The life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

Once, during the difficult days under the Romans, Rabbi Shimon sat with his fellow rabbis, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta. During their conversation, they were discussing the Roman rule. Rabbi Yehuda spoke first saying, “The Romans aren’t all bad. They have invested in dozens of beneficial projects, beautiful cities, bridges and roads, which all serve to enhance public life.” Rabbi Yose remained silent.

Only Rabbi Shimon spoke up in fearless disdain of the wicked conquerors. “How can you say that?  Everything they have done was only to satisfy their own greedy desires. They built cities to contain their houses of vice and bridges as an excellent source of revenue to fill their coffers!”

But as Rabbi Shimon spoke an informer was sitting nearby paying close attention to his words. This man was only too happy to report the rabbis’ conversation to the authorities. As a result, Rabbi Shimon and his son, Elazar were forced to flee. They eventually found a hidden cave where they remained for twelve years, constantly learning Torah. Miraculously, G-d provided for them, and a carob tree grew close by and a spring of water appeared. This was their nourishment for the time they remained in the cave. They constantly learned the Torah together and achieved an exalted level of holiness.

When they were prophetically informed that the Roman king had died, they finally emerged from the cave and made their way to the city. On their way they passed a farmer working his field. Seeing someone immersed in such a mundane occupation, they set their gaze upon the field and immediately it became scorched. “Have you emerged to destroy My world?!” G-d said. He sent them back to their cave for yet another year, to prepare themselves to properly reenter the world.  

This time they came out with a different outlook on life. Seeing a Jew carrying two bunches of myrtle rushing home on Friday afternoon, they asked him what he was going to do with the myrtle.

“It is to adorn my house in honor of Shabbat,” the man replied.

“Would not one bunch of myrtle be sufficient to fill your house with fragrance?” they asked.

The Jew replied, “I am taking two bunches, one for “Remember the Shabbat day and sanctify it” and the other one for “Keep the Shabbat day holy.” (mentioned twice in the Torah)

Rabbi Shimon said to his son, “See how precious the precepts are to our brethren!”

Satisfied that despite all the decrees and persecutions of the cruel Roman rulers, the Jews still clung to the commandments and especially Shabbat observance, Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar felt greatly encouraged.

With the understanding that the most important thing is being of service to others, Rabbi Shimon went to the heads of the community and inquired in what way he could be of assistance to them. He then helped them resolve a difficult situation they were unable to solve themselves.   

Rabbi Shimon established a Yeshiva in the village of Tekoah in the Galilee. There, the most brilliant students of the age including Rabbi Yehuda** gathered to learn Torah from the Master. Amid the silvery olive groves, they learned not only the revealed Torah but the esoteric mystical Torah as well laying the groundwork for the Zohar, the fundamental work of the Kabbalah. It is said of Rabbi Shimon that he restored the study and knowledge of the Torah. Our Sages say that “the Torah was his occupation” in life.

In the later part of his life, Rabbi Shimon traveled to Rome at the behest of the other Sages to petition the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to repeal the anti-Jewish decrees which were set up by his predecessor. The Talmud describes the manner in which he achieved his success in this mission. When Rabbi Shimon arrived in Rome, the daughter of the emperor was gravely ill. No doctor had been able to cure her, and it seemed that she would die. Rabbi Shimon asked to be taken to the ill girl’s room and he was able to effect a cure. The emperor was so grateful that he offered him his choice of a precious object from the royal treasure vault. Rabbi Shimon entered and was able to find the scrolls which contained the evil edicts. He took them and tore them up in front of the Emperor. In this way he was able to restore to the Jewish people the right to practice circumcision as well as to observe the Shabbat and the other mitzvot of the Torah.

On the last day of his life, the 18th of Iyar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai called together his elite students and began to reveal to them many of the secrets of the Torah. He instructed them that this day should be a day of joy because the study of Torah, called Torat Chayim – the Torah of Life, brings joy to all.

Lag B’Omer, the 18th day of Iyar, continues to be a great day of rejoicing with picnics and bonfires and hair cutting for Jewish boys turning three. Many would wait all year for Lag B’Omer to receive Blessings from holy Rebbes for children and all revealed good.

Adapted from L’Chaim #1722 “It Happened Once” with assistance from Talks and Tales – Gallery of our Great by Dr. Nissan Mindel as seen on Chabad.org.

*Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – one of the greatest Tanna Sages who lived during the 2nd century CE. In addition to the Zohar, he is the author of statements in Sifri (a halachic midrash) and Mechilta d’Rashbi. Rabbi Shimon has the unique distinction of being mentioned in every chapter of the Talmud.

**Rabbi Yehuda haNasi – born on the day the Romans killed Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi Shimon, the Prince, son of Rabbi Gamliel, was circumcised on the 8th day as prescribed in the Torah. The punishment for circumcision, which was outlawed by the Romans, was death. When they were informed on, his parents traveled to Rome with their baby boy. As they neared their destination, they stopped at an inn where a non-Jewish woman of noble descent, who had recently given birth, was also staying. Taking pity on the parents and baby, the mothers exchanged sons and when they came to Rome, they presented the uncircumcised baby to the Emperor. They were released to go home and once again stopped at the inn to retrieve their precious son, Yehuda. The baby who saved Yehuda’s life was named Antoninus and grew up to be the Emperor of Rome. A solid friendship remained throughout their lives. Due to their friendship, this was a better time for the Jewish people and Torah study thrived during the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, also known as Rebbe in the Talmud, and Rabeinu haKadosh – our Saintly Teacher. He was extremely wealthy, yet he took no pleasure in physical things and used his wealth to help the poor and needy, with great humility.

Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was a very holy leader of the Jewish people. He studied under Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the greatest Sages of the time. Realizing the difficulties of exile upon the Jewish people, he redacted the Oral Torah and felt the time was right to write it down so that it would not be forgotten by the Jewish people. Together with the Sages of his time, he continued the work begun by Rabbi Akiva, a generation prior. He is credited with the compilation of the Mishna into six tractates studied by serious students till today.

For more on these two great Torah luminaries please see: www.chabad.org

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