The Day Of Bonfires And Haircuts


On the Sea of Galilee, a boat ride. In Moscow, a parade. In Australia, bonfires from Perth to Melbourne. In South Africa, Bedouin-style braais, as barbecues are known there.

In Israel, the U.S. and other Jewish venues, festive haircuts and weddings and picnics and other spirited celebrations.

On Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the period between Passover and Shavuot, a period of semi-mourning because of a divine-sent plague that took the lives of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva 2,000 years ago during the first 32 days of the Omer, joy is a mitzvah.

Lag b’Omer was last week, but in the weeks before the holiday, the government of Israel spent $2 million refurbishing Merom, the northern city that is the epicenter of Lag b’Omer festivities, and Israelis camp out in the mountainous city for several days, turning it into a once-a-year Jewish Woodstock that attracts 400,000 Jews, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic.

“I’ve never seen a problem. It’s the only place I know where religious and non-religious are praying together and eating together,” says Yakov Herschkopf, a Brooklyn-born Jerusalem contractor who helps set up Merom every year.

Merom, where Shimon bar Yochai — one of Rabbi Akiva’s five post-plague students and putative author of the mystical Zohar — is buried, is the second-most visited religious site in the country, many parents bringing their 3-year-old sons there for their first haircut.

Lag b’Omer is Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrtzeit — or Hillula, as the anniversary of his death is better known in Israel. According to some tradition, the days marks Bar Kochba’s temporary victory over the Romans.
In Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews light a glowing bonfire, above, and dance around a smaller fire, below.
Lag b’Omer is a school holiday in Israel. Everywhere, children collect scraps of wood for bonfires and shoot toy arrows, another holiday custom.

But the real action is in Merom.

Traffic there is blocked; shuttles bring singers and dancers and worshippers up the mountain. Newly constructed pedestrian tunnels aid the traffic flow.

Once Lag b’Omer is over, Merom again becomes a sleeping village. Until Lag b’Omer comes again.