Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'omer brings music, smiles and bonfires - pictures

The tomb of a 2nd-century Jewish age turned into a massive celebration for the traditional Meron pilgrimage on Lag Ba'omer.

A Lag Ba'omer bonfire in Jerusalem sponsored by FIG - Food Integrated Gardens, a Jerusalem-based permaculture service headed by Paz Feigenbaum (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
A Lag Ba'omer bonfire in Jerusalem sponsored by FIG - Food Integrated Gardens, a Jerusalem-based permaculture service headed by Paz Feigenbaum
(photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Lag Ba’omer kicked off Wednesday night as Israelis around the country lit the traditional bonfires, ate, sang, danced and prayed for the Jewish holiday marking the 33rd day of counting the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot.
Up to half a million people attended the annual Lag Ba’omer celebration in the northern town of Meron on Wednesday night. Free food and drinks were distributed as the revelers danced around the giant bonfire which was lit by the leader of the Boyaner hassidic sect, as it has been for the past 100 years.
Tents dotted the Galilee hillside leading from Safed to Meron, the site of the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who defied the Roman Empire which controlled Israel at the time. He hid in a cave for 13 years, during which he compiled mystical Kaballah teachings and subsequently taught them to his followers. Lag Ba’omer marks both his birthday and date of passing.
In addition to bonfires, it is also traditional to give boys their first haircut. Many Jews have a tradition of letting a boy’s hair grow until they turn three years old. The hair-cutting ceremony is called an upsherin in Yiddish and chalakeh by Middle Eastern Jews and is performed traditionally on Lag Ba’omer.
While many spent all night singing and dancing to traditional klezmer music, others slept in tents that dotted the hills.
Several thousand medics and security personnel were present at the event to ensure safety. They treated minor burns, bruises, dehydration and other injuries that occurred throughout the night.
While Israelis love their barbecues and bonfires, there has been increased concern over air pollution. Authorities noted pollution levels rose dramatically Wednesday night. Officials were also concerned the heat wave could cause fires and local municipalities curbed public bonfires and warned individuals to do the same.
Lag Ba’omer also celebrates a break in the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students who had been dying during the Omer period. The Talmud notes that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died from a divinely-sent plague during this period. Other sources explain this references their struggle against the Romans, who had cracked down on the practice of Judaism and eventually put Rabbi Akiva to death.
Many schools are closed for Thursday and children are scheduled to participate in the many traditional Lag Ba’omer parades throughout the country in the afternoon.
Historical writings show striking similarities to Meron of yesteryear and today. Rabbi H. Z. Sneersohn, a great-grandson of the first Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote about the Lag Ba’omer celebration in Meron in his 1872 book Palestine and Roumania. He wrote:
“Every year, on the 18th day of the month Ijar, the anniversary of the death of the rabbi is celebrated, in the following way: Thousands and thousands of men and women assemble around the burial ground. It is a day of joy, like a great family festival. They express their happiness by singing songs, dancing and jumping, eating and drinking, all kinds of food being brought there for sale... Many Arabians also partake of the festival... Notwithstanding the immense crowd, there is no disorder or quarreling; there is nothing but joy, peace and harmony, as if the Temple had been rebuilt and the Jews were again the masters of the land... The people gathered there come from the most distant places, from Persia, from Media, Babylonia, Damascus, etc., one hears different languages and sees the most different dresses. This ceremony is an old tradition. They say that this ‘Festival of R. Simon,’ is a source of great joy to the soul of the great rabbi, seeing the happiness of his co-religionists. You thus see that the Jews in Palestine have their anniversaries, when they assemble in praise of those who are gone.”