The Life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
A glimpse into the greatness of this towering scholar whose yahrzeit is commemorated on Lag B’Omer.
On Lag B’Omer we commemorate the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known as the Rashbi, one of the greatest scholars of the Mishna and the primary author of the holy Zohar. It is difficult for us to even appraise so lofty and towering a figure. Few even in his day could comprehend his greatness. Yet several incidents about him recorded in the Talmud and Midrash and many of his own statements paint an awe-inspiring picture. Let us attempt to capture a glimpse.
His Early Life
We know very little of Rabbi Shimon’s background and early life, other than that he was one of Rabbi Akiva’s primary disciples. After the death of R. Akiva’s 24,000 students, during a time the Talmud described as “desolate”, R. Akiva found five choice students to replace his former ones, among them was the Rashbi. Together they attempted to surmount the colossal loss of Torah caused by the students’ deaths (Talmud Yevamot 62b). We also find the young R. Shimon and other students being ordained by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava – in defiance of a Roman decree and at the risk of their lives. The rabbi was put to death for his offense but the students escaped to safety (Talmud Sanhedrin 13b-14a).
His Rise to Greatness
Then came the turning point of R. Shimon’s life, unplanned by him, yet forced upon him by Divine providence. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) records the following lengthy incident (paraphrased):
R. Shimon and other scholars were discussing the impact of the Roman rule over the Holy Land. R. Yehuda praised the Romans for the excellent infrastructure they had developed – the marketplaces, the bridges and the bathhouses. The Rashbi retorted: “Everything they did was for their own sakes. The marketplaces they established for immoral purposes, the bathhouses to beautify themselves, and the bridges to collect tolls.” The effects of their deeds may have been beneficial, but these could not be separated from the ulterior motives underneath.
News of their discussion reached the Romans, and R. Shimon’s death was decreed (R. Yehuda by contrast was accorded high position). R. Shimon, together with his son R. Elazar, who no doubt was also in danger, went into hiding. They escaped to a cave (which tradition believes is in Peki’in, today a Druze village in the northern Galilee). God miraculously caused a carob tree to grow and a stream to flow right outside the cave, providing the two with basic sustenance. And they began studying Torah for years uninterrupted. In order that their clothes not wear out, they would undress and bury themselves to the neck in sand and study like that the entire day – except briefly when they would emerge to pray.
Under such lofty, surreal conditions the Rashbi and his son mastered the deepest secrets of the Torah – the mystical teachings of Kabbalah.
Emerging from the Cave
Then the story takes a curious turn. After 12 years, Elijah the Prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave, saying, “Who will tell bar Yochai that the Caesar has died and his decrees have been annulled?” R. Shimon and his son understood that it was time for them to depart. They exited the cave and began walking back towards civilization.
But the transition was not simple. As they walked, the father and son passed the innocuous scene of Jewish farmers plowing and planting their fields. And they were aghast: “They are abandoning eternal life for temporal life!” How could people take this world so seriously? It is all but a mirage, a façade before God’s Presence! How could they expend their energy on such empty, mundane pursuits? They simply could not take the earthiness of it. And everything they looked at immediately burst into flames.
A voice then emanated from heaven: "Did you come out to destroy My world?" As a result, the rabbis returned to the cave for another 12 months. Ordinary humanity was simply too much for them.
The Turning Point
At the end of a year a voice emanated from heaven, telling them it was time to depart. The rabbis ventured out again. This time, R. Shimon was already at peace. His son, a little more hot-headed (literally), was not. Whatever the son looked at ignited. The father then looked and extinguished the flames. He turned to his son and said, “My son, you and I are enough for the world.” Let the rest of mankind be. Our role is for the select few.
On their first Friday afternoon, they came across an older man, carrying two bundles of myrtle. They asked him what the spices were for. He answered, in honor of the approaching Shabbat. They asked, "Isn't one enough?" He answered, "One corresponds to 'zachor' (‘remember the Sabbath day’ (Exodus 20:8)) and one corresponds to 'shamor' (‘observe the Sabbath day’ (Deut. 5:12))." (The first term appears in the first version of the Ten Commandments and the second appears in the repetition in Deuteronomy.) R. Shimon turned to his son and said: "See how beloved the commandments are to Israel?" And they were then appeased.
