Some 200,000 people have flocked to Meron so far on Lag BaOmer to celebrate the Yom Hillula (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second century ACE rabbinic sage who is buried there.
One of the revelers Ronen, who says he makes sure to come to Meron for the Hillula every year. He said that despite the overcrowding at the celebration, he is excited every time he sees the masses, "it's part of the experience." And they come from all Jewish sects: religious, secular, Chassidim, Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews), women wearing pants and women dressed religiously. "It is a privilege to be here," he said. "You see miracles."
As every year, the Hillula was kicked off Wednesday night by the Boyan Hasidim who have the rights to light the first bonfire at 8:30pm, and it will end with the last bonfire being lit Thursday at 7pm.
The right to light the first bonfire is highly esteemed by the ultra-Orthodox and attests to the greatness and the influence of those who receive it. The leading rabbi of the Boyan hassidim might be the leader of a relatively small hassidic group in Jerusalem, but the Boyan have had this right, which is handed down from father to son, for a hundred years.
After him, one after the other, different rabbis come to light bonfires throughout the entire day. Among those lighting bonfires are Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and the head rabbis of the Toldot Avraham Yitzhak hassidim and the Modzitz hassidim.
Police have been stationed near the site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's tomb since the beginning of the week to maintain order ahead of the Hillula, which will end Thursday at midnight. Getting to the celebration is made possible solely by public transportation, which has been beefed up significantly to allow people from all across the country to get to Meron.
According to tradition, thousands of children aged three will be brought to Meron to carry out the 'halaka' – their first haircut. Their families and rabbis will have the honor of cutting the child's curls for the first time. Hairdressers from across the country have set up makeshift hairdresser stands, and will offer families a proper finish to the haircut.
Tens of injured, heavy pollution
By Thursday morning, Magen David Adom paramedics treated about 150 celebrants, with two men aged 20 transferred in a moderate to serious condition to the Ziv Medical Center in Safed with alcohol poisoning.
The United Hatzala organization reported that their paramedics treated 163 people lightly injured, who, among other things, suffered bruises and minor burns.
As is the case every Lag BaOmer, this year a high level of air pollution was recorded across the country. The Ministry of Environmental Protection said that most of the air quality monitoring stations noted a rise in particle concentrations due to the many bonfires lit.
The highest levels of pollution were registered between the hours of 10:30pm-4:30am. Kiryat Haim experienced 11.8 as much pollution as any other day, while northern Ashdod saw pollution levels 10.2 higher than normal.