Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

16 Iyar 5761 - May 9, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Va'amartem Ko Lechai, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai: Lag BaOmer at Meiron

by Rivka Tal

Uniting Jews from all walks of life, the Lag BaOmer hillula of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at Meiron is a unique Jewish experience. No matter where they come from and no matter what their closeness to Yiddishkeit the year round, Jews feel a draw to Meiron on this day. Sounds of singing and dancing permeate the air and the joy is contagious. Hard-working men hand out food and drink to any and all, fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim en masse. Those who go say the kedushoh of the place and the time makes one yearn to become closer to HaKodosh Boruch Hu, through the merits of the Tana Hakodosh, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Preparations for the festivities at Meiron begin weeks before the actual date, when somewhere between 100,000 and a quarter of a million Jews of all ages and descriptions converge upon this tiny Galilean moshav from all parts of the country. Bus services advertise, some boasting that they come the closest to the tsiyun. Parking lots are prepared for the thousands of buses and private cars that will arrive. The highway is closed and traffic rerouted, as the whole area is covered with tents and vans for miles around. The pace of people coming and going will keep up uninterrupted throughout the night and day of Lag BaOmer.

A lively procession from Tsefas sets out at night. This custom dates from the beginning of the 19th century. A special sefer Torah under a decorated chuppah leads the way to Meiron, accompanied by music, singing and dancing.

This was indeed a hike before the road was built. A report from some seventy years ago notes that, "only those who were old or weak rode. The local Arabs knew about the yearly celebration and they would come to Tsefas to rent their donkeys and mules to the Jews."

A bonfire is lit on the roof of the domed tsiyun at Meiron. The fire which surrounded the house on his last day, preventing any but Rabbi Shimon's closest students from approaching, is one reason cited for the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag BaOmer. Another is a remembrance of the fire at Har Sinai at the time of matan Torah. Still another explanation is that the fire reminds us of the fire that was always present whenever Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai learned Torah.

Rabbi Yisroel of Rozhin purchased the right to light the main bonfire in Meiron on Lag BaOmer for all time -- at great expense. It has passed on to his descendants as an inheritance. Once, when his grandson the Sadigorer rebbe was asked about this phenomenon, he answered, "Tens of thousands of souls have been healed because of this bonfire which is lit in the honor of the Holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai!" The fire is now lit by the Admor of Boyan.

Before this arrangement was reached, a ceremony would procede lighting of the bonfires. In a room off to the side, the zchus to light the bonfires was auctioned off. The announcer would call out "amud ho'olom," referring to the Rashbi, and add "zechuso ta'amod lonu." To urge people to up the price, he would add slogans like, "Anyone who raises the price will receive more mitzvos!"

Throughout the twenty-four hours of Lag BaOmer, groups of energetic dancers rejoice, singing over and over the traditional songs in praise of Rabbi Shimon. Individuals and small groups study and recite the Zohar and recite Tehillim, while the dense crowds continuously flowing into the main room struggle to reach the tomb. During the day, dozens of sheep are schechted, barbecued, and consumed. At night, many people rest in huge tents over multi-course dinners and live music.

Throughout the day, hundreds or even thousands of three-year- old boys, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, receive their first haircuts, the chalakeh, following the custom of the Arizal. This, too, is reason to rejoice.

The steep winding path leading to the tsiyun is lined by booths. Many are manned by representatives of yeshivas and other worthy causes. Further away, vendors hawking all sorts of merchandise dominate the main thoroughfares. All over, people are camping, picnicking, and partying, and often it seems easy to lose sight of the original nature of the celebration. It is interesting to note that no other forefather, sage or prophet has merited a day like this in which so many Jews come together from all over the world.

As we know, twenty-four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva died in an epidemic. The underlying spiritual cause of the epidemic was the students' lack of respect for each other. This sad event, and others, took place during sefiras haOmer. In remembrance of this, Chazal ordered that certain particulars of mourning be observed during this period: no music, haircuts and weddings may take place. But because the epidemic was suspended on the 33rd day -- Lag BaOmer, this day has become a joyous day of celebration. Tachanun is not said, and weddings, haircuts, and music are allowed.

After all his students died, Rabbi Akiva started over and began teaching others. One of his foremost students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar Hakodosh. The Zohar, which means "The Shining," is the basis of Toras hanistar, the sublime secret teachings of the Torah.

Composing the Zohar

Every Jewish child knows the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elozor. The story is recounted in the Talmud Bavli, maseches Shabbos 33b. Escaping from the Romans, they hid in a cave at Pekiin. A carob tree miraculously emerged from the ground to provide fruit for nourishment, while a spring brought forth water to quench their thirst. There they composed the Zohar HaKadosh. When they finally left the cave, they bathed in the curative waters of Tiveria and continued to disseminate Torah.

