The fight over the saintly rabbi
"Going to Rashbi?" asks the voice in the ad on the ultra-Orthodox radio station, using the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. The voice is advertising a car rental company that is offering a special deal for Lag Ba'omer.
The same question is being asked by bus companies, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in the north, charities, small and big businessmen, beggars, politicians, admors (leaders of Hasidic sects) and movers and shakers. They know that every year more and more people "go to Rashbi," including thousands who fly in from abroad especially for the occasion.
Last year there were 400,000 to 500,000 celebrants around the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on the slopes of Mount Meron, and the same number is expected this year too. Up north, they say that there is no greater event on the yearly work calendar of the Israel Police.
"From year to year, the number of pilgrims increases," says Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, the chairman of the Meron Committee, which has been overseeing the commemoration for 30 years. "Once the haredim were a minority, and the majority were people of Middle Eastern origin. Today Jews of all kinds still come, but the overwhelming majority are haredim."
At the National Center for Managing Holy Sites, they say that that the tomb is among the most visited sites in Israel, second only to the Western Wall. Approximately one million visitors come there throughout the year. The 33rd day of the counting of the Omer is, according to the Mishnah, the day when the plague - which struck down 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students during the revolt against Rome - stopped. On this day, the customs of mourning that are in effect since the end of Passover stop.
But the main hero of the event is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the tanna - rabbi from the Mishnaic period - who died on that day, according to a later tradition. As the one who wrote, according to tradition, most of the book of the Zohar - the book of Kabbalah - Bar Yohai is considered the father of Jewish mysticism. There is only one mystery Rashbi did not reveal: who is responsible for his gravesite?
Different organizations have been fighting for years for control over the site. They are motivated of course not only by a yearning to cling to the righteous man's holiness, but also by a desire to have some of the substantial amounts of money the place brings in each year cling to them.
According to Yossi Shvinger, the director general of the National Center for Managing Holy Sites, the alms boxes placed there bring in NIS 2.5 to NIS 3 million shekels a year for the different charitable trusts. But because there is a serious dispute among them - which has been through the rabbinical courts and the civil courts - the site is neglected.
At the forefront of the fight are two charitable trusts, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, and each one claims to have possession of the site. Even the state has joined the fray in recent years, in an attempt to transfer the site to its possession.
All parties agree that the disputes are the reason for the site's neglect, and also for the strange fact that the one entity forced in practice to run the Rashbi commemoration is the Israel Police.
Last week, the Supreme Court decided to hand over the site to the state's management, at least temporarily. The judges ruled that a committee be set up to run the site headed by a representative of the state, whose members would include four members of the charitable trusts.
"This is a dramatic decision," explains Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites, who welcomes the decision.
For the first time, the fate of the gravesite in Meron is being determined by a secular court, and will be handed over to the management of the secular state, instead of rabbinical courts and religious organizations.
"The court's decision could lead to a dramatic change," says Rabinowitz. "Today there is anarchy. Just recently they completed construction here of a 300 sq. meter auditorium, with no building permit and no responsibility taken for it."
Ostensibly, the ones who should have been the first to cry out against the Supreme Court decision are the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox factions, who also venerate the tomb of Rashbi as the focal point of their rite. Meron, unlike the Western Wall - which some of them refrain from visiting because it was captured in 1967 by the Zionist army - was always considered a legitimate place.
But according to Shvinger, the zealous Eida Haredit is the state's last problem. "On a day-to-day level there is full cooperation with the Eida Haredit, even though we are an executive arm of the state. They want the state to assume the management of the site."
The one who is actually protesting is Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, rabbi of Safed and the son of Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who is in charge of the Sephardic charitable trust.
"The plot where the actual grave is located belongs to us, and there's no argument over this," said Eliahu. "It's a 500-year-old religious trust founded by the people of Safed during the time of Rabbi Joseph Karo. I don't think there is any blessing in a place that the state touches. The state is clerks who come at eight o'clock in the morning and leave at five, and the fact is, it hasn't invested a shekel in the place.
"If the state is not investing a shekel, can it then come with complaints? The sums collected in the charity boxes are not enough to cover maintenance of the site," says Eliahu, who claims that the amount collected is only one million shekels. "The fact that this event nevertheless takes place every year is due to the merit of Rabbi Shimon. It's a miracle."