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What is the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage?

A scholar of Jewish history explains why the annual Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to Mount Meron in Israel has such power and meaning.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer. Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

The annual Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to Mount Meron in Israel – which in 2022 falls on Wednesday night, May 18 – until recently has attracted as many as half a million visitors every year. The annual gathering, which takes place at what is believed to be the gravesite of the second-century Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is by far the largest Jewish pilgrimage in modern times.

In 2021, at least 45 people – mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as “Haredim” in Hebrew – died in a stampede when over 100,000 people gathered in a space meant for only 15,000.

This year, Israeli authorities have imposed strict new rules to control the crowd.

I have participated twice in the pilgrimage – once in 1994 as a newly observant Jew seeking religious meaning, and again in 2001 as a scholar of Jewish history. What fascinates me about this pilgrimage is the way it weaves together Jewish mysticism, folk practices and modern-day nationalism.

Early history

The Jewish practice of worshipping at the graves of holy men is at least a thousand years old. Many Jews – particularly those whose ancestry comes from the Arab world, called “Mizrahim” or “Sephardim” – believe that these saints can act as their advocates in the “celestial court.” They pray at their gravesites for everything from children to good health to a livelihood.

The pilgrimage to Meron, in the hills of the Galilee near Safed in the northern part of Israel, initially focused on the graves of other holy figures said to be buried there, particularly the early rabbinic sages Hillel and Shammai, whose debates on Jewish law helped lay the foundation for rabbinic Judaism 2,000 years ago.

In the aftermath of the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, Safed grew into an important center of Jewish mysticism, known in Hebrew as Kabbalah. The most important and influential of these mystics was the 16th-century scholar Isaac Luria, whose innovative teachings transformed Judaism and changed the course of Jewish history. Under his influence, the focus of the Meron pilgrimage shifted to Shimon, whose burial place was among the many such graves of ancient rabbis that Luria “identified” with supernatural guidance.

Shimon is by tradition credited with the composition of the Zohar, the core text of all subsequent Jewish mysticism, though scholars have determined it was actually composed in 13th-century Spain.

Sixteenth-century mystics, and the Jews who follow in their footsteps, are thus particularly interested in connecting to him. They are especially interested in doing so on the anniversary of his death, the day on which the Zohar states he revealed the deepest secrets about God, and pilgrims expect to experience a taste of that revelation. Since at least the 18th century, Jews have widely recognized that date as the holiday of Lag BaOmer.

The pilgrimage

The Hebrew name of the holiday Lag BaOmer refers to its date in the Jewish calendar: the 33rd day of the ritual to “Count the Omer.” During this period, observant Jews count the 50 days from the holiday of Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, to the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating God’s revelation and giving of the Torah, the Jewish holy canon.

These seven weeks of the Omer are traditionally days of mourning, commemorating the death of 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva in the second century from a plague, seen as a punishment by God. Only five people survived, including Shimon. Haircuts, music, weddings and all celebrations are prohibited during that seven-week period.

On Lag BaOmer, the restrictions are lifted in accordance with the tradition that on this day the plague ended. Mystical tradition credits this to Shimon’s death, which was understood as having the power to eradicate the decree of the plague. According to that tradition, Shimon instructed that the day of his passing be celebrated rather than mourned, and thus was born the celebration we know today.

Rituals and prayers

In the 20th century, even before the founding of Israel, the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to Meron grew into a mass event.

Pilgrims light bonfires symbolizing the light of Torah revealed by Shimon, or perhaps the literal fires that the Zohar states surrounded him at the moment of his death. In fact, they are lit not only at Meron, but throughout Israel and the world.

For some secular Zionists it evokes not Shimon Bar Yochai but instead Shimon Bar Kosiba, known as Bar Kochba, who led a rebellion of Jews in Judea against the Roman Empire that occurred around the same time. For over a century, the Zionist movement has glorified that rebellion for its military heroism, despite Bar Kochba’s ultimate crushing defeat.

The earliest pilgrims to Meron were mostly Moroccan Jews who arrived in Israel intent on continuing their tradition of graveside visits to saints, convinced of the possibility of magical remedies and blessings through their holy intervention.