We find wondrous descriptions of the holiness of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar HaKodosh (2:38a) quotes Shemos 34:23: "Three times each year shall each man appear before the face of his master, the G-d of Israel." The Zohar Hakodosh then asks, what is meant by the face of his master? The answer is that the Zohar is referring to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In the Zohar Hakodosh (3:144b) we find that he is also considered to be a gilgul of Moshe Rabbenu (according to a sicha of the Slonimer rav).

According to tradition, Rav Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag BaOmer, the eighteenth of Iyar. Even though the death of such a great sage is a sad event, there is also joy surrounding the fact that he attained his final reward (as the Zohar Hakodosh explains), and the fact that he revealed many deep secrets of the Torah to his students on his dying day.

The yahrtzeit of a tzaddik is a propitious time to beseech Hashem and ask that our prayers be heard in his merit. Since the soul of the tzaddik becomes even more elevated on this day, we ask that he be meilitz yosher before the Kisei Hakovod, and Jews have been doing so for quite a long time.

Historical Reports

Visiting Eretz Yisroel, Rav Binyomin Metudela and later, Rabbi Petachia, speak of Meiron and mention a few holy grave sites, but not those of Rashbi and Elozor. The first Jewish tourist to mention these graves in Meiron was Rabbi Shmuel bar Shimshon, passing through Eretz Yisroel in the year 4970 (1210). He tells of his visit in Meiron, "I found the beis medrash of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and it is square and inside it is the tsiyun of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Elozor. Upon it are two trees, and it is a beautiful place."

Twenty-five years later, Yaacov Hashaliach visited Meiron, and he said, "The grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and a nice tsiyun, and near him Rabbi Elozor, his son. It is said that here was the beis midrash of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai."

Five hundred years later, an anonymous traveler said, "On the three Regolim the Jews come to the burial place of the tzadik Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and beseech with prayers, selichos and tachanunim to Hashem that He grant them rain to enable them to stay there for a few days. And rain follows immediately.

An anonymous traveler from the year 5255 (1495) tells of his visit to Meiron and mentions a cave in which twenty-two talmidei chachomim are buried. He says that these were students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He also mentions the tsiyun of the kever of Rashbi, noting that it was beautiful and visible all the way to Tsefas.

Rabbi Moshe Basolo tells of his visit in 5282 (1522) to Meiron: "There I saw the cave of Rashbi and his son, aleihem hasholom. It is closed and there is no room to enter it." At another visit he said, "We detoured to Meiron, for there many Jews would come on the holidays to the graves of the righteous. . . . On Tu Be'Iyar, Pesach Sheini, great caravans of people gather at Meiron. There were more than one hundred people there, many coming from Damascus with their wives and children . . . We were there for two days and two nights."

The author of Yichus Ho'ovos Vehanevi'im in the year 5297 (1537) also describes these gravesites: " . . . and on them were beautiful matzeivos."

Ta'amei Haminhogim reports that the first to frequent the tsiyun were the students of the Rashbi themselves, following his directives. Throughout the generations, gedolei Yisroel would come to the tsiyun to learn and to beseech Hashem. The Sheloh Hakodosh relates, " . . . and at the grave of Rashbi they study the Zohar with awe and trembling and great deveikus, for miracles took place there, and the Zohar must be learned with great awe, trembling and deveikus, and then one must rejoice with great spiritual happiness, and with no mourning or sadness, for the Rashbi did not desire any of these, and then [they] made nedorim and nedovos and pray . . .

The Mass Pilgrimage

It seems that the custom of a mass pilgrimage to the grave of Rashbi was popularized by the Arizal, who came once for the occasion from Egypt before he moved to Tsefas, as recorded by his student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. He came to learn and to fulfill the "ancient custom" of the chalakah, the first cutting of his three-year-old son's hair. The custom spread, and others joined the mekubalim from Tsefas who had started to come on Lag BaOmer. Rabbi Ovadia MiBartenura mentions the lighting of torches at Lag BaOmer at Meiron, and adds that, "Many barren women were remembered and many sick people were cured with a neder and a nedovo to the place."

There is mention in Ateres Zekeinim on Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim, simon 493 of the hilula. Unrestrained dancing and the custom of throwing expensive clothing into the great bonfire generated a strong protest from Rabbi Yosef Karo and later, from the Chasam Sofer.

