This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Fire from Water at Meron*

Though its true origin remains shrouded in obscurity, in our days the date known as "Lag Ba-Omer" is known to many chiefly for the unruly celebrations that take place in the Galilean village of Meron. In modern Israel, the springtime feast is often accompanied by drinking and gambling. However, its official significance derives from its association with the anniversary of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a central hero of kabbalistic legend and lore.

In comparison with many other traditions that have arisen in connection with graves of saints or other popular pilgrimage sites, the link between Rabbi Simeon and Meron is a relatively solid one, since midrashic tradition states quite explicitly that Meron was his final resting place--as well as that of his son Eleazar, whose body was re-interred in Meron after initial burial in Gush Halav.

Under the circumstances, therefore, it is most astonishing that the connection between Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and Meron went virtually unnoticed until relatively recent times. From the twelfth century onward, a distinguished series of Jewish travelers passed through the region and described its religious shrines in impressive detail. Included among the ranks of those renowned chroniclers were figures like Benjamin of Tudela and Petahia of Regensburg. Most of them described Meron without the slightest mention of Rabbi Simeon or his son. For the medievals, Meron's chief claim to religious distinction derived from two other ancient sages who were buried there: Hillel and Shammai (along with their wives and a coterie of disciples whose numbers vary with each telling). This tradition, as it happens, has no historical basis whatsoever, seeing as Hillel and Shammai were both Jerusalemites and had no known links to Meron or any other Galilean localities.

What most impressed the medieval tourists was the story of Meron's miraculous waters. Stone basins in the burial cave would miraculously fill up with fresh water though they were not connected to any spring or well. Petahiah insisted that this wonder could only be observed by righteous individuals; but later authors, including some Arab geographers, confirmed that the waters would appear consistently on a fixed date of the year; and some modern scholars assert that the phenomenon can in fact be produced by natural geological conditions.

Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century chroniclers recorded that Jews from throughout the Middle East, along with a contingent of local Muslims would make the pilgrimage to Meron in order to experience the water miracle and carry samples back to their homelands as a remedy for drought. The date for this annual visit was identified as "Pesah Sheni," that is, a month after Passover, the date established by the Torah as a second chance for those who were impure or abroad to offer the festival sacrifice. This would place it on the fourteenth of Iyyar, coinciding with the twenty-ninth day in the counting of the Omer days between Passover and Shavuot. Invariably the site of the pilgrimage was identified as the tombs of Hillel and Shammai--and if Rabbis Simeon ben Yohai and Eleazar were acknowledged at all, it was only as an incidental part of the scenery.

This fact is particularly surprising when we take into account that the Zohar had been published in the thirteenth century. That pseudepigraphic kabbalistic midrash turned a fictionalized Rabbi Simeon into its major protagonist, depicting him as a wonder-working mystic who was privy to incomparable supernatural insights. Even this, it would appear, was not enough to earn him more prominent billing in the Galilean tourist brochures. The date of La"G (=33) ba-Omer, which falls on Iyyar 18, did not figure at all in these pilgrimages.

Eventually, of course, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai's grave did succeed in becoming the primary focus of the the Meron festivities. During the heyday of the Safed kabbalistic community under Rabbi Isaac Luria's charismatic leadership, the custom arose of paying periodic visits to Meron to prostrate themselves on Rabbi Simeon's grave, kindle lamps and bonfires--in contrast to the water-oriented rites that had previously dominated the shrine--and especially to participate in liturgical recitations of the Zohar. Ostensibly, this dovetails perfectly with the rise to prominence and popularity that was enjoyed by the Kabbalah in those generations.

The only problem is that the kabbalistic practices that took shape around Rabbi Simeon bore no resemblance to the well-known festivities that are now associated with Lag Ba-Omer.

To begin with the most obvious problem: the dates set aside for honouring Rabbi Simeon were not on Lag Ba-Omer at all. Though several seasons were mentioned in this connection, the ones that were observed most commonly were the ten (or six) days preceding Shavuot (beginning on the thirty-ninth day of the Omer, almost a week after Lag ba-Omer) and the ten days before Rosh Hashanah.

Furthermore, those celebrations had the character of solemn revivalist conventions that were devoted to serious meditation--quite different from the atmosphere of the "Hillula"--the jubilant bouts of song and dance that began to achieve broader popularity on Lag Ba-Omer beginning from the latter half of the sixteenth century.

The historical record suggests that the "serious" kabbalists were either indifferent or outrightly hostile to the Lag Ba-Omer style of festivities. A generation later, however, the custom had become so entrenched that a rear-guard action was implemented to demonstrate that it had been sanctioned--or at least tolerated--by Luria himself.

In fact, a novel element was now introduced that has no basis in any earlier tradition: It was now claimed that Lag Ba-Omer was the anniversary of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai's death, his Yahrtzeit! This assertion was made by the author of the P'ri Es Hayyim, a work that was supposedly an abridgement of the teachings of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Luria's most influential student. In this instance, as in several others, our author was inserting notions that neither Luria nor Vital ever intended.

Vital had, in reality, tried to justify the merry mood of Lag Ba-Omer by invoking the older rabbinic traditions about how it was the date when the plague ceased that had taken the lives of thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. Rabbi Simeon, he declared, was among the tiny number of disciples who had survived the plague and were able to ensure the survival of the Torah tradition into the coming generations. This, according to Vital, might explain why Rabbi Simeon had happy associations with that date. Somehow, in the P'ri Es Hayyim it was transformed into Rabbi Simeon's Yahrtzeit.

Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely (to say the least) that Safed's most prominent kabbalists were enthusiastic supporters of the Lag Ba-Omer Hillula at Meron. In 1575 a court under the authority of Rabbi Joseph Caro reportedly tried to issue an edict forbidding dancing on the saint's grave. Additionally, the festivities came to include a ceremony of ritual haircutting--a practice that Rabbi Isaac Luria (for obscure mytsical reasons) deemed inappropriate for the Omer season (though later tradition predictably transformed Luria into a champion of Lag Ba-Omer haircutting).

So, if they were not introduced by the Safed Kabbalists, then where did the Meron festivities really originate? The most persuasive thesis I know of is that they were the outgrowth of a different celebration that had been held since the thirteenth century to mark the anniversary of the death of the biblical prophet Samuel. The day was celebrated by pilgrimages to the traditional site in "Nebi Samuel" with candles, flaming torches and haircuts (the weight of the shorn locks in silver was often donated to charity), along with drinking and other immodest activities. The lamps were associated with the scriptural passage that describes Samuel's first call to prophecy "ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord..."

In the late sixteenth century, Samuel's tomb was transferred to Muslim ownership and closed to Jewish pilgrimage. It therefore appears quite likely that the Jews who did not want to forsake their venerable celebration transferred it to a new venue, Meron in the Galilee. Since the new locale had no historical associations whatsoever with Samuel, they redefined the object of their pilgrimage to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai while continuing to observe as many of their old customs as they could justify.

In this transfer of allegiances, Samuel's loss was to become Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai's gain, and the wondrous waters of Meron were changed into flames.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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