If you cannot make it all the way up to Meron on Lag b’Omer, do not despair: Yerushalayim has a mini- Meron of its own although you may find it a little nerve-racking getting there the first time.
Head east from Yeshivas Ohr Sameach, cross over Highway Number One, and you will find yourself in East Yerushalayim, where Arabs lounging on the sidewalks look harmless enough, but who knows? A few hundred yards on lies a small Jewish oasis, located by a cave, long regarded as one of the holiest sites in Yerushalayim.
TWO SACRED CAVES
This place was first mentioned by Rav Yaakov HaShaliach in 4995/1235 when Rav Yechiel of Paris sent him to collect funds for his yeshiva. During his odyssey, Rav Yaakov noted the kivrei tzaddikim he passed in Eretz Yisroel. Opening his list, he writes: “These are the recorded signs of the graves, brought by Rav Yaakov HaShaliach, the trusted one of Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris, who has 300 talmidim in his yeshiva… and he went in all areas of Eretz Yisroel…to bring a big donation to the great [beis] medrash of Paris.”
To this day, historians cannot quite figure out why French Jews needed to collect funds in Eretz Yisroel. In his list, Rav Yechiel writes that “near Yerushalayim is the cave of Shimon HaTzaddik and his talmidim.”
This cave of Shimon HaTzaddik, a last survivor of the Knesses HaGedolah, who met Alexander the Great in approximately 3448/313 BCE, and a smaller cave, reputed to be the burial place of twenty-three members of the Sanhedrin, became an integral part of life in Yerushalayim. Jews held weddings here, and every Lag b’Omer they came along to celebrate and give their three-year-old boys chalakos (first haircuts).
This seems a little strange because the Gemara (Yuma 39b) states explicitly that Shimon HaTzaddik’s yahrzeit is not on Lag b’Omer but a week after Sukkos:
“The Rabbis taught: The year that Shimon HaTzaddik died, he told them that, in this year, he would die. They asked him, ‘How do you know?’ He replied to them, ‘Every Yom Kippur, an old man wearing white and wrapped in white appeared to me; he entered with me (into the Kodesh Kodoshim) and left with me, but today an old man wearing black and wrapped in black entered with me but did not leave with me.’ After the Yom Tov (of Sukkos), [Shimon HaTzaddik] was ill for seven days and died.”
In fact, the first sefer mentioning chalakos does not mention Lag b’Omer at all, simply stating: “[The kever is in] a cave within a cave… and the simcha of mitzvah – giving Jewish children a haircut – is performed in a field in front of the cave” (Chibas Yerushalayim, 5595/1835).
However, the sefer Shaarei Yerushalayim, printed in 5628/1868, mentions the Lag b’Omer angle in a description that is very similar to the Lag b’Omer celebration of our time: “The custom in Yerushalayim is to go to the cave of Shimon HaTzaddik on Lag B’Omer – men, women and children – with songs and joy since in front of the cave, there is a large, beautiful field full of fruit trees, plants and grass, like the garden of Hashem, and they make haircuts for their children who reached the age of three, eating and drinking as on a Yom Tov, and stand crowded due to the mass of people, and afterwards they enter the cave until it is full and light many candles. When the first group leaves, the second enters and so on, the whole day.”
It seems that, over the years, Shimon HaTzaddik’s kever became a substitute Meron on Lag b’Omer for Jews who were unable to reach the real location in the Galil, and hordes of parents began coming on this day to snip their three year- olds’ locks for the first time.
The previous Tolna Rebbe, Rav Yochanan Twersky, found another a rationale for having chalakos at Shimon HaTzaddik’s gravesite from the Gemara (Nedarim 9b) that relates how Shimon HaTzaddik once met a young man bringing his sacrifices after completing his nezirus. Upon asking the latter why he had vowed to become a nazir, the young man replied that he had done so in order to shave off his beautiful hair – in Hashem’s honor. Therefore, says the Tolna Rebbe, it is fitting for us to dedicate our children’s first haircut to Hashem at the holy kever of the Tanna who relates this inspiring story.
EXILE AND SETTLEMENT
Originally, Shimon HaTzaddik’s cave belonged to an Arab who demanded that Jews coming to daven there pay an entrance fee – this was a common phenomenon at Jewish and Christian religious sites in Yerushalayim. The travesty continued until 5636/1876 when a Jew bought the cave from its Arab owner and allowed his brethren to come in free of charge.
