| Magazine Feature |

Light the Fire in Your Heart

This year, even though our lone voices might not swell with the same intensity and volume of the throbbing, sweeping, all-encompassing Meron music, we will bow in humility to the Divine conductor, wherever we are

Photos: AP images, Flash 90

IF you don’t live in Eretz Yisrael, it might be hard to understand this mysterious Yom Tov of Lag B’omer, where the entire country seems to revolve around the festivities of the holy day and every bus line is commandeered to transport throngs to Meron. This year though, enemy missiles threaten to change the landscape. But didn’t Rabi Shimon bar Yochai alone teach us about the capacity to bow our heads to a greater force, to concede our smallness in the face of His infinite power — and then find and embrace a different script, learning new lines and raising our voices in a humble song of submission, even if that’s not the tune we’d originally planned?

This year, even though our lone voices might not swell with the same intensity and volume of the throbbing, sweeping, all-encompassing Meron music, we will bow in humility to the Divine conductor, wherever we are


Mission to Meron
by Gedalia Guttentag

Global conflagration was only a few months away but the darkening horizon in Europe seemed to belong to a different universe as the Karliner Rebbe, Rav Avraham Elimelech Perlow, arrived under a blue sky in Tel Aviv’s port in May 1939.

Hundreds of chassidim were on hand for the occasion. As the ocean liner approached, they began to sing in welcome. Knowing of the Rebbe’s passionate longing for the holiness of Eretz Yisrael that found expression in his regular letters to them, they were sure the joy on his face would mirror that of their own. But as soon as they caught sight of his somber face, they knew that something was off. The song died on their lips when the visitor raised his hand, signaling to them to stop.

As silence fell, the 48-year-old Rebbe began to speak. “We haven’t come to Eretz Yisrael to visit, but to arouse Heavenly mercy for our brothers in Poland and the rest of Europe,” he told his audience. “Black clouds are hovering over the skies of Europe! This is no time for happiness. Every one of us has a duty to cry out bitterly and daven at the holy kevarim for salvation.”

Stunned by the Rebbe’s dark words, the crowd stood silent, unable to fathom what he could be referring to.

Thus began the little-known story of the Karliner Rebbe who predicted the Holocaust and came to Yerushalayim and Meron to try to avert the impending calamity before being swallowed up in the churban that he’d warned of.

The basic outline was something that I learned of a number of years ago while doing kiruv in Tel Aviv. On the wall of a shul that has been used by successive outreach organizations in the city center is a plaque attesting to the fact that under the modern décor lies a Karliner shtibel.

Who was the Rebbe who’d predicted the Holocaust and then went back to face the fate that he’d foreseen? Born in 1891, Rav Avraham Elimelech was the eighth Rebbe of the dynasty founded by Rav Aharon Hagadol of Karlin (now a suburb of Pinsk, Belarus). Rav Avraham Elimelech founded a yeshivah in Luninets, whose co-rosh yeshivah for a time was Rav Shach. Such was the Rebbe’s ascetic perishus that Rav Moshe Mordechai Biderman of Lelov labeled him the “Baal Shem Tov of the generation.”

Knowing what he did, what motivated Rav Avraham Elimelech to go back into the lion’s den, rather than escaping to rebuild the chassidus in safety? Was it really so perilous to reach Meron in those years? And on what felt like a personal level, I wondered whether the Rebbe had visited the very building where I spent Shabbos so many times on his desperate journey around the country.

It turns out that he did. A short item in Haboker, a secular daily of the period, reported on the reception that the Rebbe received in Tel Aviv. “On the Besarabia cruise liner the Karliner Rebbe arrived at 7 a.m. and was greeted with excitement by his chassidim,” the newspaper noted on May 17, 1939. “He was greeted with song, and his chassidim accompanied him to Rechov Dizengoff.”

Accompanied by chassidim, Rav Avraham Elimelech makes his way to the Kosel on Succos in happier times


Much of what we know about the Karliner Rebbe’s mysterious pre-war visit comes from the testimony of his chassid, Rav Yisroel Grossman ztz”l (father of Migdal Ha’emek’s well-known Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman).

“On Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan,” Rav Grossman senior writes in Lev Yisrael, “the Rebbe called for a taanis, and hundreds gathered at the Kosel to say Tikkun Chatzos. ‘We need to arouse Heavenly mercy so that the plans of our enemies to destroy the Jewish people should be foiled,’ he told the crowd.”

At a meeting of the community leaders later, the Karliner Rebbe spoke about the way that the Jewish people was sleepwalking into disaster. Face white and head bowed, he cried out in anguish. “How can we wake up Klal Yisrael to cry out to Hashem to avert the terrible decree that has been signed against us?”

Rav Avraham Elimelech’s dire warnings seemed taken from nowhere. Yes, the puzzle pieces of a dreadful world war were falling into place. This was the month when Germany and Italy signed the military pact that undergirded their Second World War alliance. But Britain was still busily practicing diplomacy to defuse German-Polish border tensions and Hitler’s threats against European Jewry seemed fantastical.

It wasn’t the first time the Rebbe had warned of a black future for European Jews, though. From 1933 onward, he spoke of Hitler’s threat constantly. A full year before the outbreak of war, Rav Zalman Brizel, a leading Karliner chassid from Yerushalayim, had spent Rosh Hashanah with the Rebbe and returned with a disturbing account of what went on.

Although British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had returned from meeting Hitler with a proclamation of “peace for our time,” saying that the German leader wasn’t bent on war, unlike most observers, the Rebbe wasn’t heartened.

Before the tekios began, he addressed the crowd. “We’re faced today with the same threat as in the times of Mordechai and Esther. We need to storm the Heavens for miracles.”

Standing now by the Kosel, one Karliner chassid turned to the Rebbe and asked what was on everyone’s mind. “Why is the Rebbe scaring us so much?”

Rav Avraham Elimelech groaned and answered in a low voice: “Everything that I have said to you is written black-on-white in a letter from the Baal Shem Tov that I have.”

“Can the Rebbe show it to us?” he asked.

“I would show it to you,” came the chilling answer, “but what’s written there is far worse than what I’ve described. The Jewish people are about to endure suffering the like of which hasn’t been seen since the Creation of the World. But what good would seeing the letter do? It’ll only disturb you, so that you can’t find any rest.

“We need to shake the spiritual worlds to beseech Hashem’s mercy,” the Rebbe concluded his terrifying address.

The Karliner Rebbe (2nd right) visiting Sarny, now in Ukraine


For the next six weeks, the Karliner Rebbe was in contact with many Torah leaders in the country in an effort to generate a mass movement of tefillah. The elder of the Ruzhin dynasty, Rav Yisrael of Husyatin, agreed with Rav Avraham Elimelech that war was inevitable: “The Germans are busy harvesting the wheat crop to store food for the army,” he said when the Karliner Rebbe visited to consult with him, “but when that’s done, there will be a world war.”

As the weeks went by, the Rebbe’s single-minded focus on the fate of Europe’s Jews didn’t waver. Visitors heard him muttering to himself things like, “What will be with Cracow’s Jews?” and “Polish Jewry is lost.”

The climax of Rav Avraham Elimelech’s efforts came in early July when he decided to go to Meron. For the previous three years, the Arab Revolt had raged across the country, as Palestine’s Arab community used violence and economic pressure to convince the British to halt Jewish immigration.

