1. "Mibnei Aliyah"
2. The Greatest of Rabbi Akiva’s Students
3. Thought and Action
During the period of the Counting of the Omer we recall the students of Rabbi Akiva, the father of the oral tradition. We eagerly drink up their words, quenching our thirst and preparing ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot.
According to the tradition of the Holy Ari, Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer counting) is the anniversary of the death of "Rashbi," Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the foremost disciples of Rabbi Akiva. It is important, in preparation for this day, to familiarize ourselves with his doctrine and his approach to study.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was one of the "bnei aliyah" (outstanding individuals) of his day, one of a kind in his generation and in many generations. He was full of inner brightness.
The Talmud tells us (Succah 45b): Chizkiya said in the name of Rabbi Yirmiya in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, "I have met outstanding individuals, and they are few indeed. If they are a thousand, my son and I are among them; if they are a hundred, my son and I are among them; if they are two, my son and I are they."
Greatest of Rabbi Akiva’s Students
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 1:2) relates that Rabbi Akiva once said, "Let Rabbi Meir sit first." When Rabbi Shimon heard this he became red in the face. In response, Rabbi Akiva said to him, "It is enough that I and your Creator are aware of your strength." This implies, then, that Rabbi Shimon was greater, but that people were not able to fully grasp his thought.
And who was Rabbi Meir? The Talmud tells us (Eruvin 13b): Rabbi Acha bar Chaninah said, "It is absolutely clear to the Creator that Rabbi Meir is eminently singular in his generation. Why, then, does the law not follow his opinion? Because his colleagues were unable to fully grasp his thought... His real name was not Rabbi Meir, it was Rabbi Nehorai. The reason they called him Rabbi Meir was that he would illuminate ("meir") the eyes of the sages when he discussed Jewish law."
Now, if the sages were unable to fully grasp Rabbi Meir’s thought, we can just imagine the great depth of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s Torah wisdom.
Thought and Action
Rabbi Shimon’s approach to Jewish law is distinct from that of his opponent Rabbi Yehudah and the other sages. Rabbi Shimon places importance on the thought behind the action while Rabbi Yehudah looks at the act itself. Here are a number of examples to illustrate this point:
1) The Talmud (Pesachim 86b) tells us: "Rabbi Yehudah holds: The traditional [non-vocalized] text is authoritative; while Rabbi Shimon holds: The text as read [as vocalized] is authoritative." The dispute here is over which aspect is authoritative when interpreting the Scriptures. According to Rabbi Yehudah, priority must be given to the way the word actually appears in black and white (known as "tradition"), while according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai what is important is the way a word is actually read, the deeper, covert meaning behind the written form.
2) Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai rules that a person is not held accountable for an inadvertent transgression; Rabbi Yehudah, on the other hand, holds that such a violation is biblically forbidden (except in the case of the Sabbath where he admits that it is only rabbinically forbidden, for it does not constitute "malekhet machshevet," creative labor).
3) Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues disagreed over how to view the actions of the Romans (Shabbat 33b):
"Rabbi Yehudah commenced [the discussion] by observing, ‘How fine are the works of this people! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.’ Rabbi Yose was silent. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai answered and said, ‘All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.’ Now, Yehudah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which reached the government. They decreed: Yehudah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted, Yose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; Shimon, who censured, let him be executed."
The Talmud further informs us that in the future, the Roman Empire will be called upon to explain itself before the Almighty (Avodah Zarah 2b):
"The Holy One, blessed be He, will then say to them: ‘With what have you occupied yourselves?’ They will reply: ‘O Lord of the Universe, we have established many market-places, we have erected many baths, we have accumulated much gold and silver, and all this we did only for the sake of Israel, that they might [have leisure] for occupying themselves with the study of the Torah.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, will say in reply: ‘You foolish ones among peoples, all that which you have done, you have only done to satisfy your own desires."
How can the Romans make such a blatantly untrue claim before the Almighty Himself? The answer is that what they really wanted was for God to consider their actions as if the had done them with the good intention of benefiting Israel. God, however, did not grant them their request because in practice they beleaguered Israel.
Many Jews visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag BaOmer, but the real point of this occasion is to attach oneself to this righteous sage through his teachings. The sages thus say, "We do not make gravestones for the righteous; their words are their memory."
We have only just touched upon the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai here. May God grant us the opportunity to continue studying his words.
Talmudic passages in the above article were taken from Soncino’s Torah Classics Library (CD Rom)