Many pilgrims to Meron celebrate the kabbalistic custom there of giving a boy his first haircut, leaving the sidelocks, at 3 years of age. In recent years, ultra-Orthodox Jews of European ancestry – especially Hasidim – have increasingly dominated the site, although all sectors of Jewish society are represented there.

The pilgrimage is one of the only truly widespread expressions of folk religion in Judaism today. As anthropologist Edith Turner wrote in her classic essay on Meron, pilgrims come to Meron with deep faith in its power to bring blessings to them.

The celebration is an intense, highly packed event that offers participants an ecstatic experience of communing with God in a collective of tens or even hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews.

I can certainly attest to this effect. In 1994, at the start of my journey into Orthodox Judaism, I joined the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to Meron. At that time, the festival hosted many Moroccan Jews, who camped outside the main grounds. Several among them had live animals ready to be slaughtered and eaten to celebrate their sons’ first haircuts. The Ashkenazic Hasidic Jews – sects of Jews from Eastern Europe deeply influenced by Jewish mysticism and devoted to their leaders – dominated the inner spaces of the compound.

Everywhere I walked, people offered me free drinks, convinced of the promise that it would bring blessings to their family. Meanwhile, gender-segregated crowds sang and danced in unison for hours into the night, creating a palpable sense of euphoria and connection to a collective eternity. Some of us pushed inside to approach the gravesite and prayed for blessings of success, while others pushed to reach closer to the bonfires.

There were several fires, each representing a different Jewish community, although by custom the main fire is lit by the head of the “Boyan” Hasidim, so called because their leaders originally lived in the city of Boyan in Ukraine. It was in the area of a different Hasidic group, known as Toldos Aharon, that the tragedy on April 30, 2021, occurred. This group can be seen dancing in 2021, just before the tragedy.

By the time I returned in 2001, I had become a full-fledged Hasid myself and was living in Betar Illit, a massive Haredi settlement south of Jerusalem. I recall far fewer Moroccan families camping in tents. But the number of Haredim, joined by Sephardim, modern Orthodox and even secular pilgrims, seemed to have exploded, serving to enhance that sense of eternal community, of Jewish connection across time and space.

I have long since left that Hasidic world, for a variety of reasons. But I do not for a moment discount the very real experience of divinity and eternity enjoyed by Meron pilgrims, and their deep need to return to it each year.

Political overtones

Bearded men dressed in black and wearing wide-brimmed black hats walk amid a sea of gravestones.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021, for one of the victims of the Meron stampede. Gil Cohen Magen GIL /AFP via Getty Images

The events leading up to the deadly stampede of 2021 need to be viewed in context of Haredi society in Israel – today over 14% of the Jewish population, but growing rapidly – and the power wielded by its leaders. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, granted Haredim extensive autonomy in their education system, military deferments, welfare funding and more. Israel’s parliamentary system, which offers small political parties disproportionate power, has carefully protected and expanded that autonomy

As a result, Haredi leaders have successfully fought enforcement of government oversight and safety regulations, from COVID-19 restrictions to the Meron festival. Countless officials had warned that Meron was a disaster waiting to happen. But on the eve of Lag BaOmer last year, Aryeh Deri, then interior minister and leader of the Sephardic (and Ultra-Orthodox) Shas party, said Jews “should trust in Rabbi Shimon.” “This is a holy day, and the largest gathering of Jews [each year].” “Bad things,” he promised, “don’t happen to Jews on religious pilgrimage.”

Similar sentiments were voiced by Haredi leaders when they prematurely opened their schools in 2020, promising that Torah study would hold the plague at bay.

One hopes that the Haredim and other Israelis will accept government oversight and limits at the site imposed in 2022.

This is an updated version of an article first published on May 7, 2021.

Joshua Shanes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Government

Cruise Line Drops Pre-Cruise Covid Testing Rule

The major cruise lines walk a delicate line. They need to take the actual steps required to keep their passengers safe and they also need to be aware of…

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The major cruise lines walk a delicate line. They need to take the actual steps required to keep their passengers safe and they also need to be aware of how things look to the outside public. It's a mix of practical covid policy balanced with covid theater.

