adjacent to Ohel Rashbi belonging to the Breslov is atop graves and Breslover chassidim sang and danced there. The existence of those graves underneath their lot was only made known in 2009. Reports circulated that Breslover chassidim came to Ohel Rashbi weeks before Lag B’Omer that year and exhumed a number of those graves. Apparently, some said, that was not enough.
Adjacent to the Breslover plot is that of Toldos Aaron as well as that of Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok. As the months and days drew near to Lag B’Omer in 2010, a hue and cry developed regarding the issue of the Toldos Aaron Rebbe, who is a kohein, treading upon the vicinity of Ohel Rashbi, together with his many chassidim.
Old Pictures, Diagrams
The pictures and diagrams, some very old, that are carefully studied by halachic authorities purportedly show that the entire area near Ohel Rashbi is a cemetery. Bones and other indications have reportedly been found from Ohel Rashbi all the way down to the lower level of the gravesite of Hillel HaZakein. The diagrams show the outlines of the cemetery areas upon which roads have been built. The most commonly used entry road to Meron today was built by the British during their Mandate. Supposedly, the road was built without any regard or consideration of those buried long ago underneath. New access roads have been built in the last few years in order to enable a greater flow of traffic, especially for the many passenger buses that come to Meron during the Lag B’Omer season. The new roads were built with great care, so as to avoid desecrating any possible gravesites. In addition, a special Marpeset Kohanim (balcony for kohanim) was built expressly to accommodate kohanim and to avoid any possible grave desecration.
Amongst the many respected contemporary halachic authorities consulted, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, rosh beth din of the Jerusalem Eidah Hachareidis Badatz, is of the opinion that since the issue is serious and that the possibility of trespassing upon graves is real, kohanim are therefore prohibited from ascending Meron and, much more so, stepping into the area of Ohel Rashbi (Teshuvos V’Hanhogos 4:266). At the end of his responsa, Rabbi Shternbuch writes that he can only rely on what the eye sees, and what he saw were gravesites.
Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, Karlsburger Rav and author of Emek Hashailoh, has responded verbally to special messengers from Israel who came to him as well as to all kohanim that ask him, that kohanim are proscribed from ascending the mountain leading to Ohel Rashbi. His response has been that kohanim are Biblically obligated to be careful in the matter and must be prudent and exceedingly cautious. The Karlsburger Rav of Boro Park, respected as the leading chassidish poseik in America, has an apartment in Meron and spends several months every year there. While there, the Karlsburger Rav spends entire days studying and meditating in Ohel Rashbi.
Jerusalem Beis Din Tzedek
Though the greatly respected Beis Din Tzedek (Badatz) of the Eidah HaChareidis of Jerusalem has not formally responded to inquiries, a number of their affiliates have made their decision in the matter public. Rabbi Yosef Kadish Brandsdorfer, author of Chezkas Taharas on cemeteries and Orah V’Simcha on the Rambam, permits kohanim full access. His brother, Rabbi Moshe Bransdorfer, Eidah Heichal HaRoah dayan, circulated a letter, stating that he did not see any graves, but that nevertheless, he is clearly prohibiting in order to avoid possible inadvertent transgression. Rabbi Noson Kopshitz, Eidah dayan in Beit Shemesh, also stated his prohibition. Rabbi Yitzchok Rozenbalt, Eidah HaChareidis dayan and Breslover rosh yeshiva, after personally visiting Meron and having reviewed current construction of the “Mehadrin” and “Burma” paths there, clearly states (April 15) that kohanim are permitted to go up to Ohel Rashbi.
Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok And Toldos Aaron
Much of the controversy is directed at Rabbi Dovid Kohn, Toldos Aaron Rebbe, who is a kohein. When he lights his medurah in Meron, his chassidim fervently sing and dance, seemingly without end. Many Toldos Aaron chassidim feel that the halachic queries are really expressions of jealousy. Each year, according to Toldos Aaron chassidim, complaints and placards are thrown at them. In years past, complaints were directed claiming that men and women were not properly separated. The Toldos Aaron Rebbe reportedly visits and meditates at Ohel Rashbi periodically throughout the year. The Toldos Aaron Rebbe dispatched construction experts that surveyed the paths leading to Ohel Rashbi and ascertained that no graves were underneath.
Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Rebbe, is the older brother of today’s Toldos Aaron Rebbe and simply ignores all complaints. When the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Rebbe had his traditional first haircut at the age of three, he was brought into Ohel Rashbi by his father, Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Cohen, Toldos Aaron Rebbe, zt’l (1914—1996). Chassidim recall the event taking place on Lag B’Omer ca. 1955.
The Toldos Aaron Rebbe, zt’l, was the grandson of Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Heller, zt’l (1851—1909), Rav in Tzfas; son of Rabbi Shmuel Heller, zt’l (d. 1884), Chief Rabbi of Tzfas and author of Taharas Hakodesh. The Taharas Hakodesh, quoted by Rabbi Shternbuch, clearly permitted kohanim entry into Ohel Rashbi. The Toldos Aaron Rebbe, zt’l, was known to be a visitor to Ohel Rashbi until the mid 1950s, at which time he learned that Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt’l (1886—1979), revered Satmar Rebbe and author of Divrei Yoel, had a strong opposition to kohanim visiting the gravesites of tzaddikim.
The Toldos Aaron Rebbe adhered to all of the Satmar Rebbe’s teachings and customs. The Satmar Rebbe had consistently disallowed kohanim from going to Ohel Rashbi, following the opinion of Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam, zt’l (1815—1898), Shiniva Rebbe and author of Divrei Yechezkel. The Divrei Yechezkel felt strongly that kohanim are not permitted within the vicinity of any gravesite.
In 1956 (some say 1952 or 1957), the Satmar Rebbe was at Ohel Rashbi for Shacharis. When a kohein was called up during the morning reading of the Torah, the Rebbe screamed that no kohein would be called to the Torah reading in his minyan in Ohel Rashbi. At that time, the Satmar Rebbe’s opposition became known and the Toldos Aaron Rebbe, zt’l, never again thereafter visited Ohel Rashbi. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.