The scene of the deadly stampede in Israel was at an annual Jewish festival on Mount Meron. This year’s event — the largest gathering in Israel since most pandemic restrictions were lifted — drew an estimated 100,000 people, the vast majority ultra-Orthodox men and male students.

Here is what you need to know about how the event turned to tragedy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the Jewish holiday Lag B’Omer?
  • Why do people gather at Mount Meron?
  • What caused the stampede?
  • What are some similar tragedies?

What is the Jewish holiday Lag B’Omer?

Lag B’Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that takes place on the 33rd day between two more significant dates on the Jewish calendar: Passover and Shavuot. The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, a period known as the Omer, is traditionally treated as if it were a time of mourning, when activities such as weddings and haircuts are forbidden except for on one day.

That day is Lag B’Omer. The holiday is traditionally celebrated with bonfires, weddings, haircuts and cookouts. According to one Jewish tradition, the date coincides with a pause in a plague that killed many students of a revered sage, Rabbi Akiva, who is additionally known for supporting a failed rebellion against the Romans in the 2nd century. It is also said to be the day that one of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, the prominent Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, died.

Why do people gather at Mount Meron?

Jewish tradition teaches that Rabbi Shimon is buried in a tomb at the base of Mount Meron in Israel’s Upper Galilee region. Each year, hundreds of thousands of mainly ultra-Orthodox pilgrims come to the holy site to pray and dance during an all-night Lag B’Omer festival. Prayers are held and bonfires lit by the rabbis of different Jewish sects, which each typically have their own sections.

Visiting the tomb is considered to bring various kinds of good fortune.

What caused the stampede?

Police were still investigating. What is known is that a crush of people, largely members of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic community centered in Jerusalem, tried to go through one narrow exit area of the compound after the end of a bonfire-lighting ceremony.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene of people tripping down stairs and falling under the rush of people, stuck for upward of 20 minutes before rescue services arrived.

Conditions could have been exacerbated this year by barriers set up to try to keep groups apart as a coronavirus precaution. Two state comptroller’s reports, in 2008 and 2011, also detailed numerous ways in which conditions were “not appropriate to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the site.”

Anger is also now being directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has relied on the ultra-Orthodox as a key political base. Critics accuse Netanyahu of often caving to ultra-Orthodox demands, such as opposition to coronavirus restrictions on large religious gatherings.

What are some similar tragedies?

Stampedes and crowd crushes have claimed thousands of lives at religious gatherings, festivals, political rallies, funerals and other mass events.

G. Keith Still, a crowd safety and risk analysis specialist, previously told The Washington Post that in these conditions people usually die from constricted asphyxia rather than being trampled.

“Imagine that people are so tightly packed together that they can’t breathe,” Still said. “The pressure is so great on people so they can’t expand their lungs.”

The annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has been the scene of several disasters linked to huge crowds. In 1990, more than 1,400 people died as throngs packed into a tunnel near the holy city of Mecca. In 2015, also in Mecca, at least 769 people died in a crush of Muslim worshipers.

In January 2020, more than 50 people were killed in Kerman, Iran, in dense crowds during a funeral procession for Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. attack in Iraq.

In 1989, soccer fans flooded an already full section of the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield in northern England, leaving 96 people dead. Many were trampled or crushed against metal fences.

In Iraq in 2005, more than 950 people were killed when Shiite worshipers packed onto a bridge in Baghdad to reach a shrine.

Among the crowd-related deaths in the United States: 21 people died at the E2 nightclub in Chicago in 2003 after in a stampede when security guards tried to break up a fight with pepper spray; and 11 people died in 1979 in Cincinnati in a crowd surge through the doors of the Riverside Coliseum before a concert by The Who.