In historical memory, incidents such as the 1929 Chevron massacre loom large, yet somehow, it’s overlooked that between 1936 and 1939 the Arabs killed more than 400 Jews. Pogroms and murders were the order of the day. All over the country — in mixed Arab-Jewish cities such as Jaffa and Yerushalayim, and in outlying villages such as Peki’in in the Galil — Jews were beaten and driven out.

Evidence of the revolt’s savagery is scattered around the country today in the form of the fortified pillboxes and police stations from Yerushalayim to Latrun and Tzfas which the British built to stem the Arab violence.

In the country’s north, that violence was very pronounced. In October 1938, marauders inflicted a pogrom on the Jewish quarter of Teveria. Entering a shul, they slaughtered the gabbai and burned the building. In a 40-minute rampage, they killed 19 Jews, including 11 children, even burning babies alive in acts reminiscent of the scenes we’ve recently endured.

Near Meron, the Jewish settlement of Ein Zeitim was destroyed. The narrow, hilly road leading to the kever of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai was commandeered by Arab snipers. Given the danger in those years, access to Meron was severely curtailed. On Lag B’omer of 1939, the British all but closed access to Rashbi.

So, when the Karliner Rebbe announced that he was going to Meron to daven, his close followers attempted to dissuade him, but he was adamant that he would brave the danger to complete his mission.

“When we got there,” recalls Rav Yisroel Grossman, “we discovered that the almost-abandoned site was covered with dust and sand. The Rebbe asked to go into the mearah on his own to daven. After a while, we went in as well and discovered that his face was swollen with crying.”

Shacharis facing the remote, dangerous hills around Meron was both elevated and frightening. The Rebbe asked the small minyan to daven loudly and cry out to Hashem with all their strength. But his chassidim did so with one eye on the terrain around them, fearful of lurking Arabs.

The next stop was Tzfas, and its ancient cemetery. At the entrance, the Rebbe referred to the kinnos which say that Yirmiyahu Hanavi visited the Avos to warn them of the impending destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

“We, too, are here to warn the tzaddikim who rest here that they should evoke Divine mercy for Klal Yisrael,” he said.

Despite his herculean efforts to tip the spiritual balance, Rav Avraham Elimelech returned south with a premonition that catastrophe hadn’t been averted. “I thought that we would be able to move something in the Upper Worlds,” he said.


Given the certainty with which he now viewed Europe’s fate, it came as a shock to the chassidim when the Rebbe stated his intention to return to his home in Karlin. They set about trying to persuade him to remain in Eretz Yisrael. Plans were set afoot to gain the precious entry certificates for his family to immigrate to Palestine, whose gates the British had closed to all but a select few.

The Rebbe, though, wasn’t swayed. He was determined to return to Europe, where war was now undeniably in the air.

One of his chassidim plucked up the courage to ask why he was so determined to go back to the certain calamity that he himself had predicted. “If war is unavoidable,” asked the chassid, “how can you put yourself in danger?”

Rav Avraham Elimelech replied, “If in times of distress a rav flees his community to save himself, he’s considered a “hater” of Hashem. Our whole lives, we strive to be close to Hashem — how can I live as one who is hated?”

That conviction carried the Rebbe all the way back to Europe. The departure date of the 14th of Elul was August 29 that year — two days before the onset of the Second World War.

In the blaze of the Tel Aviv summer, the chassidim witnessed Rav Avraham Elimelech exit his lodgings, eyes red with tears. He handed his watch to one chassid, saying that it was one less piece of loot for the Germans. He gave his fur coat — a symbol of his status as Rebbe — to another, with more foreboding words. “When we need to run through the forests and over the mountains, it’ll be easier without this.”

As he had done throughout the 1930 s, Rav Avraham Elimelech Perlow saw the future accurately. Up to his death on 14 Cheshvan 1942, he was plunged into the war of survival that gripped those caught up in the clutches of the Nazis. Despite his return, his followers continued to work for his escape once his community had fallen under the ax. In late November 1940, the Hatzofeh newspaper reported that Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Herzog had procured entry papers for the Rebbe to the United States.

But that maelstrom was ahead of him when he reached the Haifa pier after his failed mission to save European Jewry. Mirroring the scene that had taken place when he arrived months before, the sky overhead was blue and the boat at the pier was Romanian. Despite missing the sailing time of what was the last ship from Palestine to Europe, the boat had waited.

The Rebbe who had predicted the churban and risked his life to travel to Meron would make it back to face the inferno.

Song of Submission
Shana Friedman

IF you live in Eretz Yisrael, one of the most triumphant moments of Lag B’omer probably features a group of grimy little boys with dusty clothing, blackened hands, and the reflected fire of Rabi Shimon’s light in their eyes, as the bonfire they’ve spent weeks building blazes through the nighttime sky.

Their campaign begins the day after Pesach, when these ragtag groups of boys begin scouring their neighborhoods for anything related to or resembling wood: branches, twigs, discarded furniture, even cardboard boxes.

They push, pull, and schlep their finds to a strategically located pile (usually far from the eyes of other scavengers), waiting for the last possible moment — a day before Lag B’omer — when they carefully construct their bonfire.

These little architects learn the skill early on: each bonfire is supported by what they call a “klutz,” one lone tree branch that stands proudly in the center, poking its way to the sky. Additional wood is then added to form a triangle around that beam. The more wood, the thicker the structure, the more glorious the fire will be.

Come Lag B’omer, when the sky grows dark and their fathers assemble in thorny fields or parking lots to light the bonfire, the little boys stand tall with pride as their handiwork illuminates the landscape, and lend their voices to the lusty singing of Bar Yochai.

But sometimes the spectacle deviates from that familiar script. I’ll never forget one of the first bonfires my oldest son helped build, a towering wooden structure that the boys seemed to scarcely believe was their own.

But the morning before Lag B’omer, we noticed an ominously smoky smell coming from the site of the bonfire-to-be. The boys who ran to inspect their pile encountered a devastating sight. Their huge triangular structure of hundreds of branches had been reduced to a circle of ashes, with some blackened, skeletal twigs smoldering in the center — the work of some sick prankster with a skewed sense of fun. Now Lag B’omer was just hours away, and their bonfire was gone.

The boys were crushed. As the hours went by, their hopelessness gave way to anger, which soon spurred a furious drive to build a new bonfire. The older ones thought it was futile; they knew that a good bonfire requires weeks of work and resources. But the younger ones — more inexperienced and more naïve — refused to let one prankster ruin their Lag B’omer.

As soon as cheder let out, they got to work. Like a little army of ants, they scavenged and schlepped a motley collection of twigs, broken furniture, and decaying cartons to the mountainside. They persuaded the local grocer to donate his stock of used cardboard boxes, and doggedly maneuvered the unwieldy pile down the rocky slope.

We mothers watched the relentless efforts with sadness, admiration, and pride. These little boys had seen their labors go up in smoke — literally! — but they soldiered on with stubborn determination. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and as the hours ticked by, the older boys began to pitch in as well.

Late that afternoon, someone miraculously found a new “klutz,” and around the tall beam, they piled their new finds. The sun slipped down in the sky, and the little colony of hardworking boys with red cheeks and hoarse voices kept working. Soon the sun was gone, but a helpful father pulled up his car near the hill and turned on the headlights, so the boys could stuff in the last few twigs and cardboard boxes.

