Pilgrims Flock to Africa’s Oldest Synagogue for Annual Festival, Lag B’Omer
Lag B’Omer, is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which occurs on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar.
This day marks the hillula (celebration, interpreted by some as anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Mishnaic sage and leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century, and the day on which he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar (Book of Splendor, literally “radiance”), a landmark text of Jewish mysticism.
This association has spawned several well-known customs and practices on Lag BaOmer, including the lighting of bonfires, pilgrimages to the tomb of Bar Yochai in the northern Israeli town of Meron, and various customs at the tomb itself.
Hundreds of pilgrims converged on the Ghriba synagogue on the Mediterranean island of Djerba where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world lives.
They were joined by ministers and other dignitaries to celebrate the two-day Lag BaOmer festival.
The event, which starts 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year for the first time since 1987.
A fast-breaking meal is due to be shared by Muslims and Jews on Wednesday evening in Djerba.
“It’s not easy to organize all this while people are fasting here. They are tired, but we are as welcome as usual,” said Laura Tuil-Journo from France.
This year’s pilgrimage is the first since Rene Trabelsi, who has been co-organizing the festival for years, was appointed as Tunisia’s first Jewish minister in decades, in charge of tourism.
“This year it is packed. People now come with full confidence, especially as Mr. Trabelsi became a minister,” Tuil-Journo said.
Several hundred police officers and soldiers, backed by tanks and helicopters, have been deployed to protect pilgrims.
The community is still recovering from a suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda at the synagogue in 2002 that killed 21 people.
Before that, some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration.
The number plunged afterwards but has since recovered somewhat.
Tunisia’s tourism industry was also left reeling by attacks on a museum and a tourist resort in 2015 that left dozens dead, including 59 foreigners.
This year organizers expect more than 5,000 pilgrims, including Israelis, to visit the synagogue, believed to have been founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
The number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly, from around 100,000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1,500 today, most of whom live in Djerba.
Another reason for why Jews celebrate Lag BaOmer is that it marks the day that the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples came to an end, and for this reason the mourning period of Sefirat HaOmer concludes on Lag BaOmer for some people.
Nachman Krochmal, a 19th-century Jewish theologian, among others, suggests that the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students was a veiled reference to the defeat of “Akiva’s soldiers” by the Romans, and that Lag BaOmer was the day on which Bar Kokhba enjoyed a brief victory.
During the Middle Ages, Lag BaOmer became a special holiday for rabbinical students and was called “Scholar’s Day.” It was customary to rejoice on this day through outdoor sports.