Celebrating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's Legacy
Lag BaOmer: Who Was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?
Lag baOmer. It’s the day when we put aside (or pause) the mourning of the Omer, switch the radio back over to FM, and get those long-overdue haircuts and shaves. But what happened on Lag baOmer that makes it such a special day? What exactly are we celebrating?
One reason, according to tradition, is that we commemorate the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: the great Talmudic sage from the second century, who famously spent all of his time studying Torah. Today, tens of thousands of people travel to his burial place in Meron, a small town in northern Israel, where they sing and dance around giant bonfires to celebrate his legacy. But who exactly was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai? What about his legacy is so important that we celebrate it every year?
Well, for one thing, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was the man who, according to the Talmud, almost burnt the world to a crisp.
Oh, you’ve never heard that story? Do you want to hear it? It’s a good one — and it just may hold the key to understanding Lag baOmer. If you’d like to get to know the man whose legacy is one of the driving forces behind this holiday, come and join us and study this important Talmudic story about his life. Spoiler alert: there are lasers (kinda)!
Learn more about this holiday by visiting our page on Lag BaOmer.
Hi everyone! Lag BaOmer is coming up, which, according to tradition, is the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Talmudic sage from the second century. Every year, on Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands of people travel to his burial place in Meron, a small town in northern Israel where they sing and dance around giant bonfires to celebrate his legacy.
But who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, what exactly was his legacy? And what about his legacy is so important, that we're celebrating it?
To answer this, we're going to take a deep dive into a fascinating story from the Talmud about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. When we're done, I think we'll have a new and meaningful way to connect to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Lag baOmer.
The Story of Rabbi Shimon bar YochaiThe story, found in Masechet Shabbat, is set at a point in history when the Romans were occupying Israel. The Romans hear that Rabbi Shimon was criticizing them, and they sentence him to death. So Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, go into hiding in a secluded cave, where they spend their days doing nothing but studying Torah and praying. They're in the cave for twelve years, miraculously sustained by a spring of water and a carob tree, until one day, Eliyahu haNavi, Elijah the prophet himself, informs them they are no longer being pursued.
Now let's see what happens when they leave the cave, and reenter the world:
חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי
And they saw people plowing and sowing seeds. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai doesn't like what he sees:
אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה
He cried out, "These people are abandoning eternal life for life of this world! They're putting aside Torah study, to work their fields – worthless, earthly pursuits!"
He couldn't imagine why anyone would do that.
כל מקום שנותנין עיניהן מיד נשרף
And suddenly, any place Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son would turn their gaze, it immediately went up in flames.
יצתה בת קול
A voice from Heaven called out to them,
And it said,
"להחריב עולמי יצאתם?"
"Did you come out here to destroy My world?"
"Go back into your cave, before you cause any more damage!"
After this Heavenly rebuke, Rabbi Shimon and his son return to the cave for one more year, and then emerge once again. But this time, things go a little differently.
They came out.
כל היכא דהוה מחי ר' אלעזר הוה מסי ר"ש
Whatever Rabbi Elazar damaged, Rabbi Shimon repaired.
In other words, Rabbi Elazar is still burning things left and right. But for Rabbi Shimon, something has changed. Not only is he not spitting fire from his eyes anymore; all the damage that his son causes, he's able to undo. Rabbi Shimon then turns to his son and says:
די לעולם אני ואתה
"My son; you and I, we're enough for the world."
Now, let's stop here and just name a few things that should be bothering us. First, what's with this whole laser eyes thing? You study Torah for a bunch of years and then boom, you become a marvel superhero?! I mean, I'm no Rabbi Shimon, but I spent some time in yeshiva and all I got was a bad back. Also, why did they go on this rampage of destruction, and what changed for Rabbi Shimon the second time around? One day he's a human flamethrower, and a year later he's a peace-maker. What happened? And, whatever it was, it seems to have something to do with that cryptic statement: You and I are enough for the world. Enough for what? How are we supposed to understand that?
We're not ready to answer these questions just yet. Let's finish the story, and bear our questions in mind as we see how it all gets resolved.
One Friday afternoon, as the sun was setting and Shabbat was arriving,
חזו ההוא סבא
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son saw an old man
דהוה נקיט תרי מדאני אסא ורהיט בין השמשות
And he was holding two big bundles of hadassim, fragrant myrtle branches, and running at twilight.
They said to him
הני למה לך
Why do you have these branches in your hands?
אמר להו לכבוד שבת
He responded: They are in honor of Shabbat.
Apparently, hadassim were the second-century version of a fragrant bouquet of flowers.
ותיסגי לך בחד
They asked him: Wouldn't one bundle be enough?
חד כנגד זכור וחד כנגד שמור
The old man explained: One bundle corresponds to Zachor – the commandment to remember Shabbat; and the other, to Shamor – the commandment to guard Shabbat.
In other words, he seems to be saying that since the Bible uses two different words when it commands us to observe Shabbat, it deserves a double honor.
א"ל לבריה חזי כמה חביבין מצות על ישראל
After hearing this, Rabbi Shimon turned to his son and said: Look how beloved the commandments are to the children of Israel. Finally,
Their minds were put to ease, and they lived happily ever after.