That night, the little boys had their bonfire, and their fathers sang Bar Yochai as the mothers and sisters looked on. The scraggly collection of wood didn’t produce the tall, roaring bonfire they had planned, but they took the new script they’d been given and made music all the same.

This year, as Lag B’omer approaches, we’re in Plan B mode again. Despite the hopes, dreams, and tears of so many Jews who feel that yearly pull to Rabi Shimon’s resting place, Meron doesn’t seem fated to host the yearly fusion of prayer and elation, supplication and exaltation.

With rumblings of war emanating from the northern border, Meron is a closed military zone, a tempting target for nearby missile launchers. This year, Rabi Shimon’s promise and power will have to be accessed from afar.

For those of us who are ambitious and tenacious and goal-oriented, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We like our familiar spot in the driver’s seat. We like to check off the items on our to-do lists, reveling in the endurance of goals made and met.

But sometimes we learn — the hard way — that our to-do list has the wrong items on it. Lag B’omer is the day of Divine illumination and splendor, hod sheb’hod in our 49-day count toward revelation. It’s the day Rabi Shimon pulled back the curtain concealing a fiery reservoir of holiness.

But hod doesn’t only denote splendor. It also means submission, humility. It’s that capacity to bow your head to a greater force, to concede your smallness in the face of His infinite power — and then find and embrace the role you didn’t quite choose. It means planning and anticipating, perspiring and building — and then, when you discover that the Creator has a different script in mind, taking a breath, learning your new lines, and raising your voice in a humble song of submission.

Until Lag B’omer arrives, we can hope and pray that the barriers to the mountaintop in Meron will fall, and that the masses of singing, dancing petitioners can return to Rabi Shimon. But if that doesn’t happen this year, we’ll take the new script we’ve been assigned and learn the new lines we’ve been given.

From smaller, less impressive bonfires or shul yards or living rooms, we will whisper the same requests. On prosaic city streets far from the fragrant forests surrounding Rabi Shimon’s resting place, we will invoke his promise. Our lone voices won’t swell with the same intensity and volume of the throbbing, sweeping, all-encompassing Meron music, but in its humility, its concession to the Divine conductor, the ensuing song of submission can still be a thing of splendor.

Waiting for My Invitation
by Rachel Ginsberg

There’s a tradition that if you manage to reach Meron on Lag B’omer, it means that Rabi Shimon invited you. But since the Covid shutdown in 2020 and the catastrophe of 2021, followed the next year by barricades and strict visiting protocols and this week’s projected security closure, some people — and especially the longtime bandstand musicians who’ll never miss a Meron Lag B’omer — are wondering dejectedly: Has Rabi Shimon stopped inviting us?

“I’ve been playing in Meron every year from age 14,” says clarinetist Avraham Balti, who will break his 20-year streak this year, unless the army decides to open the mountain up to the crowds at the last minute. Even when Meron was closed four years ago, he was one of the select few who could still play there, accompanying the Boyaner Rebbe’s livestreamed hadlakah, the mesorah of which remained even under Covid lockdown and will continue this Motzaei Shabbos.

It wasn’t easy though, playing to a nonexistent crowd. “On the one hand, I was grateful for the merit to be at Rabi Shimon’s hilula, but it was painful that the rest of Am Yisrael wasn’t,” he reflects. “We’re familiar with the Gemara that states that, ‘It’s kedai to rely on Rabi Shimon in times of distress,’ but I strengthened myself with another Gemara that states, ‘Rabi Shimon is worthy to rely on both in his presence and in his absence.’

This year, Balti, too, will be absent, even from the empty courtyard. Instead, he’ll be playing at Rav Meilech Biderman’s projected 30,000-strong hadlakah in Beit Shemesh, and the following morning at the kever of Shimon Hatzaddik in Jerusalem (who is said to have the same neshamah source as Rabi Shimon).

“Obviously, it’s not going to be the same,” he says. “I’d rather play in front of a few people in Meron than tens of thousands anywhere else. But Reb Meilech is a big zechus, and although I have no idea of the cheshbonos in Shamayim, why Hashem has closed the mountain or why Rabi Shimon isn’t inviting us, one thing is clear — this year the light of Meron will be spread all over.”

The first year Avraham came to Meron on Lag B’omer together with his Bnei Brak yeshivah, he was a 14-year-old bochur, watching how every few minutes, another Moussa Berlin wannabe would go up to the bandstand and play. Avraham happened to be a pretty good musician for his age, and, having taken his clarinet on the bus in a longshot gamble, he decided to go up and see how long it would be before he was pushed out. In the end, he played for a few hours.

“Well,” he remembers, “no one told me to leave.” Back then, before the bandstand had an organizational overhaul, anyone who knew which way to hold a clarinet could go up. “If you were good, they let you stay an extra five minutes. If you were really good, they let you play half an hour.”

By the time he was 18, Balti was slotted in as a regular player: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., just as the chalakahs are getting underway, and for the last decade or so, he’s been backed up with his band “Yapchik” — Nachman Helbitz, Avi Mizrahi, Lior Grossman and Achiya Asher Cohen. That’s the official courtyard slot, but he plays practically around the clock in various venues and hadlakahs around the tziyun.

For Balti, as for all the Meron players, it’s not just about getting the notes out and pumping the crowd.

“It’s a totally spiritual experience,” he says, sharing an important lesson he learned from fellow player Nachman Tzuker. “Before going up to play, you first need to connect to Rabi Shimon with dancing. One year, after I’d been dancing for a while, as I began making my way up to the bandstand, someone spotted me and shouted, ‘Balti, make sure you go to the mikveh before you play for the crowd!’ Now, everyone knows what the Meron mikveh looks like on Lag B’omer after it’s been used by thousands of people. So at first I cringed, but then I remembered a story my father told me: He was once accompanying a certain rebbe to a mikveh in Bnei Brak that hadn’t had its water changed in a very long time, and it was quite repulsive. But the rebbe told him, ‘Our sins are much dirtier than this water, so we certainly need to immerse.’ Since then, I never miss a mikveh before I go up to play.”

Avraham won’t have his usual slot in the chatzer this year, but he’s still hoping for the chance to be there. “They say Meron will be empty, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get permission to enter in the end. And if I can play, even for a nonexistent crowd, it will be a huge gift — and also a big responsibility.”

If you’ve ever spent Lag B’omer night in Meron, you know that at around 3:30 a.m., the dancing suddenly morphs from a noisy spin to a silent sway, as the soulful sound of the Chaim Kirschenbaum’s clarinet pierces the air with a different kind of niggun: For the next two hours, until neitz, you might hear Karlin’s “Kah Echsof,” the Baal HaTanya’s “Daled Bavos,” and other tunes that tug on the heartstrings. Kirschenbaum hasn’t missed a predawn rendezvous with Rabi Shimon in 35 years, despite lucrative Lag B’omer offers from around the world.

He even managed to get there during the Covid closure in 2020, just before dawn. “The place was empty, but I played for Rabi Shimon,” he says. “If people daven and assume he hears the tefillos, then he can also hear the music.”

Kirschenbaum did, however, find an audience of one. “It was one of the security guards, a fellow named Rubin from Tzfas. I’m playing and he’s dancing. One person playing, and one person dancing. If was as if the two of us were representing everything that it could have been, all the hundreds of thousands whose hearts were there.”

