Despite dire warnings in the Israeli media of a terrible heat wave and restrictions placed on bonfires around the country, hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world arrived at Meron for the great annual bonfire and the incomparable joyous celebration that lights up the neshamos of Klal Yisrael.
The great crowd davened Ma’ariv, followed by Sefiras HaOmer—no problem getting a minyan in this place—and a moving recitation of Tehillim; and then the Boyaner Rebbe, in the holy tradition of his fathers, lit the main bonfire at the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
There has been a great deal of talk about how hot it’s supposed to be on Lag BaOmer this year, as much as 99 degrees Fahrenheit in Meron. The local media have been carrying warnings issued by the authorities to beware of the potentially dangerous conditions, and restrictions have been placed on the lighting of fires around the country.
Police imposed a limit of a maximum five feet high to all bonfires, and at a safe distance from forested areas, at locations designated by municipalities and Fire and Rescue Services. In Yerushalayim, Mayor Moshe Lion announced on Wednesday that from 6:00 a.m. a prohibition would be in effect bonfires within the city.
The great bonfire at the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, was granted a written exemption by the police, according to Channel 12.
Dovid ben Moshe Melech, a longtime regular at Meron on Lag BaOmer, noted that all the warnings could result in some people staying at home. He told Hamodia that in the time of the Bais Yosef, Rav Yosef Caro, in Tzefas, there was a proposal to instruct the women to stay home, for reasons of tsnius.
It might have happened, except that Rabbi Shimon himself appeared to the Ari z”l in a dream and warned him that, “if they know what’s good for them, they won’t hold back a single person from going.”
The Ari then told Rav Caro about his dream, the latter canceled the idea, and everyone was allowed to come.
Some grew impatient with the official advisories. MK Betzalel Smotrich said on Wednesday, “I do not know how the weather is at your place, but in Kedumim nothing unusual. As always with fires, you have to be careful, take care to have available fire extinguishers around, make sure that there is an adult in the area and make sure to turn off the bonfire in the end, but enough with the over-cautiousness, and especially with the orders not to light bonfires. Lag BaOmer is an ancient custom and must be preserved.”
In any case, American-born Dovid ben Moshe Melech was not deterred by the media reports, and said that, as was his custom, he would be there not only on Wednesday night, but after returning home to nearby Tzefas in the early morning, he planned to be back for the daytime. He also intended to travel to Yerushalayim for a chassunah the following night.
When asked if he wasn’t concerned about the heat, predicted to reach some 99 degrees Farhenheit on Thursday, he said he wasn’t. “If you get thirsty, it’s no problem. There are drinks all over the place.”
“Last year was also hot, but I somehow found a place away from the sun and the crowds, a little kitchen area off to the side, and sat and said Tehillim for a couple of hours. It was cool.”
Hamodia asked Esther Lautenberg, originally from the U.K., about her plans. She acknowledged that the heat and crowding concern her, but said she would not think of staying away.
As a precaution, she said she would go to Meron early Thursday morning, when the crowding is not as bad as Wednesday night, and it hasn’t heated up yet. Once there, she’ll look for a shady spot, under a tree or in a tent or building.
For her, she said, it was the best day for davening during the entire year. “On Rosh Hashana, when you have to take care of your family, have so many obligations, you can’t just daven all you want, can’t enlarge on davening. But on Lag BaOmer you can spend all the time you want in davening. Food, drinks, bottles of water, cakes, are all available, people offering you everything, and you have no obligations. You can just daven to Hashem all you want.”
Mrs. Lautenberg said she has always had a special relationship with the Kever of Rabbi Shimon. “When I first visited the Kosel, I had to build relationship with it Kosel, it didn’t happen right away. But Meron got me right away.”
Miriam Krauss told Hamodia that “this is my favorite day of the year, very very exciting. Half a million come from all over the world, every kind of Jew feels Rabbi Shimon’s love, just as we are, wherever we are. He looks upon all of us with an ayin tova.”
The crowding is hard, but why is it so crowded? Because all the neshomos want to get close to Hashem!”
Inside, at the kever itself, the crowding is the most intense. “There, people are crying as they daven for the yeshuos they desperately need.
While outside, “there are tremendous outbursts of joy. I love it. No barriers, unity permeates, it’s a very strong uplifting experience,” she said.
The simcha isn’t over after Lag BaOmer, either. “it’s like Hashem gives you a time-release capsule, with simcha for the entire year.”
As the conversation ended, Mrs. Krauss, who is from Detroit, put in a good word for the Jewish community there. “We are grateful to the pure Jews in Detroit, they paved the way for us to be here.”
Every year, the organizers of the event seek to add some improvement. In past years, the focus has been on more efficient transportation to Meron, better lighting and safety, separate access paths for men and women.
This year’s innovation was the Heichal Hashiurim tent, dedicated to shiurim throughout the day, which was completed Tuesday afternoon and was ready to be used for Lag BaOmer.
There will be shiurim delivered in the large air-conditioned tent every hour, on the hour. The maggidei shiur include: Harav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, Harav Yisrael Meir Shushan, Harav Yitzchok Moshe Erlanger, and many others.
As usual, there were elaborate preparations for security and other needs. Over 5,000 police officers were deployed in the area to keep order; Hatzalah and Zaka were in
force to provide whatever medical care was needed; and hundreds of thousands of bottles of water.
As of Wednesday night, paramedics have treated 220 people who suffered from fainting, heart problems, chronic medical problems, exhaustion, and minor bruises.
Six of them needed further treatment and were evacuated by ambulance to the Ziv Medical Center in Tzefas.
Updated Wednesday, May 22, 2019 at 5:10 pm updated info