For many generations, the tsiyun of Rashbi and his son were in an exposed field. Construction of a stone building to house the tziyunim was begun in the sixteenth century. The Chida relates, "And I heard from a rav who received the tradition that HaRav Avrohom was wealthy and built a courtyard for the tsiyun of the Rashbi and Rabbi Elozor, zechosom yogen oleinu." Rabbi Avrohom is the sofer hamekubal Rabbi Avrohom Galanti, a student of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the Ramack), who was niftar in Tsefas in the year 5325 (1565).

The building housing the tsiyun served as a beis midrash and hostel for those who came to learn Torah and kabalah. Many talmidei chachomim wrote important works there. Rabbi Eliezer Azkari, a student of the Arizal in Tsefas, writes at the beginning of his Sefer HaChareidim of his experiences at Meiron. Rav Yisroel Kimchi also notes that he began his work at the tsiyun.

Throughout the year, the tsiyun is never empty. Day and night, kol am Yisroel is there, learning and davening and pouring out their hearts to the Ribono Shel Olom for yeshu'os, in the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Zechuso yogen oleinu ve'al kol Yisroel, Omen!

Other Graves in the Vicinity

Although the tsiyun of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elozor draws the most attention, there are other kivrei tzaddikim at and near Meiron. Immediately across the entrance to the Rashbi tsiyun we find the two-dome-covered tsiyun of Rav Ada Sava, and, according to some, of Rav Yeibo Sava.

Stairs to the left of the building housing the tsiyun of the Rashbi lead down a hill to the burial cave of Hillel Hazoken and his students, and farther along the same path, to that of Shammai Hazoken. Nearby are the tsiyunim of Rabbi Yochonon Hasandlar and Rav Yossi ben Kisma.

Behind the tsiyun of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai one can see relics of Arab Meiron, which was built on the site of the ancient Jewish town. There are ruins of a Sephardi old age home that was destroyed by the Arabs during the 1929 riots. Further up the hill, near the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva high school, are the remains of an ancient synagogue.

A Walk in Nachal Amud

Visitors to Meiron with extra time would enjoy a family walk in nearby Nachal Amud. Leaving Meiron in the direction of Tsefas, look for a sign on the left marking a turn-off to Nachal Amud. (If you reach Kfar Shammai, you have gone too far; turn around and go back).

Drive carefully along the path for a few minutes and proceed through a gate. Continue until you reach a parking lot. There you may park and pick up a brochure explaining the various routes through Nachal Amud (Hebrew only, but the directions are easy to follow). A "family" hike of about 3 hours at a leisurely pace will take you to most of the interesting things to see. Be sure to take enough water! You will be walking in shade once you descend to the nachal, and most of the way down (and up). Note that part of the hike back up is quite steep -- about the first ten minutes -- but it is never treacherous, and there are steps and handrails along the way.

Nachal Amud begins on the southeast side of Har Meiron at an altitude of 1150 meters above sea level, and it reaches the Kinneret at 212 meters below sea level less than 20 kilometers away. Because of the drastic incline and also since it cuts its way through dolomite cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, beautiful rock formations and delightful natural pools have resulted.

The walk begins at a large, abandoned cement building. This was the British Ein Tinna police station, built during the time of the Arab uprising of 1936-1939 to protect the water pumping station from the Ein Yakim spring below to Tsefas.

After descending to the nachal, you will see a small cement building shaded by a large pecan tree. This is a Mekorot water pumping station. Here the walk along the nachal begins. It is recommended to follow the path marked black along the nachal to the mivtasha (wool fulling station) or to the mill, and then return along the blue-marked path on the other side of the nachal. The green-marked path is for experienced hikers only.

The lush vegetation and the tiny waterfalls are a true delight to behold. Children (and adults, too) can cool off and go wading.

There is water in Nachal Amud year-round, and man has taken advantage of its strength throughout history for drinking water, washing, irrigation and industry. You will pass the Miller's House, where people would rest while waiting their turn to have their wheat ground. The effendi's fountain and the newly-planted orchards are other attractions along the way.

Perhaps the most interesting to us is the mivtasha, as mentioned by Rav Chaim Vital. At the height of the blossoming of Tsefas in the sixteenth century, many of its residents found parnossoh in the textile industry. Many had come from Spain where they had worked in weaving wool, and when they came to Tsefas, they saw the possibility of continuing their trade by using the waters of Nachal Amud.

The fulling station operated similarly to a mill. However instead of using a millstone, two wooden hammers were attached to a wheel. Wool fibers were placed in large buckets of hot water and the hammers tamped and beat them. The wool was then rinsed in the flowing stream. The enterprise was evidently quite successful.


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