As millions of people worldwide - celebrities like Madonna among them - turn to Kabbalah in hopes of solving their problems, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are going one step further by appealing directly to the man some consider to be the author of mystical Judaism's most important text.
In early May, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whom some believe wrote the Zohar, is purportedly holding court from beyond the grave. Some 500,000 Israelis will flock to a Galilee hilltop, Mount Meron, to sing, dance, feast and pray at the resting place of the second-century sage. Many more pay a third party to appeal to Bar Yochai on their behalf - a move some say is a gimmick that depersonalizes prayer.
The mass gathering will take place during the minor festival of Lag Ba'Omer - this year it takes place May 1 and 2 - which coincides with the anniversary of Bar Yochai?s death; Kabbalah adherents believe that Bar Yochai's powers are strongest around his yartzheit.
Each year, more people go, often with high expectations for what the visit will reap. "Rav Shimon promises that everyone who comes will be healthy in body and soul and that all that they want comes," said Bnei Brak resident Esther Shnitzer, a Haredi woman in her late 50s who works for a credit card company, and who fundraises to provide free refreshments to any pilgrims who want them.
According to the Talmud, Bar Yochai was fiercely critical of the Romans and at one point, to avoid arrest, went to hide in a cave, where he was able to survive because a carob tree and a spring appeared. After he emerged from the cave, he was angered by secularization that had taken place in his absence, and his fiery gaze burned up the world around him, compelling him to return to the cave for another year.
Today, Bar Yochai has become the unofficial patron saint of Israel, adulated by a growing following that includes Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, and Israelis from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
According to Bar-Ilan University professor Jeffrey Woolf, an expert on contemporary religious trends, the current level of interest in Bar Yochai is unprecedented, having "increased astronomically in the last 10 to 15 years," thanks to a growing number of spiritual seekers drawn to Kabbalah and those looking for ways to explore their Jewish identity. In generations past, interest in him was largely confined to mystics, he said. The 500,000 people expected this year is more than double the turnout of a decade ago.
Chen Mazal, a 53-year-old bank clerk from Holon who defines herself as "traditional" - she lights Sabbath candles but does not observe all Sabbath laws - said she is convinced that it is thanks to Bar Yochai, to whom she appeals weekly while lighting the candles, that her new son-in-law decided to propose to her daughter last December. "Today I ask for other things," she said. "I ask for children for my daughter."
Ruti Biton, a housekeeper from Tirat HaCarmel near Haifa who also considers herself "traditional," believes that Bar Yochai is responsible for solving her daughter?s marital woes. In April, her daughter's husband left the couple?s home after several disputes.
A week later, she bought grape juice for worshippers at the Meron grave. "The same day, her husband returned home, and everything dropped into place," she said.
Some Israelis appeal to Bar Yochai by proxy. Kupat Tzidkat Rashbi, a charity that gives grants to Haredim learning at a kollel, an institute for advanced studies of the Talmud and rabbinic literature, provides social services to pilgrims in and around Meron. The organization also offers to have talmudic scholars represent your requests at the grave in exchange for a fee.
The pay-to-pray options start with a basic $18 package. This includes a brief prayer that is recited at the grave, where a written request is also placed. Packages go up to $500, which includes a special prayer gathering where requests are made, and a scholar repeats the requests for 40 consecutive days. Payment is by credit card or direct debit, and there is a guarantee that if your request has not been granted after 40 days of prayer, you get another 40 days free.
Yael Parchanik, an Orthodox pensioner from Kfar Saba, believes that these payment plans have brought about a double miracle in her family. She had been suffering from stomach pains and diagnosed with an ulcer when she heard of the programs last spring and signed up to donate 100 shekels (about $27) monthly for a year and a half. After a medical checkup during treatment, she said, "the doctor said, 'Come in, I want to speak to you,' and the then said, 'You don't have anything. It has all disappeared.' I said to my husband that it was Rabbi Bar Yochai."
Then in April her niece had a baby. She had been trying unsuccessfully to start a family for five years until she conceived last July, shortly after her mother made a donation to the charity.
As part of her package, Parchanik received a bottle of wine that was blessed at the grave. She has added small amounts to other bottles of wine and distributed the bottles to friends in the hope that they, too, will experience wonders.
Like many in more rationalistic religious circles, Woolf, who is also a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi, has watched the growth of Israel?s Bar Yochai fixation with some alarm. While he believes that visiting graves can be a positive experience, "on the other hand, the idea that prayer should be mediated and not direct between man and God, I just don't accept that; it's not part of my religious and philosophical worldview."
As for the idea of paying others to petition Bar Yochai, he takes the view that it "verges on magic" and "takes the onus off the individual who thinks: I'll phone up, pay my $25 and get my prayer." He thinks that this service "depersonalizes religion and turns it into a gimmick."
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