As the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar approaches every year, hundreds and thousands of Jews in Israel and even many from abroad prepare for what is seen as a joyous trek and stay in the northern Israel city of Meron at the location of the grave of the famous second century Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai. Buses are chartered and cars are driven from all parts of the Land of Israel and even planes are booked from different parts of the globe to join the annual festivities of the Lag BaOmer celebrations at the eminent Sage’s tomb. Large masses of food are consumed and hours of dancing are engaged in.
Despite all the unbridled revelry, some Torah luminaries over the centuries have questioned the extensive demonstrations of joy exhibited on this day.
One to have questioned this day’s proceedings is the Torah great R. Moshe Sofer (1762 – 1839), known as Chatam Sofer. In his responsa (Yoreh Deah 233), he writes: “I know and I have also heard that nowadays the generations have improved and people come from afar seeking G-d in the holy city of Tzfat [Safed] on the day of Lag BaOmer…Although their entire intent is for the sake of heaven, and their reward is undoubtedly great, I would prefer to be one of those who refrain, so that I should not need to be there and deviate from their custom in their presence, and I should not want to join with them in this.” He goes on to say that it is incorrect “to institute a holiday on a day that is not the anniversary of a miracle and is not mentioned by the Talmud or the poskim anywhere in the literature, not even by an allusion or a hint.” Finally, after citing justifications, according to kabbalah, for observing Lag BaOmer, he concludes, “Nevertheless, as regards to making it a day of celebration and lighting of lights, and especially in a designated location that becomes a focus of attention towards which everyone turns, I do not know that it is permissible.” Therefore, while he does confirm cause for observing the day as celebration, he expresses a question of the extent of the joy and celebration exhibited.
An even greater objection was expressed by the noted Torah scholar R. Yosef Shaul Natanson (1808 – 1875) in his responsa Shoel U’Meishiv, sec. 39: “On the contrary, for the death of a righteous individual and scholar, one should fast…and how can it be that a holiday should be celebrated over the death of our great teacher R. Shimon bar Yochai…[and] much could be said about the practice of burning clothes [at this grave]…This violates the prohibition of bal tashchit [unnecessary destruction of property]…But what can I do? For, as a result of our many sins, they will not listen to the voice of their teachers in this matter…But it is clear that in the days of the Ari [R. Yitzchak Luria (1534 – 1572)]…what they did at the grave…was none other than Torah study, prayers and supplication…And it is apparent that the Bet Yosef [R. Yosef Karo (1488 – 1575)] and his circle would not have allowed people to behave in [this manner]. It was only after their time that the custom spread, and afterwards it was believed to be an ancient custom and people were afraid of punishment, heaven forbid, if it were neglected. However, I will stand as a guarantor for them that if they would take the same money and support the poor of Israel with it, this would be more appreciated by R. Shimon bar Yochai and would be ‘a benefit to him and a benefit to the world.’”
Similar objections to the aforementioned have been raised by the great scholar R. Yosef Rafael Chazan (1741 – 1822), in his work Chikre Lev (Yoreh Deah 11), and by others.
Since the above objections were expressed, a number of arguments were offered to fend off these aforementioned contentions and assert the veracity of the celebrations practiced at Meron, including that of the former Rabbi of Tzfat, R. Shmuel Heller, in a pamphlet entitled Kevod Melachim, as well as that of the rabbis of Tveria (Tiberias), cited by R. Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1834 – 1905) in his Sdei Chemed (Asifat Dinim, Eretz Yisrael, sec. 6).
Perhaps the warmest assertion that summarizes the feelings of the rabbinic proponents of the Meron celebrations can be found in a mid-20th century work entitled Hilula D’Rashbi, written by R. Asher Zelig Margolies. After citing a number of sources confirming the custom of visiting the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, the author continues to proclaim: “It is impossible to describe the greatness of the day of joy and ‘exultation with trembling’ (Tehillim 2:11) that occurs in Meron on the day of Lag BaOmer – one can actually see that it is a day of joy for the upper worlds and the lower…it is actually a joy like that of the world to come. Some who are there sing out and rejoice, exult and delight in dances of holiness…others stand embraced in sacred emotions, pouring out their souls in unceasing streams of tears near the holy burial sites of R. Shimon bar Yochai and R. Eliezer, his son. Elsewhere, dressed in tallit and tefillin, men pray together. Others sit on the sacred floors and study [the kabbalistic writings of] the Zohar and the Tikunim and the Idarot. Others pour out their souls in the recitation of Tehillim…and group by group they sit down to friendly feasts in holy joy.”
One might describe the arguments and assertions for and against the celebrations of Lag BaOmer in Meron as a question of joy. What seems to be apparent from all the rabbinic discussions on the matter is that, even those who staunchly advocate the continuation of these celebrations, they are meant to be, as R. Margolies describes, “feasts in holy joy,” or “exultation in trembling.” These celebrations are meant to be expressions of joy mixed with deep emotions of awe. These celebrations are not meant to be hedonistic and mindless indulgences of purely material and emotional gratification. They are meant to be saturated by prayers, recitations and study of holy writings and “sacred emotions.” It is with this in mind that one is to approach the question of joy and the expression of such joy on this special day. One must decide whether what one chooses to do is an outcome of intentions and emotions that are “sacred” and “holy” and not otherwise. May we all act and behave in a manner that is directed by more sacred and holy intentions and emotions, the outcome of which can only redound to our own benefit and that of those around us.