A time-honored tradition

The custom of praying at the grave of Shimon Hatzadik on Lag Ba'omer dates back to the 1800s.

bonfire 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bonfire 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Meron is not the only holy site visited by masses of pilgrims on Lag Ba'omer. The custom to pray at the grave of Shimon Hatzadik, one of the earliest and most famous high priests of the Second Temple, dates back to the 1800s. In those days, a visit to Shimon Hatzadik in east Jerusalem was a day's outing into nature. In the 19th and early 20th century, Sephardim and Ashkenazim of all affiliations would gather at the holy site the day after Pessah and Shavuot, on Rosh Hodesh Elul and during the Ten Days of Penitence. Some went to the shrine for personal reasons, and throughout the ages communal prayers were held, such as in times of drought. But on Lag Ba'omer, a visit to the grave was a happy occasion. Families would arrive early, some brought by Arab donkey drivers, together with their picnic baskets, small cooking stoves and prayer books. Some walked through the thick wheat fields, picked the ripe grains and roasted them over bonfires. The shamash (beadle) of various synagogues in Jerusalem would stake out a corner of the burial site where his congregation would pray, light candles, recite psalms and read the prayer reserved for Lag Ba'omer. Families would eat picnic lunches under the olive trees. An enterprising Arab sold assorted sweets and operated a ferris wheel. Other concessions included swings and a makeshift movieola. Suss, a sweet cola-like drink still served from an elaborate decanter outside Damascus Gate, was also sold. As in Meron, on Lag Ba'omer the central event was the halaka ceremony, where three-year-old boys received their first haircut. This was a significant occasion for the families, and many of the boys cried or objected to the hullabaloo; others were simply confused and didn't understand what the fuss was about. Distinguished rabbis and community leaders were given the honor of cutting the first lock. Stringent rabbis made a point of cutting the curls on the child's forehead so the boy wouldn't have the urge to grow a blorit (a mass of forelocks and a sure sign of secularization in pre-state Palestine). In some traditions, the cut hair was weighed and an equal amount of silver (coins) was given as charity. Afterward, the boys were carried on the shoulders of their fathers or older brothers, and the mothers cried at the sight of their babies who looked so grown up after their first haircut. A band played and ceremony attendants danced and sang. Many Muslim and Christian onlookers gathered around the field adjacent to the grave, and some took part in the festivities. The burial site of Shimon Hatzadik is located in Wadi Joz, near Sheikh Jarrah, on the road leading to Mount Scopus. The grave consists of a man-made cave hewn in the Roman or Byzantine Period and has three interconnecting rooms plus a fenced-in yard. The cave and surrounding field were purchased by the Jews of Jerusalem in or around 1876. Until that time, Jews had to pay several mils per person to the Arab owner of the site to enter and pray there. In 1891 two Jewish neighborhoods were established on the property - Nahalat Shimon and Shimon Hatzadik. They were abandoned during the riots of the 1920s and destroyed during the War of Independence. Today the area is home to a handful of Jewish families, interspersed among dozens of Arab families. Across from the Tomb of Shimon Hatzadik is a cave where the Ramban is allegedly buried. A few meters to the north is another cave, where 23 former heads of the Sanhedrin are buried. Who was Shimon Hatzadik and why has he been so revered throughout the ages? According to the Mishna, he was the high priest in the days of Alexander the Great. He welcomed the Greek monarch and is credited with having prevented a national massacre when the conquerors entered Jerusalem. In Pirkei Avot he is called "one of the survivors of the Great Assembly." He is attributed with having written the second verse of the opening chapter: "The world stands on three things - Torah, Divine Service and Charity."