You have to do the right thing -- and Royal Caribbean International (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report, and Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCLH) - Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report have been doing that with very meticulous protocols-- but you also have to show the general public you're taking the pandemic seriously. The cruise industry has been under the microscope of both public perception and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) since covid first appeared.

That's not because you're likely to get infected on a cruise ship than at a concert, sporting event, theme park, restaurant, or any other crowded space. It's because when you get sick at one of those locations nobody can pinpoint the source of your infection

Cruises last from 3 days to 7 days or even longer and that means that some people will get covid onboard and that will be blamed on the cruise industry. To mitigate that Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian have rigid protocols in place that require passengers 12 and over to be vaccinated as well as pre-cruise covid tests taken no more than two days before your cruise leaves.

Once cruise line has dropped that testing requirement (at least on a few sailings) and that could lead Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian to follow. 

Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty

Holland America Drops Some Covid Testing

As the largest cruise lines sailing from the U.S., Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian don't want to be the first to make major covid policy changes. They acted more or less in tandem when it came to loosening, then dropping mask rules and have generally followed the lead of the CDC, even when that agency's rules became optional.

Now, Holland America cruise line has dropped pre-cruise covid testing on a handful of cruises. It's a minor move, but it does provide cover and precedent for Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian to eventually do the same.

"Holland America Line becomes the first US-based cruise line to remove testing for select cruises. Unfortunately for those taking a cruise from the United States, the new protocols are only in place for certain cruises onboard the company’s latest ship, the Rotterdam, in Europe," Cruisehive reported.

The current CDC guidelines do recommend pre-cruise testing, but the cruise lines into following those rules. By picking cruises sailing out of Europe, Holland America avoids picking a fight with the federal agency just yet, but it will be able to gather data as to whether the pre-cruise testing actually helps.

Holland America has not changed its vaccination requirements for those cruises which mirror the 12-and-up rule used by Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian.

Some guests have called for the end of the testing requirement because they believe it's more theater than precaution because people can test and then contract covid while traveling to their cruise.

The Current Cruise Protocols Work

Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley does expect changes to come in his cruise line's covid protocols, and he talked about them during Royal Caribbean's recent President's Cruise, the Royal Caribbean Blog reported.

"I think pre cruise testing is going to be around for another couple of months," Bayley told passengers during a question and answer session. "We obviously want it to go back to normal, but we're incredibly cognizant of our responsibilities to keep our crew, the communities and our guests safe."

People do still get covid onboard despite the crew being 100% vaccinated and all passengers 12 and over being vaccinated, but the protocols have worked well when it comes to preventing serious illness.

Bayley said that the CDC shared some information with him in a call.

"The cruise industry sailing out of the US ports over the past 12 months and how many people have been hospitalized with Covid and how many deaths occurred from Covid from people who'd sailed on the industry's ships, which is in the millions," he said, "And the number of people who died from COVID who'd sailed on ships over the past year was two."

That success may be why the major cruise lines are reluctant to make changes. The current rules, even if they're partially for show, have been incredibly effective.

"Two is terrible. But but but against the context of everything we've seen, that's it's truly been a remarkable success." he added.

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Tesla Rivals Challenge Its Lead as Nio Sets Encouraging Record

Tesla’s rivals are not even coming close to producing and delivering EVs at the same rate as the Austin, Texas-based market leader.

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Tesla's rivals are not even coming close to producing and delivering EVs at the same rate as the Austin, Texas-based market leader.

Electric vehicle makers have been struggling over the last two years to produce and deliver cars, trucks and SUVs despite obstacles such as supply chain disruptions, semiconductor shortages and factory shutdowns caused by the covid pandemic.

The industry's leading EV manufacturer Tesla  (TSLA) - Get Tesla Inc. Report on July 2 said that plant closures at its Shanghai gigafactory in April and May and supply chain disruptions led to a smaller number of deliveries than expected in its second quarter ending June 30 with 254,695, which was 26.7% higher than the same period in 2021, but 17.7% lower than its record of 310,048 delivered in the first quarter of 2021. Analysts were originally expecting about 295,000 deliveries.