The following year, he was just about to enter Meron when he heard about the catastrophe and how everything had closed down. “I was in shock, devastated — I couldn’t find myself. But the following year I made up for it — I played for Rabi Shimon twenty hours straight.”

Kirschenbaum hasn’t despaired of Rabi Shimon inviting him this year. “I hear they might be giving some permits, and I’m still hoping they’ll let in a few people and I’ll be one of them,” he says. “And you know, I’m looking at this from the flip side. Because really, Rabi Shimon is not just a solution, but a mirror of what’s happening with Klal Yisrael. And our measure of tzaar is reflective of whether we can even have access to his holy burial place. It’s not that we need to get to Rabi Shimon because we’re in trouble and we need to pray, but the opposite: We have to pray in order to get to Rabi Shimon.

“It’s written in the Gemara that one of the signs of Mashiach’s arrival is that the Galil will be destroyed,” he continues. “And the truth is that so many towns and cities are in ruins — border communities, places like Shlomi and Kiryat Shmona — and even in Meron pieces of missile and shrapnel fell on the access road up to the kever.

“So I’m not encouraging people to come now, because maybe it really is dangerous. But when I was playing alone during Covid, I had kavanah for all the people that wanted to be there and couldn’t. I’m not so great at davening, I’m much better at playing — and in my thoughts, although I was playing to no one, I brought in everyone who wanted to come, who planned to come, who feel connected to this place.”

When Kirschenbaum left later that morning, he saw another few musicians making their way up the mountain. One of them was guitarist Nachman Helbitz.

“We managed to be there and play. For whom? For no one. There were no crowds to give feedback and energize you, giving you the koach to continue. But we celebrated with Rabi Shimon,” Helbitz says. “This year I hope I’ll be there, too. No one has told us anything yet.”

Helbitz is a master of the strings, and some of those notes still reverberate on the frightening, awful clips of the crowd crush that took 45 lives the following year.

“I’m still having a hard time getting over the catastrophe of 2021,” he admits. “I was in the middle of playing at Toldos Aharon, and you can still hear me playing in the background of the first clips that came out, when Hatzolah was called and started running though the crowds. I had no idea what was going on, and there I was, playing — it was on all the news feeds. I have no words to describe how horrible I felt. I still haven’t gotten over it.”

Helbitz says that while for some it’s a hobby, playing is his life. “That’s really all I know how to do,” he relates about the part of himself that he rediscovered through the special sounds of niggunei Meron. “I started playing as a kid of about seven or eight, when I wasn’t frum, but when I was chozer b’teshuvah at 14, I dropped it. For me, the guitar was part of my secular world, and it took me a long time to go back to it. What really reconnected me was authentic chassidic music and the klezmer-style Meron music. It was so different than the modern rock, and even from modern chassidic music.”

This week, Helbitz is davening for a miracle. “The matzav of Jews in Israel and around the world, the war in Gaza — it’s all part of the same large thing. We’re in a very dark galut right now and we need to strengthen ourselves with intense tefillot. You know, people are asking me, as a Meron personality, doesn’t Rabi Shimon want us anymore? I’m sure he does. Maybe it’s like what Rebbe Nachman says — the meniyot, the obstacles, are commensurate with the desire. Until now, it all came so easily. So we have to strengthen our tefillot and bypass those obstacles with deep kavanot and connection.”

Four years ago, keyboardist Nachman Cohen and his friends had a plan: They were going to play on the opposite hill in Tzfas and have the music livestreamed and broadcast all day long across the valley that lies between the two towns. In the middle of the night, though, he and drummer Shaya Filmer got permits to enter Meron.

“It was empty,” he recalls, “except for the musicians who were playing for the live hookups that were broadcast all over the country to make it look like a matzav. Ahreleh Samet was there, as was Meir Adler and a few others. He can’t believe this year will be a repeat.

“Playing for Rabi Shimon is so deep, so internal,” he says. “It might be that we’ll still be able to play in the end, that they might let a few hundred people in, but it’s really painful thinking that we won’t be there in the chatzer of the tziyun, carrying the crowd on the Meron niggunim.”

Cohen, a Breslover chassid and professional keyboard player and accordionist whose band specializes in Meron-style klezmer music all year round, was 17 when he went up to the bandstand for the first time, although he first came to Meron with his mother when he was nine.

“I remember being mesmerized by the band and the unusual niggunim,” he says. “I’d never heard this sound before. I knew Fried and MBD, but what were these klezmer neshamah tunes of niggunei Meron?

“Later, when I was a bochur, we’d pitch tents on the mountain and spend the entire day there. I was dying to play, and at that time they would let everyone go up,” he says. “It was like a talent show. I’m sure Rabi Shimon was enjoying all the energy that went into this makeshift music being played in his honor, but anyone with a musical ear would leave with a headache.”

That was over 20 years ago, until an organist named Yechiel Brichta decided to make seder. Brichta, an Amshinover chassid who today is menahel of Beitar’s Yiddish Breslov cheder, was still a bochur at the time, but took the initiative to make some changes.

“It became intolerable,” he remembers. “The stage was mobbed, everyone pushing and trying for their turn at the microphone. They did give a little more kavod to the ‘old guard’ and let them play without pushing them off the stage, but the backup accompaniment was usually awful.”

So Brichta began to make lists and rosters, slowly weeding out the amateurs and creating schedules for the professionals. Everyone would be given a slot and every musician would be placed into a proper band, so that, for example, ten clarinetists wouldn’t be playing at once, but would be connected to a group playing at a fixed time. The new system met with no small amount of resistance from all those klezmer wannabes, but today the Meron musicians — and the hundreds of thousands of celebrants who are treated to 24 hours of nonstop professional music — are thankful.

So why, he wonders, is it again about to stop? “This is a question everyone needs to ask himself,” he says. “I don’t have an answer, but that doesn’t prevent me from asking. Why? Why? I think we all have to be asking ourselves this now. Why hasn’t Rabi Shimon invited me for the last four years?”

This would have been Nachman Cohen’s 20th year as a member of what he calls ““Rashbi’s Courtyard Band” (which last year actually moved to the larger Toldos Aharon plaza nearby) and he’s grateful that he’s been a part of it all this time. He says that the upcoming closure is the main topic among the Meron musicians these days, who are all feeling broken, “because when you play there, it’s like giving your most precious gift to Rabi Shimon.”

Through Their Tears
Menachem Pines

For several years now, as I look out my window in Karmiel onto the roads leading to Meron, it’s clear that things have changed.

First it was Covid, and a year later was the horrific tragedy that sucked us all into a maelstrom of injuries and death. And since then, we’ve seen two years of efforts to rehabilitate Meron.

They always said about Meron that inside the tziyun it’s Yom Kippur, while outside, with the circles of dancers, it’s Simchas Torah. And this was supposed to be the year that Meron would prove that it could get back to itself. But then came war.

Har Meron is at a very high altitude, within the sights of the Hezbollah terrorists, and how can there be a hilula with hundreds of thousands of people in a place that’s not even protected for a minyan of Jews?

