At 8:30 Wednesday evening, the leader of the Boyan Hassidic sect Rabbi Nahum Dov Breier lit the traditional bonfire commencing festivities for Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer (during which religious Jews count seven weeks from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot) beside the gravesite of the third-century Jewish scholar Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) in Meron in northern Israel.
Although he doesn’t head a very large sect, the Rebbe Boyan is the first to light the bonfire and dance around it by the power of a 100-years old tradition that is adhered to annually. After him, 18 other grand rabbis of other sects will light a bonfire and lead their followers in dancing around it as Hassidic music blares.
The roads leading to Mount Meron were jam packed with pilgrims Wednesday as some quarter to a half-million Jews flocked northward to celebrate the holiday in the traditional manner. Many Jews believe that in the merit of the righteous saint, prayers recited by his graveside are answered.
Some 5,000 police officers, 100 firefighters, 200 ambulances and dozens of medics and first responders are involved in making sure Israel's largest religious festival, occurring in the midst of a national heat wave, is safe and runs as smooth as possible. Helicopters, closed circuit cameras, drones and all-terrain vehicles are also part of the massive effort. Due to the heat wave, restrictions were imposed on neighborhood bonfires throughout the country.
Police closed off highways leading up to the site and access is restricted to local residents and busses, some 4,000 of them, that are ferrying pilgrims from designated parking lots as well as from major religious centers throughout the country. Additional trains have been added to the Carmiel line and busses are waiting at the station to take passengers from there to Meron.
By Wednesday morning, hundreds of families were already camped out at the site in tents. Some, like the Biton family from Nahariya, arrived at the mountain site two weeks ago and are sleeping in a large tent, while chunks of lamb lie smoking on a BBQ grill just outside. The family says that attendance at Meron on Lag BaOmer is a family tradition going back more than 50 years.
The religious Affairs Ministry allocated NIS 15.5 million for the event. Extensive hospitality services provide hot food and cold drinks to pilgrims at no charge.
According to the Talmud, Rashbi, an acronym for Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai, was persecuted by the Romans for his hostile attitude toward their occupation of Judea. He fled to a cave in the northern town of Peki'in where he lived for 13 years, surviving on water from a nearby river and carobs from a tree that miraculously sprung up at the mouth of the cave while he studied Torah.