Who Visits Mt. Meron on Lag BaOmer?
05/02/2018 Newspapers regularly report that "hundreds of thousands" of Israelis visit Mt. Meron each year to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. At times, the media reports have estimated as many as "half a million people" making the annual pilgrimage. So how many Israeli Jews really ascend Mt. Meron each year on Lag BaOmer?
The data collected as part of the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) Israeli Judaism research project provide an answer to this question. The data suggest that:
A quarter of Israeli Jews say they regularly visit the “tombs of the righteous.”
About half of these, 14% of Jewish Israelis, say they partake in commemorating the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron "when they can."
These statistics relate to the overall averages for Israeli Jews, although, as expected, a breakdown shows significant differences between the different constituent sectors of Israeli society. For example, among Israelis who identify as "totally secular," almost a third of all Jews in Israel, the number that visit the tombs of the righteous is generally miniscule. Among "secular, somewhat traditional" Jews, only 3% say they visit Meron, but 9% visit tombs of the righteous generally. Among "traditional" Jews, 10% visit Meron ("when they can"), and a much larger number, almost a quarter, visit the tombs of the righteous (23%). Naturally, the number of those who visit the tombs of the righteous, like the number who go to Meron, is significantly higher among the religious sectors (see graph).
Simple arithmetic helps explain the meaning of the fact that 14 out of every 100 Israeli Jews say they go "when they can" to the commemorating celebration on the anniversary of Shimon Bar Yochai's death. Over a million Israeli Jews take part in this event “when they can" (14% out of nearly seven million Israeli Jews amounts to 980 thousand people). As we cannot assume that every one of these "can go" every year, half a million visitors -- half the number of those who "go when they can" in any given year -- seems a reasonable rough estimate of how many will likely partake in the festivities this year on May 2nd and 3rd.
Even if in the 21st century, ethnicity plays a less significant role than in the past in understanding Jewish-Israeli society, the custom of visiting the tombs of the righteous is not uniform among the various ethnic sectors in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the ethnic identity of over 40% of Israeli Jews is characterized as "Israeli," while surveys investigating personal identity and identification of Israeli Jews show that almost half self-identify as "Mizrahi/ Sephardi," about 40% as "Ashkenazi" and the rest "mixed" or "other."
Respondents in JPPI’s Israeli-Judaism project were asked to self-identify as "Mizrahi,", "mixed" or "Ashkenazi." With this classification it was clear that the number of those visiting the tombs of righteous is significantly higher among Jews self-identifying as "Mizrahi,” as opposed to "Ashkenazi" or "mixed." The gap among visitors to Meron, however, is much smaller: 13% of Ashkenazi Jews attend the Meron festivities vs. 18% of Mizrahi Jews.
The Jewish People Policy Institute's Israeli Judaism project is headed by Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow of the institute, and Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, who is responsible for the survey and statistical analysis. Noah Speklov, a JPPI fellow, helped analyze the data, which was based on two rounds of questionnaires: the first round surveyed 2000 Israeli Jews and the second round included an additional 1000 respondents. This representative sample represents of Israel’s Jewish population the sampling error (based on all 3000 respondents) was 1.8%; for questions with fewer respondents, it grew accordingly.