Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the more distinctive sages and personalities of the Talmud, specifically in the era of the Mishna. Within Talmudic texts he is referred to in a number of ways, including "Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai" and "Rashbi". In the Mishna he is simply referred to as "Rabbi Shimon". In fact, any reference to a "Rabbi Shimon" refers to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.[1] Among his many accomplishments, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is accredited with having authored the Zohar, the primary work on kabbala.[2] He was also one of the most prominent students of Rabbi Akiva. It had even been suggested that Rabbi Shimon and his son were the greatest scholars of their generation.[3]

Click here to read moreRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was forced to flee and go into hiding as a result of having criticized the Roman government who were ruling the Land of Israel at the time. He fled with his son and ended up hiding in a cave in the city of Peki'in for thirteen years.[4] According to tradition, a carob tree miraculously emerged at the entrance of the cave, as well as a spring of fresh water, which allowed Rabbi Shimon and his son to survive. Some sources indicate that Eliyahu Hanavi would also bring them bread and wine from time to time.[5]

We are told that in order not to wear our their clothes they would reserve their clothes exclusively for prayer while at all other times they simply immersed themselves in sand up to their necks. Rabbi Shimon and his son spent their days studying Torah all day long.[6] Talmudic scholars point out that all references in the Talmud to "Rabbi Shimon" refer to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the period before he was forced to hide in the cave while references to "Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai", or "Bar Yochai", refer to him after he had once again emerged from the cave.[7]

According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's yartzeit is on Lag Ba'omer, although this is disputed by many sources.[8] Similarly, while it is widely accepted that Rabbi Shimon and his son were buried in Meron, which is a tradition that has been in existence for generations, there is a minority view that they were buried in Kfar Chanania. Others sources suggest that no matter where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai may have actually been buried God miraculously transported his body to Meron as a result of the Jewish people having "declared" that he is buried there. His yartzeit is celebrated with song, dance, feasting, and, of course, bonfires.[9]

It is interesting to note that although Rabbi Shimon was a brilliant scholar who was often able to answer the most complicated Talmudic questions with over two dozen answers,[10] normative halacha was almost never decided in accordance with his view.[11] He was so spiritually powerful that he was able to turn a person into a pile of bones simply by gazing unapprovingly at them.[12]

We are told that a rainbow did not always appear after a major rainfall as it does today. Rather, the rainbow appeared when it was needed to remind the world that God had once destroyed the world by means of a flood when the people were evil enough to have deserved it. As such, we are told that a rainbow does not appear in a generation that is completely righteous, as such individuals need no reminder of the flood, the destruction, and the sins which caused it.[13] The generation of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was such a generation which never saw a rainbow – all in the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's righteousness.[14]


[1] Pesachim 51b
[2] The authorship of the Zohar is the subject of much controversy. Some scholars attribute the Zohar entirely to Rashbi; others argue that it was Rabbi Moses de Leon who wrote it. Yet others suggest that it was started by Rashbi or contains thoughts and teachings of Rashbi, but was compiled and completed by de Leon.
[3] Sukka 45b
[4] There is a minority opinion that the cave in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai hid when fleeing the Romans was located in Lod. Zohar Chadash;Ki Tavo
[5] Sefer Ha'eshel;Rashbi
[6] Shabbat 33b
[7] Shabbat 33b
[8] Minchat Elazar 4:64, cited in Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Lag Ba'omer. There are eminent authorities such as the Chida, the Ben Ish Chai and Rabbi Chaim Vital who are of the opinion that Lag Ba'omer is not the Yartzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. They argue that this claim is based on scribal errors. See http://www.shofar.net/site/ARDetile.asp?id=8159 for more
[9] There are a number of explanations of what these bonfires represent. Some say it is to recall the fire which was said to have erupted at the moment of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's death. It is also said to recall Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's gaze which was as powerful as fire, able to vaporize anything which found Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's disfavor. Finally, bonfires represent the "fire" of Torah, especially the esoteric side of Torah which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed through the Zohar and other teachings. It must be noted that the idea of lighting bonfires is not of Jewish origin. Bonfires were known in Christian Europe as a way to honor Christian saints as far back as the tenth century. They don't appear as a Jewish practice until the 16th century. The word bonfire comes from "fire of bones." The term became used for any large fires used for celebrations, although the practice and term continued to be used especially for those associated with various Christian saints, particularly John and Peter. Most Christian scholars say that this practice of celebrating saints with bonfires is traced to pagan, pre-Christian practices, which were later adapted by the local people to Christianity. Indeed, the Celtics made bonfires to honor some of their deities and spirits. No one would ever claim that these Celtic practices, going back into old Anglo-Saxon England, were originally of Jewish origin. (From R. Seth Mandel: http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol11/v11n014.shtml#17)
[10] Shabbat 32b
[11] Eruvin 46b
[12] Shabbat 33b
[13] Ketubot 77b, Bereishit Rabba 35:2
[14] Yerushalmi Berachot 9

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