Meron in Northern Israel
Meron and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
Nestled up in the hills of Israel’s Northern Galilee lies Meron, a charming little village with a big attraction: the burial site of the author of the Zohar, the principle work of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). You’ll notice numerous small brown road signs in the surrounding areas pointing to the tomb of “Rashbi” – the acronym for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery, traversing mountain roads and lush evergreen forests on the climb to Meron, where you will probably head straight for the tomb. Parking is plentiful, but be prepared to walk up hill towards the tomb complex, which has undergone extensive renovations in the past few years.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Tomb
Inside the tomb complex, there are separate chambers for men and women to pray, and prayer services for men are held whenever enough people are present. Don’t forget to keep some small change on hand for the various worthy causes presenting themselves in and around the tomb.
In the summer you can expect cold drinks and light snacks (possibly even cooled watermelon) to be handed out near the main entrance to the tomb, although it’s recommended to bring your own refreshments – the summer can be quite hot. On the other hand, if you’re visiting in the winter or spring it’s advisable to bring warm clothing – the elevation and fresh mountain breeze can create cooler temperatures.
Lag B’Omer – Anniversary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Death
The tomb is busy all year round, but for those looking for an experience of a different caliber it’s worth making a trip to Meron on Lag B’Omer. Usually falling sometime in May, this day marks the anniversary of Rashbi’s death, his birthday and also the day on which he revealed his mystical teachings to his disciples. For many hundreds of years there has been a pilgrimage to his grave on this day, and in recent years the numbers have grown to an amazing estimated 400,000 to 500,000. Police, rescue forces, a police helicopter and paramedic units all work together to ensure the safety of the large crowds. If you are planning to make the trip by car, expect to park a few kilometers away from Meron – from there hundreds of buses shuttle the visitors to and from the tomb. There is usually one central bonfire, and then several smaller fires, around which to dance and sing. Many bring barbecues and find a convenient spot in the forests for the family to eat.
Many Jews have the custom of not cutting their boys’ hair until their third birthday. Since one is not permitted to cut hair for the previous 32 days (Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the count from Passover until Shavuot), Lag B’Omer is often the first opportunity to perform this first haircut, known in Hebrew as ‘chalakah.’ If you are planning to do so, don’t forget to bring scissors and a Tallit (traditional prayer shawl) and plenty of candy to hand out!
Hiking in Meron
Try the walk across the valley from Safed (Tzfat) to Meron, following the path of the Arizal (16th century Kabbalist), who would walk every day from Safed to Meron, teaching his students as they walked.
The trail is entered by going down the hill in the ancient Tzfat cemetery Bet HaChaim, crossing under the highway and following the signs.
Don’t miss a hike along the peony trail in the Mount Meron Nature Reserve at the beginning of April for approximately two weeks, when the peonies flower in bold pink and purple. The reserve is home to 70 endangered species including the wild peony. Peonies are a pleasure to behold with a height of close to a half meter and an approximate 10 cm flower circumference. At an elevation of more than 1200 meters, this trail offers stunning views of Northern Israel.
If you are going specifically to view the peonies, it is best to call the Gailil Elyon Education Center 04-692-3112 and confirm their flowering season has started before heading out.
Meron Triva: Did You Know?
The hike from Safed to Meron is part of the Israel National Trail, a path that extends across the entire country starting at Beit Usishkin near Kibbutz Dan in the north and ending near Eilat, a distance of more than 950 km!