Lag Ba'omer Crowds Jam Dilapidated Holy Site at Mount Meron

The physical condition of the hilula location in Meron is a sign of the long series of legal battles being waged over the holy site.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended the annual festivities (hilula) at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai in Meron on Thursday night.

As is the case every year on Lag Ba'omer, the masses filled the holy site, lit candles around the grave and participated in moving ceremonies. And as is the case every year, the joy and festivities were somewhat dulled by the neglect and rundown appearance of the site - the dirt, the lack of infrastructure and the minimal services for the visitors.

The physical condition of the hilula location in Meron is a sign of the long series of legal battles being waged over the holy site. Various state institutions, including judicial elements and rabbis, have been unable to impose any semblance of order with regard to the running of the site. The result: The government budgets some NIS 5 million a year for the site, with NIS 2.5 million going to the hilula organization itself.

According to various government sources, the Sephardi association that manages the site does not spend a single shekel of its own money to do so. On the other hand, the association's huge income from donations and the sale of candles is not reported or controlled.

"The charity boxes at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai are handled without my supervision, and outside the responsibility of the State of Israel - unlike all the charity boxes at the other holy sites that fall under my responsibility," Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz told Haaretz. Rabinowitz serves as the Western Wall rabbi and is in charge of holy sites around the country.

Donations collected from charity boxes at the other holy sites are deposited in a special fund at the Tourism Ministry and are then distributed - in keeping with criteria determined by the chief rabbis - by a committee made up of representatives from the Office of the Attorney General, the Tourism Ministry and the chief rabbis.

"There is no doubt that the current situation at the grave of Rabbi Shimon cannot go on any longer... The State of Israel must take a stand and make a decision with regard to the manner in which this site is managed," Rabinowitz stressed.

The struggles between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi associations over the running of the site are also preventing the transfer of a $3 million bequest intended to go toward renovating the site. The money was left for this purpose by Jewish millionaire Edmond Safra, who died in 1999, but it will not be used until the site is being managed to the satisfaction of the state.

The grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai is a recognized holy site by law, but Rabinowitz is unable to maintain any supervision over the place. The Sephardi association is run by Safed Chief Rabbi Shlomo Eliahu (the son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu) and Rabbi Shlomo Chelouche.

Government sources say the association takes in millions of shekels a year from the charity boxes and the sale of candles, and that this money is not supervised in accordance with the law and is not made available for distribution in keeping with the set criteria.

Since the disbandment of the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Tourism Ministry has been in charge of the holy sites around the country, but this year, Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson announced that he did not have NIS 2.5 million to budget for the festivities.

The police promptly responded by saying that without the budget, part of which goes toward securing the event, it would not grant permission for the hilula to take place. The festivities were saved by the treasury's announcement that the cost would be shared by the Tourism, Transportation and Finance ministries.

A number of injuries from Lag Ba?omer fires were reported across the country, Army Radio reported. A 30-year-old man from Rosh Ha?ayin sustained serious wounds from a fire that spread, and two people, aged 30 and 10, were moderately wounded in Ashdod.