Tesla's production declined to 258,580 vehicles in the second quarter compared to 305,407 in the first quarter. It had produced 305,840 vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Tesla's rivals are not even coming close to producing and delivering EVs at the same rate as the Austin, Texas-based market leader. But they keep trying.

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Tesla Rivals Struggle to Produce and Deliver Volume of EVs

Tesla rival Nio  (NIO) - Get NIO Inc. American depositary shares each representing one Class A 蔚来汽车 Report on July 1 said that it had delivered 12,961 vehicles in June for a 60.3% year-over-year increase and its highest number of monthly deliveries ever. The company also reported 25,059 EVs delivered in the three months ending June 2022, increasing by 14.4% year-over-year. Nio has delivered a cumulative 217,897 EVs as of June 30.

NIO on June 15 rolled out its ES7, a new mid-large five-seat smart electric SUV, which is the first SUV product based on NIO's latest technology platform Technology 2.0. NIO also launched the 2022 ES8, ES6 and EC6 equipped with the upgraded digital cockpit domain controller and sensing suite, enhancing the computing and perception capabilities as well as digital experience of the vehicles. The company expects to start deliveries of the ES7 and the ES8, ES6 and EC6 in August.

Chinese EV maker XPeng  (XPEV) - Get XPeng Inc. American depositary shares each representing two Class A 小鹏汽车 Report on July 1 said it delivered 15,295 vehicles in June, a 133% increase year-over-year; 34,422 in the second quarter ending June 30 for a 98% increase year-over-year and 68,983 in the first six months of the year for a 124% increase year-over year.

The Guangzhou, China-based company said in August it will begin accepting orders for its new G9 SUV with an official launch in September.

Beijing-based Li Auto  (LI) - Get Li Auto Inc. Report on July 1 said it delivered 13,024 EVs in June, a 68.9% increase year-over-year and 28,687 in the second quarter ending June 30 for a 63.2% increase year-over-year. The company on June 21 began taking orders for its Li L9 SUV and recorded 30,000 orders as of June 24, according to a statement. Test drives will begin July 16 with deliveries beginning by the end of August.

GM Follows Behind Tesla and Other Rivals

General Motors  (GM) - Get General Motors Company Report had 7,300 EV sales in the second quarter, according to a July 1 statement. The Detroit automaker's sales included deliveries of the BrightDrop Zevo 600 delivery van, GMC Hummer EV pickup, and the resumption of the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV production.

GM said the Cadillac Lyriq production is accelerating, with initial deliveries in process. Orders for the 2023 model year sold out within hours and preorders for the 2024 model opened on June 22.

The company said it will gradually increase production of the Cadillac Lyriq and GMC Hummer EV Pickup in the second half of 2022. 

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Spread & Containment

Tesla EV deliveries fall nearly 18% in second quarter following China factory shutdown

Tesla delivered 254,695 electric vehicles globally in the second quarter, a nearly 18% drop from the previous period as supply chain constraints, China’s…

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Tesla delivered 254,695 electric vehicles globally in the second quarter, a nearly 18% drop from the previous period as supply chain constraints, China’s extended COVID-19 lockdown and challenges around opening factories in Berlin and Austin took their toll on the company.

This is the first time in two years that Tesla deliveries, which were 310,048 in the first period this year, have fallen quarter over quarter. Tesla deliveries were up 26.5% from the second quarter last year.

The quarter-over-quarter reduction is in line with a broader supply chain problem in the industry. It also illustrates the importance of Tesla’s Shanghai factory to its business. Tesla shuttered its Shanghai factory multiple times in March due to rising COVID-19 cases that prompted a government shutdown.

Image Credits: Tesla/screenshot

The company said Saturday it produced 258,580 EVs, a 15% reduction from the previous quarter when it made 305,407 vehicles.

Like in other quarters over the past two years, most of the produced and delivered vehicles were Model 3 and Model Ys. Only 16,411 of the produced vehicles were the older Model S and Model X vehicles.

Tesla said in its released that June 2022 was the highest vehicle production month in Tesla’s history. Despite that milestone, the EV maker as well as other companies in the industry, have struggled to keep apace with demand as supply chain problems persist.

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