At least 45 people were killed and over 150 wounded at a mass gathering of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel on Thursday night to mark the festival of Lag B’Omer.
The annual event takes place at the tomb of the second-century sage Shimon Bar Yochai (also known by his acronym Rashbi) on Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee.
Legend has it that Bar Yochai died on Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer), and that on that day he revealed deep kabbalistic secrets that formed the basis of the book of Jewish mysticism known as the Zohar. Ever since, certain sects of Orthodox Jews have been marking the date with bonfires and prayers at the tomb. But in recent years, the annual happening has turned into a mass gathering drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the small complex on Mount Meron.
A spokesman for the Israeli rescue service Magen David Adom (MDA) told the Ynet news portal that severe overcrowded had lead to Thursday’s tragedy.
The theater-like area set up in front of Bar Yochai’s tomb is accessed via a narrow inclined metal walkway, which officials said was slippery at the time. As people began to lose their footing, they fell back on those behind them. The number of people crammed onto the walkway made it impossible to maneuver, and as they tried to flee the scene, a great many were trampled and crushed to death.
The following video from the Kan public broadcaster gives a glimpse of how the disaster unfolded:
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 29, 2021
The complicated rescue efforts lasted throughout the night, and Army Radio reported that children were among the dead and wounded.
A medic who has worked with the ZAKA rescue service for years told Channel 12 News, “I’ve never seen anything like this… We don’t know exactly what happened, but the result is unthinkable.”
This video tweeted earlier in the night gives a feeling for the size of the event:
לכבוד התנא: עשרות אלפים בהדלקה המרכזית של תולדות אהרן שמרעידה את הההר מצד לצד pic.twitter.com/b2pMQsXv1z
— משה ויסברג (@moshe_nayes) April 29, 2021
Aryeh Ehrlich, a journalist with the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpacha who attended the Lag B’Omer event on Mount Meron in 2018, tweeted at the time that the walkway in question was “a human bottleneck and an urgent threat.”
Following last night’s disaster, he told Channel 12 that “the writing was on the wall.”
Northern District Police Commander Shimon Lavi told reporters that he takes full responsibility for what happened and will cooperate fully with a Justice Ministry probe to determine if police negligence contributed to the mass fatality event.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of public health services at the Israel Health Ministry, fired back that the only real negligence on the part of the authorities was in allowing a mass gathering in such numbers when coronavirus regulations still restrict outdoor events to just 100 participants.
“It is the responsibility of the police to enforce the laws of the State of Israel,” she told Army Radio.
The government cancelled the Mt. Meron event at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in May 2020, earning it the ire of many in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Following Thursday’s tragic deaths, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged everyone to stop casting blame and to instead turn to prayer. “This is not the time to look for guilty parties,” he insisted.