Beit Midrash

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Chapter 5: Lag Ba-omer

3. The Personality of R. Shimon bar Yohai

Before we elaborate on the customs of the hilula, we will briefly discuss the unique character of R. Shimon bar Yoĥai and his mentor, R. Akiva.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Chesvan 8 5782

Before we elaborate on the customs of the hilula, we will briefly discuss the unique character of R. Shimon bar Yoĥai and his mentor, R. Akiva. In general, the Sages tended to act according to the “middle path,” taking into consideration the difficulties that commonly arise in this world. R. Shimon bar Yoĥai, however, adhered to the absolute truth, without considering the real limitations of this world. Therefore, miracles were performed on his behalf, and he met with success in his endeavors.

One expression of R. Shimon bar Yoĥai’s approach pertains to foreign rule over Eretz Yisrael. The Sages taught that a Jew should pray for the welfare of the kingdom under whose rule he lives, and they tried, to the best of their ability, to avoid clashes between the Jewish people and the various empires that ruled over them. Only when there was no other recourse, and the kingdom forced the Jewish people to violate their religion, did the Sages call for rebellion. In the absence of religious persecution, however, they would try to find a way to reconcile with the kingdom. Accordingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that several of the Sages were once talking about the Roman Empire. R. Yehuda b. Ila’i began the discussion with words of praise for the Romans, saying, “How pleasant are the deeds of this nation; they established marketplaces, erected bridges, and built bathhouses.” Even though R. Yehuda knew that the Romans issued harsh decrees against the Jews – even destroying the Second Temple and killing hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba revolt – he preferred to concentrate on the positive side of their rule, in order to avoid heightening tensions. R. Yosi preferred to remain silent. Apparently, he did not agree with R. Yehuda’s words of praise, but he did not want to denounce the Romans either, so as not to create pointless tensions. R. Shimon bar Yoĥai, in contrast, was unable to tolerate words of praise for the evil Roman Empire, and he said, “All that they built they built solely for their own needs. They established marketplaces in which to station prostitutes, bathhouses in which to pamper themselves, and bridges from which to collect taxes.” The Romans found out about this conversation and decreed: R. Yehuda, who praised us, shall be promoted; R. Yosi, who remained silent, shall be exiled; and R. Shimon bar Yoĥai, who denounced us, shall be put to death. R. Shimon bar Yoĥai fled and hid in the beit midrash (study hall) together with his son, while his wife provided them with food and water. It is important to note that after the rebellions that the Jews staged against the Roman Empire – rebellions that caused many Roman deaths and shook the entire empire – the Romans took no chances and hunted down any display of Jewish opposition to their rule. Apparently, Roman troops searched for R. Shimon bar Yoĥai for years, in order to kill him. The situation became so dangerous that R. Shimon bar Yoĥai could no longer rely on his wife, so he and his son moved into a cave. Miraculously, a carob tree sprouted outside the cave and a spring began to flow there, providing them sustenance for twelve years, until they heard that the emperor had died and his decree was nullified. R. Shimon bar Yoĥai and his son reached such great heights in spirituality and asceticism while there, that when they left the cave they could not tolerate worldly matters; everywhere they looked burst into flames. Consequently, they had to return to the cave for another year in order to delve deeper into the Torah and understand the value of this world. Only then did they leave the cave permanently (Shabbat 33b).

Another example of R. Shimon bar Yoĥai’s uncompromising attitude concerns the issue of making a livelihood. Most of the Sages maintained that everyone must work for a living; even Torah scholars must work and support themselves. R. Shimon bar Yoĥai, on the other hand, said:

If a man plows at the time of plowing, plants at the time of planting, reaps at the time of reaping, threshes at the time of threshing, and winnows when it is windy, what will be of the Torah? Rather, when Israel does God’s will, their work is done by others, and when they fail to do God’s will, they do their own work… (and even) the work of others.” (Ber. 35b)

The Gemara concludes with the practical comment of Abaye: “Many have followed the advice of R. Yishma’el (who advocated combining Torah study with a worldly occupation), and it has worked well; others have followed R. Shimon bar Yoĥai and it has not been successful.” Likewise, Rava instructed his students to work for two months of the year in order to support themselves (Ber. 35b).

Admittedly, R. Shimon bar Yoĥai’s approach is not suitable for the public at large, and the necessities of life force us to take its constraints into consideration, in accordance with the view of most of the Sages. Indeed, it is God’s will that we work toward perfecting the world while taking into account the obstacles in our way and without relying on miracles.[3] Nonetheless, it is very valuable to have a great Torah scholar who lives his life according to eternal values, without compromise. This way, everyone can see tangibly the absolute adherence to Torah. It is true that practical decisions and general guidance for the public are determined by the majority of the Sages of Israel, who take into account the limitations of this world and extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, the grand vision of faith and redemption shines forth from the strength of R. Shimon bar Yoĥai, who sacrificed himself for Israel’s glory and its faith, establishing for future generations that the Roman Empire, which persecuted the Jews, was an evil kingdom. This is why the Jewish masses hallow and venerate R. Shimon bar Yoĥai.

R. Shimon bar Yoĥai’s focus on the esoteric side of the Torah is connected to his unique personality. By studying these dimensions of the Torah, one can connect better to what lies beyond ordinary life in this world, to the eternal world, to Israel’s unique character, and to the assurance of redemption. Such study elevates a person beyond our opaque and troublesome external existence and illuminates eternal concepts for him with a rare light.

[3] When R. Shimon and R. Yehuda disagree, the halakha follows R. Yehuda. When R. Shimon and R. Yosi disagree, the halakha follows R. Yosi (Eruvin 46b). Similarly, R. Shimon said that one may provoke the wicked in this world (Ber. 7b). In addition, he clung to the Torah so diligently that Torah became his profession. Therefore, Shabbat 11a states that he was exempt from praying, because prayer deals with temporal life, as opposed to Torah, which is eternal life. He also spoke a great deal about the uniqueness of Israel. For example: “Wherever Israel was exiled, the Shekhina accompanied them” (Megilla 29a), and “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three gifts by way of suffering: Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and the World to Come” (Ber. 5a). 

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