JPPI survey answers questions of the numbers of pilgrims at Meron
(JERUSALEM) – In light of the tragic loss of life at Meron on Lag B’Omer, the question of how many visit the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai there has been raised.
Several newspapers have regularly reported that “hundreds of thousands” of Israelis make the pilgrimage there, but some media have reported the figure as “half a million people.”
While there is no accurate way to measure the actual numbers, the Jewish People Policy Institute conducted a broad survey of the Israeli people in 2018 and the data suggests the numbers are in line with those estimates.
A quarter of Israeli Jews said they regularly visit the “tombs of the righteous.” About half of these, 14% of Jewish Israelis, said 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.
Among Israelis who identified as “totally secular,” almost a third of all Jews in Israel, the number that visit religious sites is generally miniscule. Among those that identified as “secular, somewhat traditional” Jews, only 3% said they visit Meron.
Among those who identified as “traditional Jews,” 10% said they visited Meron “when they can” and a much larger number, almost a quarter, visited the tombs of the righteous (23%).
Statistically, 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). If only half of them “can go” in a particular year, then almost a half million would be pilgrims.
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.