Why do Jews gather at Mt. Meron for bonfires?

Followers of Jewish mysticism traditionally hold a yearly pilgrimage to Mt. Meron on the holiday of Lag Ba'omer in order to honor the teachings of the father of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The holiday, which starts at sunset on the 33rd day of the Omer period, marks the transition from a period of mourning to a more joyful time.

According to the Talmud, a central text in rabbinic Judaism, God created a plague during the time of Rabbi Akiva that killed 24,000 of his students, leaving him with only five. One of the five remaining students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

While the first 33 days of the Omer are marked by mourning for the students who died, Lag B'aomer signifies a change in mood, as Jewish teachings say it is the day that the plague finally ended.

More than that however, followers of Jewish mysticism observe Lag Ba'omer as the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon, the day he died.

There is a tradition among Hassidic Jews to cut their sons' hair for the first time at Mt. Meron, when the child is three years old, and this meaningful occasion is marked with candy, songs and dancing.

The bonfires that the followers of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai light are representative of the spiritual light that can be found within the mystical teachings of the Torah, and they are now an intrinsic part of Lag Ba'omer celebrations around the world, but particularly on Mt. Meron.

Today, the bonfires on Mt. Meron also hold meaning for Zionist Jews who do not follow the teaching of mysticism, as they believe they represent the Bar Kochba rebellions. As such, the groups that arrive to the northern mountain every year are diverse, representing the many different streams of Judaism that come together to celebrate the small, yet significant, holiday.

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