Two Controversial, Costly Paths Lead Tens of Thousands to Meron Lag Ba'omer Celebrations

A male-only path was recently completed at cost of NIS 300,000; another path costing NIS 1 million rebuilt after being demolished last year due to lack of permits.

This year's Lag Ba'omer celebrations on Mount Meron have been marred for some by controversy surrounding growing Haredi extremism there, which was highlighted by the building of a male-only metal footpath and an elevated passageway for kohanim, members of the Jewish priestly caste, at the entrance to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, or the Rashbi.

Construction of the male-only path was completed this week, to the disappointment of many who see it as discriminatory. The price tag was NIS 300,000. That, of course, pales in comparison to the kohanim path, which cost a total of NIS 1 million - after being built last year, demolished when it was determined it was illegally constructed without permits, and then rebuilt last week, following a request by the Toldot Avraham Yitzhak Hassidic group. The group claims that because the entrance to Rashbi's grave passes through an ancient graveyard, kohanim are forbidden to walk through it, since they cannot come near dead bodies according to halacha (Jewish law ). Many rabbis, including Meron's chief rabbi Meir Stern, objected to the construction. Rabbi Shalom Cohen of the supreme rabbinical council even issued a decree on Monday giving clearance for kohanim without use of the special pathway.

A man blowing a shofar in front of the male-only bridge on Mount Meron, May 9, 2012.
Yaron Kaminsky

While the Haredi press described the male-only path as a "mehadrin" (strictly kosher ) path that would enshrine gender segregation on the site, the Tourism Ministry insisted it was built for safety purposes, "lawfully and with state control, at the request of the police." The ministry also spent an additional NIS 700,000 for other safety projects at the site. A spokesman for the northern division of Israel Police, however, told Haaretz that no such request had been made.

More than 1,000 police officers and other emergency service personnel were on high alert last night, as some 150,000 worshippers gathered at the Rashbi's tomb to celebrate the start of Lag Ba'omer with traditional bonfire-lighting ceremonies. Altogether, about half a million people are expected to visit the site over the 24-hour period. The tomb is Israel's second-most visited holy site, thanks to Lag Ba'omer festivities. One participant described the events as "very exciting," adding, "People go to the end of the world to attend such ceremonies and we have such a special one here, with such great energies."

The government is trying to gain a greater foothold at the Rashbi's site, due to its popularity. Last month, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov visited the site and announced that a government committee will be set up to run it, and to make the necessary arrangements for the annual celebration. The committee, approved by the cabinet and encouraged by the state comptroller, has yet to become operational, but radical Haredi circles have already condemned what they see as the state's attempts to take over the burial site and interfere with their procedures.

The state also wants to regulate the activity of private charities at the pilgrimage site, which according to estimates cash in on millions of shekels worth of donations, mostly during the Lab Ba'omer celebration.

The charities also charge for prayers, in which the worshippers don't even have to be present. One ad said that for a mere NIS 1,800 "great rabbis will light a candle and pray for the patron. A few days later, an amulet will be sent to their house, with the prayer that was uttered while the candles were lit, with a bottle of wine and a candle that were laid down at the entrance to the cave while the prayer took place." It also said that the rabbis will go on praying for 40 days. It costs NIS 3,600 to also receive a prayer shawl that was worn by one of the praying rabbis.