Great Leaders of our People
Shimon Bar Yochai
135 C.E. – 170 C.E.)
Rabbi Shimon was a “fifth-generation” Tanna, according to
the classification of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in “The Talmud – A Reference
Guide,” who flourished in years 135 C.E. - 170 C.E. He was a student of
Rabbi Akiva, and a contemporary of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel II, who was the
Nasi, the Scholar-President, and of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai,
among other great contemporaries. He was a complex individual, a Torah giant
who was influenced by his father, Yochai, by his great teacher, Rabbi Akiva,
and by the events of his day. His main achievement was the authorship of the
“Zohar,” the Torat HaNistar, the hidden Torah that he received orally from
his teacher, Rabbi Akiva. The latter is described in the Talmud as the only
one of a group of four outstanding Torah scholars who attempted to enter the
“Pardes,” the Orchard, a metaphor for the depths of Kabbalah, Jewish
Mysticism, who was able to emerge safely.
His father was a man of considerable honor among the Jewish People. Yochai
was a pacifist, was well-liked by the Romans, and was a bitter opponent of
the revolt against Rome led by Rabbi Akiva and bar Kochba.
Although Shimon was extremely loyal to Rabbi Akiva, he rejected some of his
methods of Torah scholarship, such as the inference of laws from “extra”
words – prepositions and connectives, in the text of the Torah. He believed
that for the purpose of inferring “halachot,” rules of Jewish Law, the text
should be interpreted plainly. He also rejected the “pilpulistic” method of
his colleague, Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai. He was a believer in using the
“Taamei HaMitzvot,” the reasons for the commandments, as a guide in
How remarkable it is that despite his insistence on learning the simple
meaning of the Torah from its plain text, he was the one who saw the Torah
as well on an entirely different level, as the “Torat HaSod,” the Secret
Another paradox in the thought of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is in his attitude
towards Rome. In Bereshit 33:4, where Esav kisses Yaakov, there are dots
over the word meaning “and he kissed him.” Rabbi Shimon says, “It is a
well-known principle of Law that Esav hates Yaakov, but here Esav’s mercies
were aroused, and he kissed him with all his heart.” Yet his sense of
fairness did not allow him to adopt a leniency even with regard to a hated
enemy, and he said “Stealing from an idol-worshipper is called ‘stealing,’
and is forbidden absolutely.”
Once, when Rabbi Shimon was together with Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai and Rabbi
Yose ben Chalafta, Rabbi Yehudah praised the Romans for their construction
of markets, bridges and bathhouses. Rabbi Yose remained silent. But Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai said that all those engineering marvels were made for
their own self-interest. When the Romans heard this, they rewarded Yehudah
by appointing him to a position in government. Rabbi Yose, for not
supporting him, was punished by exile. For his disparagement of the Romans,
Rabbi Shimon was condemned to death.
To escape this punishment, Rabbi Shimon fled with his son to a cave. There
they remained for thirteen years, studying Torah together, both the Revealed
and the Hidden Torah. Rabbi Shimon wrote down the latter material for the
first time in a book called the “Zohar,” Splendor, or Radiance.
The first time Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave, he was completely "out of
tune" with the people of his generation. He observed Jews farming the land,
and engaged in other normal pursuits, and made known his disapproval, "How
can people engage themselves in matters of this world and neglect matters of
the next world?" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice was heard, which said "Bar
Yochai, go back to the cave! You are no longer fit for the company of other
human beings." Rabbi Shimon went back to the cave, reoriented his
perspective, and emerged again. This time, he was able to interact with the
people of his generation, and become a great teacher of Torah, the Revealed
and the Hidden.
Lag BaOmer, according to Tradition, was the day of the petirah of Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai and, according to his wishes, the Yahtzeit was to be
observed as a holiday. This is done throughout the Jewish world, but the
main celebration is at Meiron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon and his son,
Elazar, where thousands of Jews gather to light torches, sing (several
stanzas of a favorite song and its chorus appear below) and dance in honor
of the G-dly Tanna:
“Bar Yochai! You were anointed – You are fortunate;
With oil of joy from your fellows.
Bar Yochai! In a goodly dwelling did you settle
On the day you ran, the day you fled;
In rocky caves where you stopped –
There you acquired your glory and your strength.
Bar Yochai! Like standing shittim beams,
The teachings of G-d they study;
An extraordinary light is the light of the fire
That they kindle – they, your teachers, will teach you.
Bar Yochai! You came to a Field of Apples
And entered it to pick confections;
The mystery of Torah with blossoms and flowers -
‘Let us create man’ was said because of you.
Bar Yochai! At a wondrous light in lofty heights,
You feared to stare for it is great,
Such hiddenness that one calls her, ‘Naught;’
You declared that no eye could see You.
Bar Yochai! You were anointed – you are fortunate;
With oil of joy from your fellows.”
The above graphic includes photographs that were provided by VERAfilm archives.