Photo: Flash90

Thousands return to Mt. Meron for Lag B’Omer

The annual Jewish holiday is marked with gatherings at the tomb of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron for commemorations by predominantly ultra-Orthodox worshippers that include all-night prayer, bonfires and dance.

By Erin Viner

8,000 Israeli police officers were deployed to ensure crowd control at the religious festival last night, limiting access to the northern Galilee site to 16,000 people at any given time.

In the past, the two-day festival has drawn as many as 200,000 pilgrims, who often celebrate at multiple bonfires in the area. Only one bonfire was permitted to be lighted this year.

The new measures were implemented after the annual religious pilgrimage turned into scenes of horror and a mass casualty event last year when 45 men and boys were asphyxiated or trampled to death with 150 others left with major injuries, during what police described as in a ‘human avalanche’ that literally crushed those below. The tragedy occurred when of some attendees slipped on a staircase leading to an outdoor platform, others fell underfoot in a stampede while trying to flee down narrow alleyways, while additional victims were seen falling from rooftops where they had climbed to gain better vantage points.

A subsequent state commission of inquiry determined that no more than 20,000 pilgrims could be safely contained at the 5.6-acre tomb complex. There had been a surge in attendance last year following closure of the revered site in 2020 closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last night’s festivities were also restricted to those in possession of pre-issued tickets via buses, as opposed to previous years when people were permitted to enter the site on foot or by private vehicles. Visits were also limited to four hours by worshippers wearing wristbands used to determine entry time.

Issuing a greeting to all those celebrating Lag B’Omer around the world, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on those attending the Mount Meron event to observe the published guidelines.

“The celebration on Mt. Meron is an event that expresses love of Israel, bringing people together, holiness and joy,” he said, that “brings the entire Jewish people together – religious and secular, ultra-orthodox and traditional – everyone together!”

Underscoring that “the Government of Israel has made a considerable investment in order to facilitate an extensive and safe participation,” Prime Minister Bennett thanked Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahane, who he said “took upon himself the work of preparing the event;” as well as Israel Police Deputy Commissioner (Ret.) Tzvika Tesler who oversaw the event, as well as the Israeli Police officers who safeguarded the visitors.

Observance began with a memorial ceremony including reading of the names and lighting candles for each of last year’s victims, recitation Psalms in tribute to the dead and prayers for those wounded.