Almost every Israeli has a reinforced room at home, or at the least there’s a bomb shelter in every building. There are also reinforced safe units on city streets, more of them in the towns closer to the border. But if a siren goes off in the area of the tziyun of Rashbi (and there have been many in Meron recently), there is really nothing to do when you have between 15 and 60 seconds to take cover.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking some of the families of hostages to the mekomos hakedoshim in the Galil. Our plan was to begin at the kever of the Arizal in Tzfas and end off with a gathering in the courtyard of the tziyun in Meron.

“And if Meron will be targeted?” one of the organizers asked me. I explained that when we hear “Har Meron” in the news, it refers to an important army base situated high above the actual moshav of Meron, so there are no worries.

Apparently, Hezbollah was not impressed by my thinking. We woke up that morning to hear that Moshav Meron had been struck by dozens of rockets, and some of them were aimed for the area close to the tziyun. That morning, I knew that the hilula on Lag B’Omer — painful as it was to admit — was not going to happen.

While were at the grave of the Arizal, facing Har Meron in all its glory, everyone in the group understood that the trip to Meron would be cancelled. Some mentioned Teveria as an alternate possibility, but hearts ached. Meron was right across the valley, a few minutes’ drive away. Families — mostly mothers — made the trip from “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv to plead to HaKadosh Baruch Hu for their children.

“If there are difficulties, it’s a sign from Above that we have to try to get to Meron, davka,” said the uncle of one hostage. And suddenly, all the families, most of whom have never even been to Meron, were filled with yearning — they didn’t want to give up. Ultimately, we received permission from a military source to go.

 From the tziyun I hear the sobs and pain of the mothers. One of them is Meirav, the mother of Agam Berger, a 19-year-old captive. Although Agam didn’t grow up in a Torah-observant home, released hostages who were with her in two different locations all gave the same report: Agam took upon herself to keep Shabbos, and since then, she spends every Friday praying that her captors will not make her desecrate the holy day.

And next to her is Shelley, the mother of Omer Shem-Tov, a 21-year-old captive who suffers from both asthma and celiac disease. According to the accounts of released hostages, Omer also took upon himself to keep Shabbos. When his mother asked how one can possibly keep Shabbos in captivity, a released captive who was with him in the tunnels said that they put toilet paper on their heads, made Kiddush, made hamotzi on a piece of pita dipped in some salt that they squirreled away, and didn’t turn on the tiny flashlight — the drop of light that they had — a whole Shabbos.

“This is my second time in Meron,” says Shelley Shem-Tov. “We feel that here, there is someone to rely on.”

“Yes, the Gemara says that kedai hu Rabbi Shimon,” her religious friend replies. “He’s the one to rely on in a time of dire straits.”

“What?” Shelley asks. She surely never heard this quote from the Gemara, which now takes on a whole new meaning. “It’s like we feel at home. When we said Tehillim, it was a powerful moment — I felt like I was sending protection to my son.”

And if, exactly when we need these tefillos in Meron more than anything, we won’t have them this year, maybe the broken hearts can complete the job for the rest of us.

Long Day of Light
Rabbi Asher Horowitz

Today, visiting Meron on Lag B’omer — the burial place of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai — is a given. Yet the first documented account of the custom is found in a letter by Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura, leader of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael and famed for his commentary on the Mishnah, written to his brother around 1,300 years after Rabi Shimon’s petirah. “On the 18th of Iyar,” he wrote, “Jews from all the surrounding areas gather in Meron, where they light large fires and celebrate….Many barren couples conceive, and many sick are healed….”

There is a kabbalah among the people of Eretz Yisrael, as a segulah for those without children, to donate chai rotel (approximately 54 liters) of drinks on this day at the tziyun of Rashbi.

Lag B’omer minhagim, of course, are not relegated to Meron. The famed chassidic master Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, the Bnei Yissaschar, writes that we light fires to commemorate the great spiritual revelation that was released into the world on the day of Rashbi’s passing, and explains that the custom to shoot bows and arrows commemorates the miracle that in Rabi Shimon’s merit, no rainbow was seen during his lifetime. Another reason relates to the Zohar’s teaching that before Mashiach’s arrival, there will appear a vivid rainbow across the horizon, and according to the Baal Shem Tov, learning the mystical dimensions of Torah revealed by Rabi Shimon hastens the messianic age.

Many have the custom to give their son his first haircut at the kever of Rabi Shimon (on Lag B’omer, but not only), so that the beginning of his chinuch is connected to the tzaddik. The residents of Jerusalem would traditionally go to the tziyun of Shimon Hatzaddik, and in many communities, families give the haircut near a shul or have a talmid chacham take the first snips.

Rav Eliyahu Mani, a kabbalist who lived in Chevron in the 1800s, advised lighting 18 candles on the eve of Lag B’omer, and many mekubalim of the last centuries had this practice. The candles are lit in the merit of (in order): Adam Harishon, Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak Avinu, Yaakov Avinu, Rochel Imeinu, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, his son Rabi Elazar, Rabi Akiva, Rabi Meir Baal Haneis, Rabi Yehuda, Rabi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabi Yosi, Rabi Nechemiah, Rabi Eliezer Hagadol, Rabi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, Rabi Yosi Hakohein, Rabi Shimon ben Nesanel, and Rav Moshe Isserles (the Rema), whose yahrtzeit is on this night.

As the tzaddikim throughout the generations taught, every Jew, wherever he is, can tap into the spiritual energy of the day, which is a conduit for: teshuvah (Ye’aros Dvash); yiras Shamayim (Sfas Emes); healing (Sifsei Tzaddikim, Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz); meriting the light of Torah (Pri Tzaddik, Kedushas Levi); parnassah (Ohalei Yaakov of Husyatin); and finding a zivug and having personal tefillos accepted (Minchas Elazar).

Rabbi Asher Horowitz, an expert on halachah and minhag, is the author of Dei’ah Berurah, a multi-volume work on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Dei’ah.

In the Light of Shimon Hatzaddik
Tzippy Yarom

The threat of Hezbollah precision-guided missiles forced the IDF to cancel this year’s Lag B’omer celebration at the tomb of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Mount Meron, so organizers came up with the next-best option: the kever of Shimon Hatzaddik near Jerusalem.

Meir Porush, who holds the portfolio of Jerusalem affairs and heritage in the cabinet, got the word from defense authorities in the middle of Chol Hamoed Pesach: No large events could take place in Meron this year. Israel’s north is already under constant rocket fire from Hezbollah, and the IDF had received specific alerts about Lag B’omer that Meron might be targeted by guided missiles, which arrive only 15 seconds after being launched.

Yossi Daitsch, the Lag B’omer events manager in the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage who successfully organized last year’s event in Meron, started looking for alternatives. Kever Shimon Hatzaddik in Jerusalem was an obvious choice.

Celebrating Lag B’omer at Shimon Hatzaddik’s grave has a long history, says Rabbi Moshe Daitsch (no relation), whose father, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Daitsch ztz”l, the rosh yeshivah of Anshei Ma’amad, renewed the tradition after the Six Day War. The tradition was started by the Lelover Rebbe, Rav Dovid Tzvi Shlomo Biderman, commonly known as Rav Dovid’l, in 5632 (1872) .

