Woe to the eye seeing the flowing of My people up to the graves
instead of “and all nations shall flow to it at the top of mountains”
Would it be heard by ear, our hearts would anguish.
Woe to the eye seeing [them] anoint their dead with oil/ instead of the Tamid Offering and its libation and Mincha
Would it be heard by ear, our hearts would anguish.
(Anonymous modern Kinah lamenting practices during Lag BaOmer.)
Corona has offered us, as adherents to religious and national traditions, the unique opportunity of reflection. And I believe that the current restrictions on celebrating Lag BaOmer this year have afforded us just this in relation to some of the more perplexing customs of this holiday. The above Kinah lamentation, which I have translated two refrains of, has been making its debut by quietly being shared across Hebrew social media. Its prose highlights some of the customs that have developed in Meiron at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and compares them with customs which were once practiced in Jerusalem. The gist of the Kinah is that the customs in Meiron have gone too far and have turned a gravesite into a new Temple Mount complete with a shrine and sacrificial customs.
Throughout the past couple years there has been an upswing of thinking among more and more religious Jews in Israel that Lag BaOmer celebrations in Meiron have gone too far. This may be due to the drastically rising number of Jews visiting the Temple Mount over the past 5 years, which may put these customs into religious perspective. However the truth is that this direction of thinking has existed since the very formation of these customs. One very influential Rabbinic thinker and posek halacha was Rabbi Moses Sofer (Chata”m Sofer) at the end of the 18th century. He was known for his staunch opposition to Reform Judaism and to any change to halacha and for spearheading what would become known in time as Haredi Judaism. I therefore find it quite ironic that this community in Israel has become so heavily linked with celebrations on Meiron despite their founder’s clear disdain for them.
In his famous book of Responsa (Shu”t HaChata”m Sofer Yoreh De’ah 233) he expressed his discontent at the customs he understood to be developing on Meiron. Lag BaOmer throughout Jewish history was never seen as a holiday connected to any particular figure. Until the 16th century when the mystic schools of Safed took hold and the book of the Zohar began to spread among Jewish communities, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was viewed as any other important Rabbinic figure of the Mishna. From the 16th century onward songs were written praising Bar Yochai as the author of the Zohar and Lag BaOmer began to take on a distinct mystical tint in the celebration of his day of passing including a variety of customs at his grave in Meiron. The Chata”m Sofer outlined the various religious meanings of the day and concluded that: “to make it a day of joy and igniting fires and at that designated place [Meiron] so that it should become a Tel Talpiyot [a term referring to the Temple Mount] that everyone turns to [in prayer] we do not know whether that is appropriate.” Here the Chata”m Sofer himself made the comparison that many in Israel are beginning to make, namely that Meiron has begun to morph into a replacement for Temple service and the Temple Mount against Torah law.
It is with the heaviest lament that I write that the fears of the Chata”m Sofer have manifested: Meiron has replaced the Temple Mount.
What is it that they do in Meiron on Lag BaOmer?
Hundreds of thousands typically flock to Meiron for this pilgrimage from around the country and the Diaspora. It centers around a central bonfire where the Boyaner Rebbe has the honor of lighting it by dripping kerosene from a silver vessel of the type used in Temple rituals. At this bonfire songs are sung in praise of Rabbi Shimon and people anoint the fires and their faces using oil for all kinds of segulot. Animals are slaughtered on the spot with shotty kosher standards yet in similar style to Temple sacrifice. Fliers are shared inviting the masses to Mt. Meiron, the new Mt. Zion, and verses from the Torah detailing pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem are explained as referring to the grave of Bar Yochai. The most offsetting of which is the verse from Exodus 34 which commands a pilgrimage three times a year to “The Master The Eternal” which is explained at the celebrations to be a reference to none other than Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai himself.
Aside from the obvious infringement on the purpose of the Temple in Jerusalem as the only place where service of this type can take place, it reminds me of another more ancient set of rites. Although these Meiron customs are a few hundred years old they were preceded by similar Greek and Roman pagan rites by about 2000 years. Ancient Greeks and Romans would sacrifice, pour libations, and anoint oil to their dead. They even had festivals honoring their dead every year where they would go on pilgrimage and repeat these customs and celebrate. Certain figures might even develop into cults where their worship would continue into future generations.
Something tells me that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai would not be pleased with the similarity of his yahrtzeit with Roman practices. According to Talmudic tradition Bar Yochai was hunted by Roman authorities and hid for 12 years after a negative comment he made against the Roman overlords who destroyed the Temple and crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt.
This is not to say that there is no value to Lag BaOmer. Quite to the contrary, I believe there is an important place in one’s religious and moral development in celebrating the lives of those who personified the values we wish to live by and whose accomplishments brought light into the world. A template such as the life of Rashbi may indeed serve that purpose for many and that is great. Furthermore, the national importance of the Bar Kohkba revolt, which is a meaning that has been attached to the day by the Zionist movements, is an important theme as well. The Chata”m Sofer himself argued that the original miracle of Lag BaOmer was the first appearance of the Manna in the desert plains after the exodus.
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate this holiday with a robust spiritual and national character. But there is a problem when it becomes a magnet of cultish behavior. Perhaps Maimonides was right when he claimed Temple Service was meant to curb the idolatrous nature in humankind. Clearly, in even the modern day-and-age, the drive to act like the throngs do in Meiron is extant as ever.
In any case, the canceling of these activities this year has allowed room for some introspection. The Temple Mount is open year-round (closed for Corona but hopefully not for long) and it alone has been the direction of our hopes and prayers since David and Solomon and so it remains. How can we have abandoned it like we have for 53 years since its liberation, yet hundreds of thousands visit Meiron? “Woe to the eye seeing the flowing of My people up to the graves/ instead of “and all nations shall flow to it at the top of mountains”/ Would it be heard by ear, our hearts would anguish.” Or as the Chata”m Sofer wrote at the end of that same Responsa: Would only the Eternal blessed be He give me [help] and I merit to be [a part] of the builders of Jerusalem and not of its destroyers.
When the gates of the Temple Mount reopen I know I will be there. And I would like to invite you to become part of the hundreds of thousands that will reconnect with the site.