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By: Leon Sakkal

As Hanukah approaches, we recall the miracle of the small jug of oil that lasted for eight nights. Passover being around the corner evokes the memory of the painstaking labor we once endured in Egypt, and the Matzah we eat to commemorate our liberation. When Shavuot season comes along, we are gladdened by the memory of accepting Gd’s Torah on Mount Sinai.

    Each year, on the 18th day of Iyar, we are confronted with yet another holiday. It’s a holiday that, unfortunately, doesn’t bring any miracles or phenomena to mind, a holiday whose significance remains largely unknown to so many. It is none other than Lag Ba’omer - the thirty-third day of our counting of the Omer.

On This Day in History

    In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage R’ Akiva. This is why we refrain from listening to music, taking haircuts, participating in wedding celebrations, and the like. On Lag Ba’omer, the dying of R’ Akiva’s students finally ceased, permitting us to once again perform the aforementioned practices. This is one significance of the day.

    Those who have been to Israel in the springtime may be familiar with the custom of traveling to Meron on Lag Ba’omer. This is because the day also commemorates the passing of the great sage and mystic R’ Shimon bar Yochai, commonly referred to by the acronymic abbreviation of his name, Rashbi (RA.SH.B.Y). This great Rabbi died on Lag Ba’omer about eighteen centuries ago.

    One might wonder: If Lag Ba’omer marks the date of R’ Shimon’s death, why is it largely celebrated with outings, bonfires, and other joyous events? To answer, let’s first better understand who this great man was.

The Story of R’ Shimon Bar Yohai

    When Rashbiwas a young boy, he studied in the great academy of Yavneh. His principal teacher was the illustrious R’ Akiva, with whom he developed a strong relationship. In fact, R’ Akiva would come to refer to him as “my son.”

    During the cruel persecution inflicted the Roman emperor, Hadrian, when the Talmudic academies were shut down and the study of Torah was deemed forbidden by penalty of death, R’ Akiva continued to teach Torah publicly. His devoted pupil Shimon remained at his side. Although R’ Akiva was eventually arrested, R’ Shimon continued to visit his mentor in prison to receive instruction. It was only death that would finally separate them; as is well known, R’ Akiva was condemned to die Al Kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of Gd’s name).

    These were especially difficult times for the Jewish people in Israel, who remained under the brutal persecution of the Roman emperor. It was nearly impossible to study Torah or worship Hashem.

    By penalty of death, it was forbidden to ordain students of the Talmud. Both the ordaining sage and the ordained scholar would be executed if discovered. Thus the knowledge of Gd and his Torah was at risk of being forgotten.

    Despite the danger, the great R’ Yehudah ben Baba publicly ordained five scholars during this time period. The Roman authorities were soon after these dauntless Jewish champions, but the ordained scholars, among them, R’ Shimon, escaped. Alas, R’ Yehudah ben Baba was caught and put to death.

    Finally, Hadrian himself died and the decrees that had been in effect were no longer enforced with the same brutality as before. The leading sages of the time gathered to consider how they might restore  the Jewish religion.

    The sages moved to Yavneh, where they conferred in a vineyard.

    In discussing what attitude to take towards the Roman government, R’ Yehudah suggested a friendly one, Rabbi Yosei HaGelili expressed no opinion, while R’ Shimon spoke very bitterly of the Roman tyrants, and advocated every possible defiance.

    Among the great sages present was R’ Yehuda Ben Gerim, who recounted the meeting to others. It was a fatal mistake, which led to the Roman government’s discovery of the meeting and the details of the Rabbis’ exchange.  At once, honor and rank were decreed for R’ Yehudah for speaking favorably of government, exile for Rabbi Yosei for failing to do so, and death for R’ Shimon, who dared to challenge the empire.

    R’ Shimon fled for his life together with his son R’ Elazar.

    For some time, they stayed in hiding in a Bet Midrash, where R’ Shimon’s wife brought them bread and water daily. When the search for them was intensified, they decided to seek a better hiding place. Without telling anyone of their whereabouts, they hid in a cave. Gd caused a carob tree to materialize at the entrance of the cave, along with a spring of fresh water. For twelve years, R’ Shimon bar Yohai and his son, Elazar, dwelt in the cave, sustaining themselves on carobs and water. During this time, they studied and prayed until they became the holiest sages of their day.

    At the end of twelve years, the Prophet Elijah brought them good tidings; there had been of a change in the government and they had been given a reprieve. Father and son finally left the cave.

    Rashbi settled in the town of Tekoa, where he founded a great academy. The greatest scholars of the time gathered there to receive instruction from R’ Shimon. Among them was R’ Yehudah Ha’nasi, who later compiled the Mishnah.

Reason for Celebration!

    When he reached the final day of his life, R’ Shimon called his students together and told them to pay close attention. The Zohar (3:291b) describes the scene: R’ Shimon spent the entire day in a prophetic stream of consciousness, revealing the deepest mystical secrets of Torah. He told his students: “Until now, I have held the secrets close to my heart. But now, before I die, I wish to reveal them all.”

    R’ Abba, a student assigned with the job of transcribing R’ Shimon’s words, reports: “I couldn't even lift my head due to the intense light emanating from R’ Shimon’s face. The entire day, the house was filled with fire, and nobody could get close, due to the wall of fire and light. At the end of the day, the fire finally subsided, and I was able to look at the face of R’ Shimon: He was dead, wrapped in his Tallet, lying on his right side – and smiling.”

    Let’s return now to our original question: If Lag Ba’omer marks the date of R’ Shimon's death, why is it such a celebration?

    The Romans had convicted R’ Shimon of a capital crime. By all rights, he should have died well before his time. But through tremendous self-sacrifice and a series of miracles, Rashbi was able to live out a full life, the climax of which was the revelation of the Torah’s greatest secrets. All this is cause for celebration!