Spotlight on the Talmudic Sages: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
By Rabbi Roni Tabick
Not many rabbis have superpowers, but a major exception is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Also known by his acronym, Rashbi, he was a second century rabbi living in the land of Israel during Roman occupation. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33b-34a), Rabbi Shimon spoke out against the Roman authorities and had to flee for his life. He ended up hiding in a cave with his son, both buried up to their necks in sand all day, discussing the secrets of Torah, sustained by a miraculous carob tree. Thirteen years later, when they finally emerged, everything Rabbi Shimon looked at burned to ash, and they had to go back to the cave for another twelve months to learn to appreciate the world once more.
While this story is not exactly historical, it reveals a legendary take on the great rabbi, casting him as a mythological figure. This mythic figure has cast a long shadow over how we remember Rabbi Shimon. For example, it is because of this story that Rabbi Shimon was identified as the author of the Zohar, the great work of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) that emerged in Spain in the 13th century. This mystical text, probably the work of Moshe de Leon and his circle, casts itself in the mouths of various 1st and 2nd century rabbis living in Israel, discussing secrets of Torah. Of them all, it is Rabbi Shimon who is depicted as the great teacher, whose talks are the mystical high points of the book.
After the story of the thirteen years in the cave, Rabbi Shimon was the obvious figure to connect to this new (and ancient) mystical tradition. Another legend connects Rabbi Shimon to the festival of Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. According to this legend, which has emerged only in the last few centuries, Rashbi told his disciples not to mourn him after his death but to mark the anniversary with celebrations. The Zohar describes the day of his death, without mentioning its date, in a section called the Idra Zutta, the small assembly: ‘All that day the fire never left the room, and there was nobody who was able to approach because it was impossible. The light and the fire were surrounding him. When they [came to] remove his bier the fire flew into the air and the fire danced before it. A voice was heard [from Heaven] saying “come and gather for the hilula (anniversary/celebration) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”’
The bonfires that we light to celebrate Lag BaOmer are connected to these unearthly, mystical fires that accompanied Rashbi on his final journey. The history of all this seems much in doubt, but as a legend, Rabbi Shimon has something very important to teach us. When he goes into his cave he is rejecting the physical world – he and his son exist as ‘floating heads’, pure intellect discussing the Torah. When he leaves the cave, Rashbi’s inability to adjust to the messy realities of the physical world cause him, as it were, to cast flames on everything he sees. He refuses to adjust his idealised version of reality to the world as it is, and so can find no place for himself in the world. In the end, he has to learn that his theoretical Torah studies must have a practical application, and the story ends with Rabbi Shimon using his expertise to do something useful to help the community. We too must learn to balance the theoretical with the practical, to bring intense moments of study, prayer or contemplation back to the real world, and to make that world a better place for everyone.