“Rav Dovid’l used to go to Meron with my paternal grandfather, riding on camels at the beginning of the winter,” says Rabbi Daitsch. “He became sick with  pneumonia in 5632, and it was too dangerous for him to go to Meron on Lag B’omer. He had wanted to take his son, subsequently the Lelover Rebbe, Rav Shimon Nosson Nota (great-grandfather of Reb Meilech Biderman) for his traditional upsheren in Meron, but it was impossible. So he reasoned, ‘Shimon and Shimon are gezeirah shavah — if we can’t go to Rabi Shimon in Meron, we’ll go to Shimon Hatzaddik here in Yerushalayim.’ ”

And so began a tradition. A 1918 picture in the Library of Congress shows children marching in a Lag B’omer parade toward Shimon Hatzaddik’s grave. Rebbetzin Basya Daitsch, Rav Moshe’s wife, adds that her mother a”h, who was born more than 100 years ago, used to go there as a child.

The annual pilgrimage went on hiatus after Israel’s War of Independence, when the kever was situated in what was then Jordan.

“The place was used by Ibrahim, a local Arab, as a pen for his sheep,” says Rabbi Moshe Daitsch.

But after the Six Day War, when it came into Jewish hands, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Daitsch worked very hard to renew minyanim at the holy site, identified by the Arizal as Shimon Hatzaddik’s burial place. Rav Moshe recalls that his father used to go to the Zvhill yeshivah and pay the bochurim several shekels to join him for a minyan.

“Yom Kippur was out of the question, but even on the great day of Hoshana Rabbah, he had to work three hours to gather enough relatives to come daven at the kever,” Rav Moshe says.

After Rav Yosef Eliyahu passed away in 1983, Rav Moshe took over running Kever Shimon Hatzaddik. Today, he says, they have daily crowds in the hundreds davening there, and on Shabbos morning there are three minyanim drawing up to 130 people: one at vasikin; the second minyan, attended by Rav Moshe; and the chatzos minyan, which starts an hour before midday. There is also a daily Tehillim minyan from one thirty to three thirty.

For years, the Daitsch family ran the kever’s annual Lag B’omer event exclusively, renting a nearby plot of four dunams from the local sheikh to accommodate the crowds, which last year amounted to 30,000. This year, they say, government authorities have designated this area a parking lot, and rented grounds nearby of similar size.

“Their latest estimate is that 80,000 to 100,000 people will arrive during the course of Lag B’omer,” says Rebbetzin Daitsch — roughly triple last year’s total.

Teams have been working tirelessly to build parentshes that will hold 5,000 to 8,000 people. Unlike previous years, when music was limited due to the urban surroundings, this year there will be music playing 24 hours. Air-conditioned tents with cold drinks, cake, and cholent, as well as pekalach for the upsheren children await the hungry crowds.

“We usually get 50 to 100 chalakeh boys,” says Rav Moshe. “This year we anticipate there will be 500 to 700, since this is the substitute for Meron.”

Rav Moshe points out that there is a holy connection between Shimon Hatzaddik and upsherens. As the Gemara tells us in Nazir, Shimon Hatzaddik, who was a Kohein Gadol, opposed the idea of nazirus and would never eat korbanos brought by a nazir. That changed when a young man with a nice head of hair came to become a nazir. Shimon Hatzaddik asked him why. The young man said he saw his own reflection in the water and his yetzer hara told him how great he looked, so he decided to cut his hair. The Gemara relates that Shimon Hatzaddik kissed this man and said, “Yirbu kemocha, may there be many like you.”

The lineup will follow a schedule similar to the one at Meron, with Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef’s hadlakah at 11 p.m., followed by the Karlin and Rachmistrivka Rebbes. Other rebbes are expected to attend, but plans were not final as of press time.

One major change to the usual plan: Rabbi Daitsch has organized an atzeres tefillah for Lag B’omer day, with mekubalim leading davening for victory in the war. In addition, rabbanim will dedicate their hadlakahs to the soldiers and the hostages still being held in Gaza.

“Since this year is so different from other years,” says the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs’ Yossi Daitsch, “we are doing everything in our power to enable the crowds to celebrate as much as possible, even though we can’t gather in Meron.”


Old Story, New Station

It took a bit of finagling on the municipal level and negotiations for police assurances of crowd control, but with less than a week until Lag B’omer, it looks as if Rav Meilech Biderman’s massive hadlakah in Beit Shemesh will be the go-to place once Meron will become, at least for a few days, a closed military area.

It’s ironic, because Reb Meilech’s own heart is extremely close to Meron. Several times a year, he holds Meron weekends for thousands of bochurim and avreichim, following in the tradition of his ancestors, the previous Lelover Rebbes. At these gatherings, the tish on Leil Shabbos continues until dawn, and on Motzaei Shabbos, there is a hadlakah, with Reb Meilech pleading with his massive crowd to give forth even small, seemingly insignificant resolutions, a gift in honor of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.

It was his great-great grandfather, Rebbe Shimon Nosson Nota Biderman of Lelov, who said that time spent in Meron is priceless. It is told that he once summoned a fellow who had mental problems, took the man’s yarmulke off his head, threw in into the fire in Meron on Lag B’omer and then told him: “Just like everything is being burned l’kavod Rabi Shimon, so will all the craziness be burned.” And this Yid turned into a new person.

Still, it’s not the first time Reb Meilech has made a huge hadlakah outside Meron. He did so last year as well, and had close to 30,000 participants, many of whom traveled to Meron the following morning. This year, organizers are expecting up to 40,000. Singer Ahrele Samet is expected to be there, as will veteran Meron clarinetist Avraham Balti and a host of others. The hadlakah will be held in a large parking area at the entrance to Ramat Beit Shemesh D.

Reb Meilech always says that every large gathering is an eis ratzon – an auspicious time for tefillah. At the peak of the event, Reb Meilech will daven with the entire crowd, saying Tehillim and special prayers for the much-needed yeshuos for Klal Yisrael.

This year, instead of heading for Meron, buses from all the charedi enclaves will come to Beit Shemesh, and will take celebrants back to their cities at the end of the event – all for a regular Beit Shemesh fare.

Despite the fact that he himself still lives like the struggling avreich he used to be, Reb Meilech has no shortage of backers, some of whom are funding the event. There will be an abundance of drinks and food, and although it might look like he’s trying to create an alternate site to Meron, he’s the first to tell you that Rashbi’s burial place is irreplaceable. He’s just, as he says, a stopgap measure on one hand, and a funnel for bringing the joy and connection of Lag B’omer to those in the center of the country on the other.

Catching fire
Gitty Edelstein

It’s hard to imagine that there are no large-scale communal Lag B’omer bonfires in a city where 16,000 people attended a one-day Chol Hamoed carnival. But that explains why the small, informal hadlakah for the Skulen community in Lakewood – which was held for the first time only three years ago – has evolved into the largest Lag B’omer bonfire in New Jersey and one of the largest in the country.


The first Skulen bonfire took place in 2021, in the shul’s parking lot on Park Avenue.

“We never imagined how this event would evolve,” shares its organizer, who wishes to remain anonymous.  “We thought we would get a few hundred people, maybe 350 max from our community. We didn’t hire security or plan for crowd control, because why would we need that for a simple shul event?”

They set up a small stage and a few bleachers in the parking lot. Barricades were added as an afterthought. But just after the fire was lit, people from the greater Lakewood community started to come. And come. And call their friends to join in. The bleachers quickly filled to capacity, and the barricades didn’t holding back the masses of people flocking to dance. An estimated crowd of over 500 people came to an event designed for at most 350.