So, do we feel like this story makes sense now? Do we know what it's really about? And what have we learned about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?
Who Was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?Well, I'd like to suggest that this story is actually a progression – it shows an evolution in the way Rabbi Shimon looked at the world from laser-eyes, to healing eyes, to a mind at ease. Something pivotal changes at each step of the story. What are those changes and what might they teach us about the greatness of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai? Let's take a look at the story one more time:
When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son were hiding from the Romans back in that cave, what was their life like? Every waking moment, 24/7, was spent praying or studying Torah. It's like the 10,000 hour rule, for spirituality – when they emerge, they've ascended to incredible heights in their connection to God.
In fact, it sounds like they've reached the highest level anyone could aspire to. They can see past the falsehood and the vanities of the world, material things like working the earth, and understand what's really important in life – holy pursuits, like learning Torah, plumbing the depths of God's wisdom. They're so completely aligned with God's will that doing anything else doesn't make sense to them. And yet, if you only see the world in black and white, what happens to everything that doesn't fit in? Well, there's just no place for it.
And maybe that explains the laser vision. Because if I really believe that the way we're meant to live life really is a matter of black and white, then when I see someone living the wrong way, then to me, that's a worthless life. In my eyes, I'm basically reducing it to a pile of ash.
So maybe when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai looked at the world around him and couldn't find any merit in what he saw, then, either metaphorically or literally, that judgment burned everything to the ground.
And you know how God feels about that kind of zealotry? Not so good. He actually responds by sending Rabbi Shimon right back into his cave! Because if we take that black and white, either-or perspective, that only leaves space for people who see the world the way we see it. There's just no room for anyone or anything else.
That's where Rabbi Shimon finds himself at the end of part one of the story. But what's he supposed to do now? How can he be true to what he believes, and still manage to live in the world? And we know he did manage it somehow – when he comes out the second time, he puts a stop to the destruction. But how? What changed?
Why Do We Remember Rabbi Shimon's Legacy?Well, remember what he told his son: די לעולם אני ואתה. "You and I are enough for the world." Maybe what that means is Rabbi Shimon has found a new way to look at other people. The rest of the world, sure, they're crazy, and they're wrong, and it's an unimaginable tragedy that they're wasting their lives the way they are. But it doesn't mean we need to confront the tragedy and stomp it out. די לעולם אני ואתה – the two of us can just live our lives the right way, and let that be enough.
So here's Rabbi Shimon's basic approach: "I can bear other people's existence, as long as I just accept that they're woefully misguided, and learn to expect nothing from them. I'm very tolerant." Now, I didn't actually do a survey, but I'll bet that if you go and ask your friends what they think about this kind of tolerance, it might make them a little uncomfortable. Sure, it's better than laser eyes, but Rabbi Shimon and his son aren't winning the Nobel peace prize anytime soon either. But we're not done yet.
They have one more encounter – they meet an old man carrying myrtle branches just before Shabbat. And this time, they do something different. They don't just observe and judge. They ask him questions. They find their curiosity. They allow themselves to listen to someone else's perspective – something they wouldn't have been able to do a year earlier – and when they finally did, they found they could actually admire and appreciate someone who serves God differently.
חזי כמה חביבין מצות על ישראל
Other Jews also love God's commandments.
The Spiritual Meaning Behind Rabbi Shimon's StoryMaybe they don't connect to God by spending all their time learning Torah. Maybe they connect to Him when they're in a field, by cutting branches in His honor. But even if they go about their lives differently, they're still coming from the same good place we are. And now we understand the greatness of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He was a man with incredible Torah knowledge, and extreme devotion, and intense clarity. And he was a man who evolved to appreciate the beauty of other people's efforts to do the right thing.
Think about how this applies to us. We all have those one or two views that we're just so sure about, the idea of anyone thinking differently – it just seems crazy. Maybe it's about religion, or maybe, a political issue, or something more local to your community or family. Whatever it is, when someone has the opposite view, you just can't believe it. How can they not know they're wrong? And you just know you have to stop them.
But even when we just know we're 100% right – when we know that we have more clarity, or experience, or intelligence or moral sensitivity, and the world would just be so much better when people finally listened to us – maybe standing on a soapbox is the wrong call. Instead, as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai learned, maybe we need to stop, and listen to other people, and try to understand. Ask them difficult questions, raise our objections, and see what kind of response we get. Now, that doesn't mean we need to agree with everything, or even anything, that we hear. But if the people we disagree with are coming from a good place, shouldn't we appreciate that, and respect that?
Remembering Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's Life TodayLag BaOmer is the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. But, according to tradition, it's also the day that marked the end of a terrible tragedy. Not too long before the story we told, another sage, Rabbi Akiva, lost 24,000 students in a plague that, according to the Talmud, this plague was sent for one reason: these students failed to show each other respect.
Despite their involvement in Torah study, this terrible flaw caused them all to perish. But this plague ended on Lag baOmer. And what better way to emerge from this period than to celebrate the legacy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? The man who learned how to respect others, even when they viewed the world in a radically different way.
If you see that old man running down the street, carrying his two bundles of myrtle instead of studying Torah – whoever that man is for you – will you crusade against him? Will you ignore him? Or will you ask him to explain, and listen?
Happy Lag BaOmer.