After 5656/1896, Jews moved next to the kever when two Jews, the magnate, Yosef Navon, who organized the construction of the first Yerushalayim- Yaffo railway, and Shmuel Bek, bought nearby land and built the Batei Navon neighborhood, consisting of six houses inhabited by poor Sephardic Jews. Six years later, the larger Nachalas Shimon neighborhood was established at the instigation of Rav Shmuel Salant and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Avraham Ashkenazi.
A mixed community of Jews from Georgia, Yemen and Syria moved into Nachalas Shimon, each group with its own shul. Together with Batei Navon, about a hundred Jewish families lived in proximity to this holy location, generally getting along quite well with their Arab neighbors.
Things deteriorated towards 5708/1948 when Arabs began attacking the Jews of this isolated enclave, forcing the last Jews to flee on the 4th of Adar, 5708/1948. The Jordanian government resettled their homes with Arab refugees from the abandoned Lifta neighborhood situated at the entrance to Yerushalayim.
After the cave was recaptured in 5727/1967, it enjoyed a spiritual and physical revival.
The spiritual revival was engineered by Rav Yosef Eliyahu Deutch, who found it intolerable that few Jews dared to visit the place even though it is barely a stone’s throw from Meah Shearim. Only about five or ten people were visiting there on an average day.
To remedy the situation, Rav Yosef Eliyahu began organizing daily minyanim, sometimes shipping in bachurim by cab to be the tenth man. In the end, his dream prevailed, and nowadays, the cave pulsates with life, from three in the morning when people come to say sefer Tehillim and daven Netz. As a concession to modernity, the roughly hewn cave is furnished with electricity and a shining marble floor, and is adjacent to a mikveh and a hall for brissos and bar mitzvah celebrations.
Near the cave, an iron staircase leads up to a road where Arab youngsters spend their time kicking around a ball while yells from a nearby mosque deafen one’s ears, yet over the road is a small group of buildings with an Israeli flag fluttering above. This is the restored Batei Navon neighborhood, now home to a group of Jews determined to redeem it from its Arab thieves.
After the Six Day War, the vagrant Arabs were left undisturbed until Tishrei 5759/1998, when two Jews noticed that one Arab had erected two concrete pillars and was about to commit the ultimate chutzpah of joining his house to the old shul, which had miraculously survived and still sported a Magen-Dovid engraved over its door. Until then, the Arabs had used this shul, in which Rav Ovadyah Yosef celebrated his bar mitzvah in 5693/1933, as a garbage dump.
A group of Jews contacted the Sephardic Council of Yerushalayim that owns the land and received permission to take over the shul. This provoked a hornet’s nest of Arab protest. A swarm of a hundred Palestinians, led by two Arab-Israeli politicians, Faisel Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, stormed into the tiny neighborhood, but eventually the law supported the Jews’ claim.
Examining old Ottoman archives of the Moslem courts, offi cials discovered document no. 21 that records that “half the land of the kever of Shimon HaTzaddik belongs to the hekdesh of the Sephardic kehillah,” noting that Ischak and his sister, Ester – children of the fi rst Rishon L’Tziyon (Sephardic Chief Rabbi), Rav Avraham Ashkenazi – testifi ed that he had bought the land at the grave during his lifetime, and continued by describing the properties’ boundaries. Other documents recorded that Menachem, another son of the Rishon L’Tziyon, testified that his father had bought the rest of the land near the kever, on behalf of the Ashkenazic hekdesh.
Jews moved into the old Batei Navon neighborhood and established a kollel, where about fifty people study in the old shul. There are not too many of them. Seven Jewish families, living among hostile Moslem neighbors, are watched over by two armed guards, day and night.
The Jewish residents are not lolling in luxury. The average home size is about fifty square meters, the normal size of an apartment at the time they were built, over a century ago. As an old time resident of the place reminisced, he and his seven brothers and sisters used to sleep on mattresses spread on the floor while his mother slept on the deeply recessed window-sill. This was no different from most of the living conditions in Yerushalayim of those days. Presently, it is claimed that the Shimon HaTzaddik Organization has bought a large tract of land in the area and hopes to build 160 homes.
This tiny Jewish neighborhood is one of about a dozen similar enclaves inside and next to East Yerushalayim. Come to the Meron of Yerushalayim to experience the ambience of a Meron Lag b’Omer. Nothing is lacking. Outside, you will meet the ubiquitous loudspeaker, candy-floss merchant and trinket dealer while inside, you will experience the inimitable ‘gilu bir’ada’ ambience of Lag b’Omer in Meron.