The next year, the organizers were still wondering if the previous year’s turnout had been a fluke, but they didn’t want to risk being unprepared, and they planned that year for 500 attendees. For crowd control, they hired a New York security company, which sent five bouncers and a few more barricades. Five hundred people duly arrived – roughly an hour into the event – and as the hours passed, the crowd doubled and kept growing, and the security line failed. People were dancing on stage, and throngs of people were getting uncomfortably close to the non-Jewish sound techs.

“The engineers were concerned by the crowd size, and called their boss saying they were worried about being trampled. Their boss gave them permission to cut the audio if they felt threatened — so they did,” the organizer ruefully recalls.  Right in middle of a vigorous round of “Bar Yochai” with more than a thousand dancers, everything went silent. It took some time for the organizer and his team to calm the techs and their boss, and the music eventually resumed.

Heading into Lag B’omer of 2023, the Skulen organizers realized they needed to plan for a large-scale event. They erected 944 feet of bleachers in their parking lot, and knowing the enthusiastic crowd would easily get the better of a steel barricade, built wood frames around the perimeter of the inner circle, and used a special anchor to nail the wood barricades into the pavement. They then surrounded the wooden frames with metal barricades. The New York security company sent fifteen bouncers, and Lakewood Chaveirim sent 30 volunteers.

With an estimated 5,000 guests, even nearly a thousand feet of bleachers wasn’t enough, and the lot soon filled to capacity. Chaveirim formed a defensive line around the entrances and spent the rest of the event blocking entry. Undeterred, thousands more filled the streets surrounding the lot to celebrate there. While the event was successful by every metric, it was obvious that Skulen’s bonfire had outgrown its location.


This year’s turnout, the organizers know, will be significantly higher. Between Meron’s closure, the fact that the bonfires in Monroe and Skver fire are on Sunday, and the fact that the Skulener Rebbe in Boro Park is unfortunately not well enough to hold his own fire, they’ve been told that hundreds of chassidim from other kehillos plan to attend the Motzaei Shabbos Skulen hadlakah for the first time. And with the general Lakewood crowds doubling on a yearly basis, there is a good chance attendance will approach 10,000.

After videos of last Lag Baomer circulated through the media, Lakewood Township officials reached out, offering to help find a larger, safer site for the event.

“We agreed, because it was obvious that we could no longer safely host the hadlakah at our shul. There was a genuine risk of a crowd crush,” the organizer says.

The Township was very accommodating, providing a tour of every Township-owned lot, and offering to guide Skulen personnel through the requisite reams of paperwork that was needed. However, none of the lots worked, except for one: a massive parking lot just a two-minute walk from the shul. Unfortunately, it was privately owned.

Not willing to give up, the organizer tracked down the lot’s owner and began what turned out to be a months-long effort to come to an agreement. The lot’s owner was naturally apprehensive about hosting such a large-scale event on his occupied lot, but Skulen finally got the green light after receiving permission from every tenant in the building and purchasing between liability insurance worth between $10 to $15 million.

This year, the hadlakah will be in this new lot, which will accommodate 1,512 feet of bleachers as well as “standing-room only” overflow sections. The organizers also retained a new, Lakewood-based security company for crowd control.

The most complicated detail this year is setup. As Lag B’omer falls out on Motzaei Shabbos, everything needs to be prepared in advance, but the organizers received permission to start only at two p.m. on Friday — and they’ll need to have the lot cleared by nine a.m. Sunday.

The organizers hired a security guard to watch the very expensive equipment that will be displayed in the open lot over Shabbos, and arranged for a cleaning crew to do the cleanup overnight.


When asked why the Skulen event is so popular, the organizer says that apparently the bonfire fills a large void. “We never meant to attract a crowd,” he says. “We never advertised, but people seemed to find us.

“Some chadurim make a bonfire for their talmidim, and some developments put together something small, but there really are no bonfires anywhere near this scale in Lakewood. There is a definite untapped need, so people started coming.”

Skulen is thrilled to host the greater community at their hadlakah, the organizer says, but they do request that everyone comes dressed appropriately in a hat and jacket, dances like a mentsch, and follows the crowd control guidelines.

The event costs Skulen a fortune, and there are ways to participate and help defray the cost.

“Our Rebbe is happy to open the hadlakah to all of Lakewood,” the organizer says. He views it as an honor to be mashpia so many Yidden, as well as host a bekavodig event in honor of Rabi Shimon.”


A Time to Dance
Akiva Fox

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, my perception of Lag B’omer was a school outing to play sports in the park. It was only when I arrived in Eretz Yisrael in the ’90s as a bochur that I was introduced to this Yom Tov called Lag B’omer.

Here, the whole country revolves around the festivities of this holy day. From before Pesach, children start collecting firewood — anything from telephone poles to living room couches for their medurah (bonfire). On Lag B’omer, rebbes conduct tishen with thousands of chassidim clamoring to bask in the aura of holiness before their mass excursion to Meron. Every bus in the country is hired to transport throngs of Yidden. Like the scent of smoke that permeates the air, the elevated kedushah is tangible.

The country comes to a standstill — and yet in many yeshivos, especially the litvishe institutions, the minhag is to not join the festivities. Ein segulah kaTorah, the talmidim are taught — the best segulah is to remain in the holy confines of the beis medrash, to do what Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai would have done: sit and learn.

Ever the ibber chochom, I decided to get the best of both worlds.

I’ll ask someone to be my shaliach, to daven for me in Meron, I thought.

I approached a rav I know, the scion of an illustrious line of Yerushalmi tzaddikim who are known for their passionate avodas Hashem and vast Torah knowledge.

“Can I give the Rav my name to daven for me in Meron?” I asked. It seemed like a pretty simple request.

His response shocked me.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “When I’m in Meron, I don’t usually focus on davening. I just go to dance.”

I didn’t understand what he meant (I’ll admit I’m still not sure I do). Perhaps the depth of Torah Rabi Shimon introduced to the world ignites a passionate fire in those who study his words, which, like a flickering flame, seeks expression through exuberant dance?

Every year, when Lag B’omer comes around, I remember our conversation and ponder his words. What did he mean? And what does dancing in Meron mean for him?

Recently, I read about a prewar Yid from Klausenberg who would appear at every wedding in the vicinity and dance with all his might. When asked to explain his curious behavior, he explained, “Hashem has granted me a wonderful life; I am overflowing with thanks. Technically, I would dance all day long as an expression of my gratitude, but people would assume I was insane. Instead I look for outlets, such as weddings, just to dance. It looks like I’m dancing for the bride and groom, but in truth, I’m jubilantly dancing for Hashem!”

I remembered the Yerushalmi Rav, and I wondered if he harbored a similar sentiment. Was that his secret?

I envisioned him absorbed in a dance of transcendence, the magical Lag B’omer melodies infusing his limbs with vigor as he waved his arms and raised his feet to dance in Meron, to dance with Hashem.

Rabbi Akiva Fox is a rebbi and lecturer. He lives in Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem.


Milk & Honey
Mindel Kassorla

One spring day 11 years ago, I received a call from an unknown number.

“Would you like to donate to the Kever Rabi Shimon?” the voice asked in rapid Hebrew.

“Huh?” I said.

I guess “huh” is obviously American, because she responded in English, with a strong Israeli accent, and much slower this time.

