At least 44 people were killed and over 150 injured on the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer on Thursday night at a mass gathering turned tragedy as people stampeded The tragedy took place shortly after midnight an estimated 100,000 people were at the event. An additional 100,000 were expected to arrive Friday morning but the site was closed by police. It is still unclear what led to the panic with some reports of a bleachers collapse initiating the rush. Police reported large numbers of people at a concert slipping and falling onto people below them.
The Magen David Adom rescue service said 38 people were killed at the scene while they treated18 people in serious condition, 2 who were moderately hurt, and 80 who were lightly injured. Ziv hospital in Tzfat later reported that six of the wounded died from their injuries and the Health Ministry confirmed that the total death toll stood at 44. The IDF, which sent its elite 669 rescue team to the site, said a roof had collapsed. MDA spokesman Zaki Heller told the Ynet news site that the deaths were caused by severe overcrowding.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 29, 2021
There is a Hasidic tradition (called Halaka) to give three-year-old boys their first haircut at Meron on Lag Ba’Omer so many small children were at the gathering. Many were separated from the parents in the panic.
“Unfortunately we found small children being trampled there, and we performed resuscitations on children. We managed to save some of them,” United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer said to IDF Army Radio.
ZAKA, an organization of voluntary community emergency response teams, has taken upon itself one of the holiest Jewish tasks; caring for a dead body, referred to as chesed shel meet (true loving kindness). David Rose, the director of ZAKA, reported that ZAKA teams worked through the night to ensure their holy work was carried out to the best of their abilities but their job became even more difficult. Jewish tradition requires burial as soon as possible after death so many, if not all, of those killed will be buried before the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday.
Mobile telephone systems became overloaded and were not working. Zaka search and rescue set up an online Google doc form to check on missing persons. They will try to locate any missing person reported via the system.
Aviva Spiegel, a resident of Tsfat who was at the event, released an audio in which she described her experience:
“Whatever they say in the media that the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) were pushing and trampling, that they were like animals, hopefully, the media won’t, I want to tell you that when the sirens started blaring, I saw Hatzala workers running, and I saw men pumping chests, giving CPR,” Spiegel said. “What I saw was a nation that was so united. There is the story of death but the real story is the … thousands of people who were davening (praying) for them…Everyone was saying Tehillim (psalms). The heart of the nation is pure. Even though were dealt a huge blow. We were crying out for our brothers and sisters. And this is what brings geula (redemption). We pray for each other, and give tzedaka (charity.”
Last night’s event was one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, alongside the Carmel forest fire in 2010 in which 44 people lost their lives. The event has always been one of the most challenging for police and emergency and an estimated 5,000 policemen were deployed.
The public is requested to pray for the wounded as well as the many people who were traumatized by the event.
Lag Ba’Omer is celebrated on the 33rd day of the 49-day counting (seven complete weeks) of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot which culminates in the holiday of Shavuot when an offering of two loaves of wheat bread was brought in the Temple. The name of the holiday is derived from its position in the counting of the Omer since ‘Lag’ is spelled by the two Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, which in gematria (Hebrew numerology) equal 33. Before the pandemic, the minor holiday became a major pilgrimage with an estimated 250,000 Israelis—men, women and children—gathering at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee near Tzfat (Safed). The day is associated with the anniversary of the passing (yahrtzeit) of the Mishnaic sage and Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known by the acronym “Rashbi.” It is believed that on the day of his passing, he revealed for the first time teachings that constitute a significant portion of the Zohar, the foundational book of Jewish mysticism. Despite being the anniversary of his leaving the world, the Rashbi himself called for this day to be a joyous one and it has become a joyous highlight in the middle of the somber days of the Omer. Most celebrate the day with bonfires and barbecues, making it an attractive celebration to observant and non-observant Jews alike.
The day is also associated with the end of a mourning period, in which 24,000 students of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Akiva are believed to have died fighting the Romans during the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-136 C.E.). After the tragic death of his students, only five remained—one of whom was bar Yochai. There is another view that the students died from a plague brought about by disrespecting one another, in violation of Rabbi Akiva’s principle teaching of “loving each other like oneself.” The death of the students is believed to have ceased on Lag B’Omer.