Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Lag B'Omer

    May, 1998          
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Opinion & Society

Lag B'Omer, Meron, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi

by Eliezer Cohen

To talk about Lag B'Omer (the thirty third day after Passover) with out talking about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is ignoring the main point of the festivities of the day. Although all through-out Israel, the evening is marked by the lighting of large bonfires that are visible for miles, the real celebration in Israel of Lag B'Omer, is in the northern Galilee town of Meron. A small town by all measures, on Lag B'Omer, it becomes filled with celebration. An estimated 250,000 to 300.000 people congregate on this normally sleepy mountainside during the 24 hours of Lag B'Omer. What is the reason that in a country of five and a half million Jewish inhabitants, such a large percentage of people make their way, through traffic and police barricades to come to Meron?

The answer is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (or Rashbi) as he is some times refereed to, died on this day 2287 years ago and was buried in Meron, together with his son Rabbi Eleazer. So what is the festivities? Why the carnival atmosphere? Why the enormous amounts of pilgrims, both religious and not?

To answer this question requires a brief explanation of one of the most unique personalities in Jewish history. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. Although Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is mentioned many times in the Talmud, his fame is known because of the Zohar (The Book of Splendor). This is a book which is the basis for most mystical thought in Judaism.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived during the time of the Romans. When one of his colleagues praised the Romans for building up the Land of Israel, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai slandered them by stating that they did it for themselves and not for the Jews. When word reached the Roman governor, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was forced to flee for his life. He and his son, Rabbi Eleazer, took refuge in a cave. In the cave, he and his son began studying the Torah, a miracle occurred for them, that a Carob tree sprouted and a water spring opened up providing them with sustenance. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son lived in the cave for twelve years, studying by themselves with out interruption and with out going outside.

After twelve years of seclusion, the Roman governor died and the decree of death was rescinded. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son emerged from the cave. They saw a man plowing and planting his field. They, who had lived for twelve years eating carobs and water and studying the Holy teachings, were surprised that man would resort to such folly as work! What ever they would look upon with displeasure, burnt from their stare. A voice from heaven commanded them to go back into the cave and not to bring destruction upon the world.

They remained in the cave studying for another year. Afterwards they came out and were pleased to see that the Jewish inhabitants of Israel were occupying themselves with the Holy Commandments. This found favor in their eyes and they ceased destroying property with their gaze. The only exception was the man that gave over Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's name to the Romans. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai looked at him and the man burnt into ashes and bones.

Later, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai took his son, Rabbi Eleazar, his son-in-law, Rabbi Phineas Ben Yair, and several of his closest disciples and began revealing to them the deepest secrets of creation and G-d, that had been passed down orally from teacher to selected student and never committed to writ. This time Rabbi Abba, a student of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was told to write down what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai began revealing. These writings became the Book of Splendor (Zohar).

The Zohar is written in a Israeli dialect of Aramaic akin to that of the Talmud Bavli, however the subject matter is esoteric and mystical. Due to it's difficult nature, it was not made available to all, but rather, only the truly learned and pious were able to understand the complicated writings. The book remained hidden, known only to the Kabbalistic scholars and passed down selectively.

Approximately 500 years ago, the famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known as the Ari, came to Sfad, a small city located several miles from Meron. Here in Sfad, the Ari learned the writings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and with the help of Heaven, was able to codify and explain the secrets of the Zohar. Although the Ari died as a young man, his students completed his works and the revelation of the hidden secrets of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai became accessible to other scholars who could not otherwise understand those secrets.

Then two hundred and fifty years ago, the saintly Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, known as the Besht, began revealing these very same secrets, but this time in a style called Chassidic discourses. This revelation was very powerful and soon began a movement called Chassidism which swept Eastern European Jewry, revealing these secrets to even the simplest person. This became the founding of the various Chassidic groups that we have today.

To return to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as he was on his bed, prior to his departure from this world, he began to reveal more and more secrets that had to be revealed. He knew that from this revelation, all the various future Jewish groups would be nourished. The day which was marked for his last day on this physical world was Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, thirty three days after the Passover holiday. On this his last day, he had to give over all of the secrets which he possessed, lest they be lost and unknown to the future generations. The sun was sinking, Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing, the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No one could enter, no one could leave. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba continued writing. Finally, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai finished speaking, a tremendous glow, a brilliant light illuminated the house as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai returned his soul, pure and righteous, to his maker.

Click on small picture to see large picture of the traditional haircutting cerimony of the three year old on the roof of the tomb of Rasbi

As a tribute to him every year the bright fire is rekindled. Thousand swarm to Meron to study the Holy Zohar and to petition G-d, in the memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to grant them goodness and bounty. The Chassidim bring their young three year old sons to the building under which is the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and give haircuts to their sons amidst the music and bonfires.

Click on small picture to see large picture of the dancing festivities in front of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi!

May we all merit being together in Meron and dance together with the festivities and the spirit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.


from theMay, 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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