“For shoko (chocolate milk) and rugelach at Kever Rabi Shimon — in Meron! It is given out on Lag B’omer, to those who come to learn and dance and daven. We can have someone daven for you also, if you give at least 50 shekel, you just give us a name.”

It definitely didn’t sound like your everyday tzedakah appeal for the local yeshivah or special needs organization. I motioned to my husband, who stood nearby, and asked if this was legit.

“It’s actually a thing,” he said.

My husband isn’t one to chase heebie-jeebie segulos, so that was enough for me. And we needed all the extra zechuyos we could get; married already three years that Pesach, we were not yet blessed with children.

“Let’s donate NIS 277, the gematria of zera,” my husband recommended.

I returned to the call and recited my credit card info along with our full names for Tehillim and our home address — so they could, of course, send us a candle to light in memory of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. So much for no heebie-jeebie stuff.

It just so happened that the day before Lag B’omer, I went for a test — the results of which would be available in 24 hours. Would we finally get the answer we’d been waiting for? Perhaps in the zechus of this mysterious donation for some snacks to nourish the participants at the hilula of Rabi Shimon in Meron? We didn’t want to get our hopes up.

We decided that for our own menuchas hanefesh, we would exercise (tremendous!) self-control and not check the results immediately. Having been down that road too many times before, we didn’t want to risk ruining the spirit of the day.

The day after Lag B’omer we found out — we were expecting! Baruch Hashem our daughter was born less than nine months later. Ever since, we try to donate toward the Lag B’omer shoko and rugelach at the kever in Meron.

There were so many zechuyos that lined up just then (a family member told me she’d taken upon herself to daven Minchah daily for us, another had gotten a brachah for us from a big chassidish rebbe, we had repaired a mezuzah in our home). And obviously, that was the time chosen for us by Hashem. But the thought of Meron and Kever Rabi Shimon still conjure up for us the joyful memory of a little tzedakah that went a very, very long way.

Mindel Kassorla is a seminary mechaneches, graphic designer, and shadchan who loves to write in her spare time. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children.


Fit for a King
Binyamin Rose

Twenty-five years ago, I took two years off from work to learn in kollel in Tzfat. The second year, I volunteered to tutor and mentor yeshivah high school students twice a week at the Yeshiva Bnei Akiva in Meron, up the hill from the Rashbi’s kever.

This was one of Zev Wolfson’s kiruv projects, and most tutors were native Israeli avreichim in their late 20s who also served as “big brothers,” answering questions in emunah and bitachon that the students might be afraid to pose to their parents or rebbeim. I didn’t fit the age or birth profile, nor was my hashkafah a perfect match for boys headed to Hesder programs, but my rosh kollel felt that being American would be a novelty and that I could be effective with students from English-speaking families.

Each session was an intense two hours. The boys were bursting with youthful energy — keeping them seated wasn’t easy — but they were smart and curious. One of my mentees always wanted to prepare for his upcoming tests, so we focused on chazarah, but he also raised some emunah issues, mainly about reconciling science and Torah. I was under the impression that he accepted my answers — until one night toward the end of the school year when I saw his mentor evaluation on his desk.

I knew I shouldn’t look, but temptation got the better of me. In response to Did your emunah get stronger after learning with your mentor? he’d selected It stayed the same.

I was disappointed, as raising emunah levels was a main goal of the program, and I felt I had fallen short.

Meanwhile, my other mentee was drawn to the secular world.

“As soon as I get into the army, I’m taking off my kippah,” he announced one night six months into the program.

I was stunned. I didn’t have a ready answer, so I reacted emotionally.

“No, you’re not!” I insisted.

“Oh, yes I am,” he replied.

I firmly repeated myself: “No, you’re not!”

He dropped the topic, and all I could do was pray that I made my point.

As much as the boys opened up to me, I could never be sure if we achieved any lasting breakthroughs, but as Rashbi teaches in Maseches Shabbos, “All Jews are to be considered sons of kings,” and I certainly treated them as such, respecting their questions, acknowledging their doubts, and elevating them with our learning.

By the next school year, my son was ready to start yeshivah ketanah in Jerusalem, so we moved back, and Tzfat soon became a distant memory.

One day, while navigating the busy Central Bus Station crosswalk near the public relations office where I worked, I noticed a familiar face heading in the opposite direction. It was a young man in an army uniform — the one I had tutored who had threatened to remove his kippah. I wanted to reverse course and say hello, but the light turned red. I did get a glimpse of his back — and the back of his head.

He’s wearing a kippah! I was ecstatic. Did my resolve that night contribute to his decision? Who knows where he’s holding today?

Once I started down memory lane, I thought about the other student as well. Also an accomplishment, I realized, because keeping emunah stable is no small feat; to climb a ladder, you must feel balanced on your current rung.

In retrospect, my experience with these authentic, seeking souls drove home Rashbi’s point: My talmidim were sons of kings, worthy of royal treatment.

Binyamin Rose is an editor-at-large at Mishpacha.


Heaven Scent
Dr. Meir Wikler

I’ve never been to Meron on Lag B’omer, but I have gone several times over the years, and every time I go, blaring music is always accompanied by the lively dancing of Breslover chassidim. But whenever I think of Meron, I don’t think of the festive atmosphere created by the ever-present music and dancing. Rather, one particular scene stands out.

Once, as I was leaving the cave and walking toward the exit of the courtyard, I was hit with the distinctive scent of burning charcoal.

Someone preparing for a barbeque, I surmised, and I continued on my way toward my group tour bus.

On the way, I came across a large Sephardic family setting a double picnic table. It looked like they were sitting down to a family feast. Some were tending to the firepit, some were putting the finishing touches on setting the table, and some were preparing side dishes.

But as I got closer, I was suddenly struck by the strong, somewhat foul smell of raw meat.

And then — Wait, what is that?

I looked closer at the small tree nearby, and recoiled at the very unfamiliar sight of the carcass of a recently shechted sheep dangling upside down from one of the branches. The animal was hanging by its feet and two of the men were vigorously flaying it with handheld knives. Half of the sheep’s skin hung down like a torn fur coat. Flies swarmed as the men skinned.

This was not something I ever witnessed in Boro Park, where I live, and you can blame my New York sensitivities; I flinched at the gruesome sight. Almost in unison, my family let out a collective, “Eww!”

But once I got over my initial revulsion, I found myself pondering the matter.

Upon further reflection, the image brought to mind the words of the mishnah (Pesachim 5:9): “How was [the korban Pesach] hung and skinned? Metal hooks were fixed into the walls and on pillars upon which they would hang and skin it.”

The scene now transported me back in time to the zeman Beis Hamikdash, when such proceedings were commonplace, infused with kedushah, taharah, and the simchah of avodas Hashem.

Although I’ve since heard that local rabbanim discourage this practice out of concern for kashrus, nevertheless, the thought of Meron evokes for me the mental image of that half-skinned carcass. Just as with the mitzvah of tzitzis, where the color of techeiles is similar to the color of the sea and reminds us of Heaven (Chulin 89a), the thought of Meron always reminds me of the korbanos we long to bring in the Third Beis Hamikdash, sheyibaneh bimheirah b’yameinu!

Dr. Meir Wikler is an author, psychotherapist, and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey. He is also a public speaker with lectures and shiurim on TorahAnytime.com.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1012)

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