Advertising Lends New Twist to Lag Ba'omer Festivities at Mount Meron

A week before the start of the Lag Ba'omer holiday next Monday night, dozens of platters of potato pastries and kugels already filled the refrigerators at the Hachnasat Orhim Rashbi Meron organization. But the organization's kitchen was still busy baking and frying, preparing the additional thousands of meals it will need for the huge crowds expected to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron over the holiday. Some 70,000 meals are served to visitors at the site each year during Lag Ba'omer, a spokesman for the organization said.

Another charity, Hilula D'Rashbi, distributes sandwiches and cold drinks to the visitors. This year, however, it is also hoping to take commercial advantage of the anticipated throngs: The organization is offering various advertising opportunities at Mount Meron. The most expensive package entitles the advertiser to two giant billboards - one near the plaza where the dancing will take place and the other at the site where the main bonfire will be lit - and costs NIS 150,000. A single billboard will run NIS 50,000.

But the director of the Mount Meron site, Rabbi Shlomo Chelouche, charged that this initiative "was not coordinated with us in any way. In the past, there was no advertising on the site. To do something like that would require contact with the management, which would have to consider whether it was acceptable. In my opinion, if the advertising can be done in the spirit of the place, I don't think it would do such great harm, but a decision would have to be made."

Yosef Shvinger, director of the Center for Holy Sites at the Religious Affairs Ministry, also expressed surprise at the plans to sell advertising. "In principle, advertising is not allowed there," he said. But he had praise for the work of the Hilula D'Rashbi organization in general: "I am familiar with the organization. They help organize the Lag Ba'omer celebrations. Their activities are commendable. They do holy work there, but I had no idea about advertising on the site."

The grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is the second most visited holy site in Israel, after the Western Wall. More than a million people a year visit the grave. Dani Saida, who heads the Merom Hagalil religious council, noted that the site is of national importance and that most of the visitors there are not religious.

The number of visitors reaches its peak on the one-day (sunset to sunset) Lag Ba'omer holiday. Last year, about 400,000 people visited Mount Meron over the holiday. Rosh Hodesh, or the first day of every Hebrew month, also draws thousands of visitors to the grave.

Several months ago, the state finally established a management committee for the grave site. Referred to as the Committee of Five, a reference to the number of committee members, the committee is headed by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich. But the transfer of the site's management from private hands to the state unleashed a wave of protests of such intensity that Rabbi Rabinovich was provided with personal protection, and at one point even expressed a desire to resign from the committee. In particular, there have been many demonstrations and threats against the renovations that the committee authorized.

Though the site appears on an official list of holy places in Israel, the question of who controls it has been the subject of a lengthy legal dispute. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews have argued over control of Bar Yochai's grave for about 200 years, but the dispute intensified in recent years due to the sharp increase in the number of visitors to the location. That has prompted some to suggest economic motives for the dispute.

About six months ago, the state comptroller issued a highly critical report on the site's management, calling it "a systemic failure".