At least 45 people died and scores were injured in the midst of the traditional all-night Lag BaOmer religious celebration near the hallowed resting place of revered second-century sage Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai in Meron, northern Israel.
As thousands moved through narrow walkways and alleyways at around 1 a.m., momentum and pressure built-up through a stone passageway and turned into an unstoppable current propelling people down a staircase at the base of the passage where, according to some reports, the surge was met by blockades set up by authorities. With no way to stop the momentum, dozens were tragically trampled.
Five worshippers were in critical condition and 18 in serious condition at local and regional hospitals after dozens of ambulances and six helicopters were called to the scene to treat and evacuate the injured, according to emergency medical service Magen Dovid Adom.
Cell phone service at the scene, spotty at the best of times, crashed as tens of thousands tried to contact family, friends and emergency services, and buses were continuing to evacuate participants well into Friday morning.
The names of victims began to be released in Israel on Friday afternoon, with many families still unable to reach loved ones more than 12 hours after the disaster. The dead include adults and children.
With a year-round population of approximately 1,000, the tiny mountain town is annually transformed during a 36 hour period into a magnet for hundreds of thousands who flock from across the country and around the world to pray at the hallowed resting place of the Talmudic sage and mystic.
Rabbi Shimon was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah, and is the author of the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar.
Only hours before his passing in approximately 160 C.E., he informed his students that his soul was soon going to leave its body and celebrate together with its Maker. As such, he requested that instead of being saddened, his students mark the day with great joy and holy rejoicing.
Every year on the anniversary of his passing, 18 Iyar on the Jewish calendar, also known as Lag BaOmer, thousands trek to Rabbi Shimon’s mountaintop grave to pray around the clock, study his mystical teachings and light bonfires—representing the light of Torah Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai brought into the world.
Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day of the Omer counting period that begins on the second day of Passover and culminates with the holiday of Shavuot, following day 49.
The events in Meron are marked with festive music and dancing, with dozens of simultaneous events running past dawn and through the day. Leading rabbis light bonfires surrounded by thousands of singing and dancing members of their community on bleachers and scaffoldings.
Israel recently lifted the last outdoor COVID restrictions after the drop in cases due to the high vaccination rate in the country. And while attendance was lighter this year than past pre-pandemic years, there had been an extra measure of joy this year among the estimated 100,000.
At around 1 a.m., thousands rushed down a narrow passage leaving the site of one of the massive bonfires, estimated to be the second largest of the many events occurring in Meron and attracting some 15,000 people.
Unable to stop their forward momentum, people began to fall over each other on a staircase at the base of the passage, and dozens were tragically trampled.
Emergency vehicles rushed through the milling crowd, some unaware of the catastrophe unfolding only feet away. Caravans of stretchers were rushed in, and medical and military helicopters airlifted victims as ambulances navigated the packed hilly roads of Meron.
The masses that were enthusiastically celebrating only moments earlier remained in place in order not to disrupt the first responders arriving and the evacuation of those injured.
Volunteers and emergency response personnel could be seen standing amid the aftermath of the horrific carnage, empty water bottles and debris strewn about where celebrants stood singing and dancing only moments before.
As news spread of the tragedy, phone service was down as family members of the multitudes at the site tried frantically to check up on their loved ones.
The word hit just as Lag BaOmer events were starting in North America, throwing a pallor over the joyous atmosphere. Celebrations that then continued in a fashion described in the Zohar itself, with “joy lodged in one side of the heart, and trembling in the other.”
This is not the first time that tragedy marred the celebrations in Meron—in 1911, a roof collapsed on revelers and nine people died, ranging from an eight-year-old to a 65 year-old—but this is one of the worst civil disasters in recent history.
Words of condolence for the families in mourning were received from around the world, and the public is asked to pray for the wellbeing of all the injured.