Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Now that Pesach is over, Lag B’Omer is just around the corner. Day 33 of the Omer this year is on Sunday, May 18. Immediately after nightfall on motzaei Shabbos, the count and its blessing are pronounced aloud, ushering in a welcome respite from the Sefirah mourning period. This year, since Lag B’Omer is on a Sunday, many halachic authorities permit haircuts and shaving on the preceding Friday in order to honor the Shabbos as well. The Shabbos is special since, at Shabbos Minchah, we deliberately omit “Tzidkoscha” in honor of Lag B’Omer. The zenith of Lag B’Omer’s festivities in Israel will take place from 2:00 a.m. until after early Shacharis Sunday morning at the hallowed gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) in Meron.
Although technically not a full yom tov and not mentioned in the Torah, Lag B’Omer is a day with much historical importance and an oasis of celebration in the midst of a somber semi-mourning seven-week period. The seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuos are counted day by day and week by week. Lag B’Omer, literally the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer, is just another day on the calendar except for the two important events: 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died on 33 days between Pesach and Shavuos, with the 18th of Iyar either being the last day of their deaths or a day of respite from them. Most sources attribute the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students to a plague, as Divine punishment for not having appropriately honored each other. However, some (Rav Hai Gaon, 939–1038) attribute their deaths at the hands of the occupying Romans during the failed Bar Kochba revolt (132–136 CE). Bar Kochba was strongly supported by Rabbi Akiva.
The 18th day of Iyar is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), the attributed author of the Zohar and disciple of Rabbi Akiva (40–137 CE). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is buried in Meron, Israel. Other leading early rabbinical figures also buried in Meron are Hillel HaZakein, Shammai, and Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
This year, considerably upwards of half a million people are expected to come to Meron to celebrate. Meron is pre-1967 Israel’s highest geographic point (elevation of 3,963 feet above sea level). The intensity of Lag B’Omer’s joyous celebrations and spiritual highs are incomparable. The gravesite and yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai represent a unique combination of time and place of intense holiness. To those fortunate enough to have been there on Lag B’Omer, no other experience is its equal.
Boys who reach the age of three during the time between Pesach and Lag B’Omer are traditionally given their first haircut on Lag B’Omer. What better place than Meron, in an atmosphere of joyous, holy celebration, to give the precious child his first haircut? It is as if Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is an honored guest personally participating at the boy’s haircutting.
Lately, with the upsurge of appreciation for the importance of Lag B’Omer at Meron, the old tradition of donating 18 “rotels” of drinks, wine, grape juice, or even fruit juice or cold soda at the gravesite on the yahrzeit has come back strongly (18 rotels is approximately 54 liters or roughly 13 gallons). In olden times, childless couples would donate and serve the drinks to visitors and needy supplicants praying at the ohel.
Bargain-priced flights leave from all over the world to Israel right before Lag B’Omer. Some flights will combine Meron with Eastern European cities of Dinov, Kshanov, Lijensk, Lublin, Radishitz, Riminov, and Sanz. Bus companies in Israel are providing single-and multiple-day bus tours to Meron, Tzefas, Teveria, Amuka, Golan Heights, Rosh Hanikra, and Pekien, as well as Chevron, Kever Rochel, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Ein Gedi.
With hundreds of thousands of people coming to the ohel on Lag B’Omer, several worthy organizations have assumed the burden of preparing and serving the drinks, as well as sandwiches and whole meals. The age-old tradition of childless couples serving 18 rotel of drinks to the poor and needy who visit the ohel on the yahrzeit has been aggressively pursued by many who seek Divine help.
More than 440 years ago, a Rashbi hachnasas orchim (hospitality to travelers) group was formed to prepare for the special day’s massive attendance. Recently, the hachnasas orchim groups in Meron overhauled, at great expense, their food-preparation kitchen. Last Lag B’Omer, the groups distributed hundreds of thousands of sandwiches and countless hot and cold drinks at the site. Their services are provided throughout the year as well.
The Taamei Minhagim, authored by Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Sperling, zt’l (1851–1921), notes that many people who had difficulty conceiving a pregnancy, finding a marriage match, or achieving livelihood were successful only after they donated 18 rotels of wine for the Lag B’Omer celebrations at Meron. Rabbi Ovadia Mibartenura, zt’l (d. early 1500s), a leading commentator on the Mishna, notes the success of this tradition.
Throughout the year, the holy gravesite has become a magnet for the many seeking Divine guidance, inspiration, and intervention. Increasingly, congregational and yeshiva groups, Israeli as well from abroad, have designated Meron as an inspirational Shabbos retreat. On any given Shabbos, dozens of groups will be found there, devoted to prayer, Torah study, and meditation. Many individuals, as well as many of the groups, come relying on the benevolence of organizations devoted to hachnasas orchim. To the great credit of those organizations, no one was ever turned away.