Great yet Beloved
After their years in seclusion, R. Shimon became recognized as one of the greatest and saintliest scholars of the Talmud. Some of the major works of that period are attributed to him by the Talmud (see Sanhedrin 86a). His name is ubiquitous in the Mishna, with the Talmud’s principle that the law follows R. Shimon’s opinion over that of his fellow – but not over his fellows (if the majority rules against him; Eiruvin 46b). The Talmud also records an incident in which he was sent to intercede with the Roman government because “he is accustomed to miracles” (Meilah 17). Finally, the Midrash says that in his generation a rainbow never appeared (Bereishit Rabbah 35:2). A rainbow is a sign of Divine wrath, that the world should be flooded again but for God’s promise. There was no need to rely on such a promise with the Rashbi alive.
Yet in spite of his greatness – or perhaps because of it – one of Rabbi Shimon’s most notable traits was his tremendous love and admiration for every Jew, great and small. His own teacher’s catchphrase “Love your fellow as yourself” no doubt entered his own worldview and assumed even greater dimensions. Just a few of his statements from the Talmud and Midrash follow.
Had a single Jew been missing at Mount Sinai, the Divine revelation could not have occurred (Devarim Rabbah 7:8). Everyone has his own unique connection to God’s Torah. If so much as one Jew is not studying it, it will not be complete.
See how beloved the Children of Israel are to God, for whenever they were exiled, the Divine Presence (Shechinah) went with them (Talmud Megillah 29a).
One should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly embarrass his fellow (as Tamar was prepared to do rather than shame Judah) (Talmud Sotah 10b).
All the members of the Jewish people are as children of kings [and thus, behaviors which might be considered vain or extravagant are appropriate for and permitted to them] (Talmud Shabbat 67a).
Finally, the Rashbi believed that a Jew should ideally devote himself to nonstop Torah study throughout his day, without concern how he will support himself and his family. God will somehow care for him. This lofty level of trusting God completely, without even concern for physical sustenance and which others held was for the select few, R. Shimon believed could be the lot of every Jew. He saw every one of us as having the potential to strive for such greatness (Talmud Brachot 35b).
The Harmony of Creation
How could it be that so sublime a soul, which could barely countenance seeing Jews plow their fields, would have such reverence for all?
Perhaps the key to it lies in the incident which occurred after R. Shimon and his son emerged from the cave. They saw a man carrying two bundles of spice in honor of Shabbat. They asked him why two bundles and he answered one for “remember the Sabbath day” and one for “observe the Sabbath day.” (The first phrase teaches us to observe Shabbat in a positive sense – such as making kiddush Friday night, while the second teaches us the negative requirements – to refrain from doing creative labor on Shabbat.) And as we saw, this for them was the turning point, when they saw how precious the commandments are to Israel. What was so pivotal about this one episode?
R. Shimon and his son recognized that all Jews have their own unique connection to God and their own special way of serving Him
The Talmud (Shavuot 20b) teaches us that when God gave Israel the Ten Commandments He said the words “shamor” (observe) and “zachor” (remember) in a single utterance, something which humans can neither do nor (typically) hear. Why did God perform such a feat? Because on some deep, mystical level, both the negative and positive aspects of Shabbat are one and the same. If we understand Shabbat in its complete profundity, we will comprehend the metaphysical connection between both its aspects.
No doubt, R. Shimon and R. Elazar, so deeply versed in Kabbalistic wisdom, understood fully that both “remember” and “observe” are all a single concept. Had they prepared spices for Shabbat, they would have certainly taken a single bundle. But what happened? They came across a simple Jew who, like the rest of us, saw two distinct aspects to Shabbat observance. And what did he do on account of it? He honored Shabbat even better!
This is perhaps the significance of the Talmud’s story. And as a result, R. Shimon and his son recognized the beauty of Israel – that all Jews have their own unique connection to God and their own special way of serving Him. For from the perspective of Kabbalah every human being, every molecule, has a place in the Divine scheme. Everything is perfect and fashioned by God, and everything and everyone has its own unique mission to fulfill. Love of and devotion to God are not the lot of the scholarly and the mystics alone. Everyone has a place in God’s scheme.
Perhaps for this reason Lag B’Omer is such a universally cherished day. Hundreds of thousands of Jews flock to R. Shimon’s grave in Meron on the day of his passing, and bonfires commemorate his memory throughout Israel and the world. R. Shimon taught us the greatness of the hidden wisdom of the Torah. But in doing so, he taught us of the greatness of every Jew and of every part of God’s creation – how each of us can strive for a connection with God more special and more profound than we can possibly imagine. May his memory be for a blessing.