All Jews consider visiting the graves of deceased relatives a meritorious act. But outside of Hasidic circles, American Jews have no experience with the custom of making a pilgrimage to visit the tombs of Jewish saints and folkheros. Among the Jews of North Africa and Asia, however, the veneration of the righteous dead is widespread and widely observed.
Called variously a ziyara (Arabic: "visitation"), aliyah ha-regel (Hebrew: "pilgrimage") or hillula (Aramaic: "party" or even euphemistically "wedding"), thousands will make a journey, sometimes alone, but more often in organized caravans, to the gravesides of venerated scholars, rabbis, and faith healers.
Largely (but not entirely) unknown in Biblical and Talmudic times, the custom arose in the Middle Ages, coinciding with the rise of saint veneration in Christian and Muslim societies.
There are appointed "holidays" (a yom hillula
) for some figures, often the yahrzeit, the most famous in Israel being the Lag b'Omer (33rd Day of the Omer Count) hilula to the Safed grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Talmudic Sage, mystic, and purported author of the mystical tract, Sefer Zohar. Others include Choni ha-M'aggel, the Talmudic rainmaker buried in Hatzor, the medieval healer Meir Baal ha-Nes in Tiberius, and Baba Sali (a modern folk hero) in Neivot. [See this Youtube clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWqWIFEox0c
These events are lively social gatherings, freely mixing religious, commerical, and party atmospherics, with food, drinking, bonfires, marketing, worship, dancing, and Bar mitzvah celebrations. They also are the focal points for a widespread belief in miracles. Like Lourdes, these sites will attract pious petitioners seeking spiritual intervention for health, fertility, marital problems, and the like. Offerings are made - sacred books, bottles of olive oil and liquor, candles (often tossed, or hurled en mass, into a huge brazier) - in hopes of soliciting a divine response.