Lag B’Omer in Meron is invariably a hot day, with temperatures, at midday, in the 80s (°F) and often in the 90s. Though many bring drinks with them, personal supplies are quickly depleted. In spite of Meron being a highly visited location, it has almost no vending machines, so dropping several coins into a soda machine and drinking a cold can of soda is not an alternative. That, in a nutshell, is the imperative that creates great appreciation for the sponsorship and distribution of drinks at Meron on Lag B’Omer. Ohel Rashbi, in addition to offering 18 rotels of wine sponsorships for $150, also offers sponsorship of the same amount of cold soda for $80, every last drop of which is consumed with profound gratitude.
Mosdos Ohel Rashbi Meron, a premier chesed organization, is led by Rabbi Shraga Schnitzler and Rabbi Hirsch Weber. Their U.S. office and mailing address is 1522 55th Street, Suite 6-J, Brooklyn, NY 11219 (718-435-0574). They are under the hashgachah and recommendation of the Beth Din Tzedek of the Eidah Hacharedis of Jerusalem.
In addition to the mammoth events of Lag B’Omer, Ohel Rashbi operates throughout the year, providing refreshments and meals to wayfarers who journey to pray at the holy gravesite. Oftentimes, people in need of Heavenly assistance come to Meron without any planning, knowing only that they must pray. This can include whole groups and organizations. Even in such pressing circumstances, Ohel Rashbi is there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ready with whatever hospitality may be required.
They have been instrumental in helping tens of thousands of people with food, drink, and lodging. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has interceded in Heaven, and continues to intercede, but many of the immediate temporal needs are met by Ohel Rashbi.
A unique event sponsored by Ohel Rashbi takes place a little more than nine months after Lag B’Omer, when the couples who came childless to Meron on the yahrzeit and were blessed with their newborn children are invited back to Meron. Many couples are indeed blessed with the long-awaited birth of their first child. Shabbos Parashas Zachor has been designated for this special get-together in Meron to celebrate the miracle of the births of their precious newborn babies. The couples come together to celebrate their joy specifically in Meron. Approximately half of the couples hold the Friday-night shalom zachors for newborn sons, and the couples who had daughters celebrate with the Shabbos-noon kiddush. These joyous celebrations are also at the initiative of and sponsored by Ohel Rashbi.
Rabbi Shraga Shnitzer, Ohel Rashbi’s leader, and his affiliates provide refreshments at the holy gravesite every day and late into the night, the times many usually come to pray there. In addition, Rosh Chodesh also attracts an increased number of visitors, and Rabbi Shnitzer, in keeping with the Shulchan Aruch, always schedules a Rosh Chodesh meal for the many visitors and provides them with a full menu. Ohel Rashbi also regularly provides full Shabbos meals.
‘Hachnosas Orchim Rashbi’
Mifal Hachnosas Orchim Rashbi (011-972-2-532-8899, fax 011-972-2-582-0741) was established by Rabbi Avrohom Galanti, zt’l (d. 1588), author of Yerach Yakar, who is also credited with the building of the present ohel for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The organization operates all year round, serving meals, especially on Shabbos, holidays, yahrzeits, and special days, in addition to the 18 rotel mashka (drinks) on Lag B’Omer. Under their direction, one can contribute and actually distribute the drinks, sandwiches, and other food directly to the pilgrims at Meron.
Olive oil, too, will be added for you to the bonfire at the ohel, in units of 6.8 oz (200 ml), 33.8 oz (1 liter), 5 liter, or 10 liter, each measure specifically for a different need. Also, meals will be served gratis to recipients on the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or any day of the year, dedicated by you for any purpose or need. This organization will distribute tons of food on Lag B’Omer, including more than ten tons of meat, thousands of portions of fish, chicken, kugel, and thousands of bottles of drinks. A special order was made this year for more than half a million plastic drinking cups.
The organization also builds the central bima platform upon which an orchestra and numerous singers will provide appropriate religious music and inspirational songs on the important day. The funds are administered and distributed under the direction of a Beth Din consisting of Rabbi Mordechai Gross, author of Mishpat Aveida; Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern, Rav of Bnei Brak West; and Rabbi Yaakov Avrohom Cohen, author of Emek Hamishpat.
Presently, the representatives of the organization are Rabbi Ben Zion Perlmutter and Rabbi Mayer Carlebach in Israel. Also serving as contacts for Mifal Hachnosas Orchim Rashbi are: NYC: Mayer Reichenberg, 718-972-9500; Upstate NY: Mordechai Friedman, 917-578-1818; London: Noson Hirsch, 208-802-4518; and in Belgium: Aaron Perlmutter, 3-288-8540. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.