It’s morning at the Mount Meron tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on the day of his hilula – the anniversary of the great sage’s death, which falls on Lag Ba’omer. Contrary to most such anniversaries, it is marked with a huge celebration. As every year on the hilula devoted to this second-century C.E. sage and reputed miracle-worker, the hundreds of thousands of people shuttled to the site from parking lots farther down this Galilee peak are greeted by numerous hawkers selling knickknacks, spices and other goods.
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This year’s hit, fidget spinners, are for sale in abundance. There are also other ways to spend money at the hilula – donating to activists calling for “the building of the Land of Israel,” and to Lehava, a Jewish supremacist group dedicated to preventing “assimilation in the Holy Land.”
Three young men from Ramat Gan sat under a tree sharing a bottle of vodka and energy drinks. They said they had not come the night before, when the various Hasidic sects lit bonfires, and only arrived an hour before. All three were newly religious. One said that before he went into the army he was “a combination of religious and secular.” He served in Netzah Yehuda, the ultra-Orthodox IDF battalion, where he exchanged his old kippa for a big black one, signifying his allegiance to newfound, stricter religious observance.
“Meron is the best trip there is,” he said. His friend was a little less enthusiastic. “Enough already, I want to go on to the Kinneret," he said, adding that he had said all the requisite prayers. The young men agreed that there was no contradiction between the vodka and the spiritual nature of the place.
Not far away, two men in their 20s from Petah Tikva were rolling up their sleeping bags and folding their tent. They came yesterday, one for the first time, the other for the second, and they’d be back next year, they said. In their opinion, alcohol at the site was “not so suitable.”
“From year to year, the soul progresses, there is more love,” a young man from Safed with long side-locks and clad all in white said joyfully, as he handed out holy books and danced through the crowd. By afternoon, the heat was unbearable among the mass of people at the entrance to the tomb, and the young man’s hair was plastered to his face. But he was very happy.
'People were saved by Rabbi Shimon'
Farther up the mountain, Moshe Biton, chairman of the Birkat Avraham Society from Migdal Ha’emek, and his volunteers had begun dismantling the shelter where they had stayed over the past week with about 40 other families. “Lots of people come with nothing, only a sleeping bag. Here they can have everything,” a volunteer said. A look around confirmed it. In every corner someone was handing out water, and food was cooking in giant tents.
One of the female volunteers from Biton’s group says she feels her work brings her a great blessing, as does the pilgrimage to the mountain. “I have a son named Shimon, after the rabbi. My husband made a vow, because I didn’t have any children for six years. There are lots of stories here about people who were saved, they had no livelihood, no children and Rabbi Shimon helped them.”
Apparently a lot of people agree with her. Women and men, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, white kippot and black ones, some women with head-scarves, others with wigs. Once in a while, a secular-looking person pops up.
Suddenly, a band starts playing and dozens of long-haired 3-year-old boys are carried on the shoulders of dancing men. Soon they’ll have their traditional first haircut, which supposedly brings special blessings if it’s done at Rabbi Shimon’s tomb.
It’s afternoon and still the buses keep coming, causing huge traffic jams with thousands of people who still wanted to mark the hilula properly, with a visit to the rabbi’s tomb. One of the spinner-sellers had dropped his price from 30 shekels to 15 but was still tirelessly hawking and demonstrating. Little by little, all the others dropped their prices too. “Last night? I was selling them for 40,” he said.