Hillula

Hillula

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Persons of Jewish faith have an analogous celebration to the Christian devotion to the saints and the Muslim veneration of deceased Sufi leaders. They will gather, frequently at the grave, to honor and remember the life and work of a holy person on the anniversary of his or her death. These communal events are most common among Hassidic Jews who gather to honor their deceased rebbes (holy men). If the death date is unknown, they will gather on Lag Ba’Omer (the 33rd day of Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot), the day to remember the lives of two great sages, Rabbi Akiva (second century CE) and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The latter was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt against Rome in 135 CE. Modern Hassidic Jews believe that during the twelve-year period when Rabbi Shimon hid from Roman authorities, he experienced many miracles and the prophet Elijah came to him and taught him the secret mysteries of the Torah (known today as the Kabbalah).

The celebration of hillula includes many familiar elements, including chanting and singing, prayer, holy conversation, and the attempt to ritually obtain the blessing of the deceased person. As they near the tomb, men and women will move to separate sides. As they come close to the tomb, they may reach out to touch it or even lie down on it. They may place objects believed capable of absorbing the holy person’s power on the tomb. Women may wait to give a male child his first haircut at the tomb.

The idea of celebrating the anniversary of a holy person’s death with festive activity, rather than mourning, comes from the belief that a saint’s life reaches the pinnacle of its development on the last day of the holy person’s life, and is thus a time to be remembered with joy. The word hillula also relates the celebration to marriages, as the return of a holy person’s soul to its origin was understood to be analogous to a wedding. Sephardic Jews believe that at the hillula celebration, all of the accomplishments of a holy person are presented again to the world, but on a higher level.

Today large hillula celebrations, held at his burial place in Meron in northern Israel, mark the date assigned to the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba’Omer. As many as one hundred thousand people make the annual pilgrimage, and large bonfires burn throughout the night. The hillula for Meir Ba’al Ha-nes (twenty-first century CE) is held annually in Tiberias, while Israeli Jews of North African background hold festivals in Netivot at the grave of Israel Abu-Hatsira (“Babi Sali”), a twentieth-century holy man from Morocco. Around the world, most Hassidic groups gather on the anniversaries of the deaths of their former leaders.

Sources:

“Celebration of Lag BaOmer.” Posted at http://www.ou.org/chagim/lagbaomer/. Accessed April 1, 2007.
Cerena, Ruth Fredman. “Flaming Prayers: Hillula in a New Home.” In Jack Kugelmass, Between Two Worlds: Ethnographic Essays on American Jewry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988): 162–191.