Thought on R' Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag B'Omer
This blog is brought to you by the numbers 12, 24, and 33.
Today is Lag B'Omer, the day on which we commemorate the yartzeit of R' Shimon Bar Yochai. He was among the most brilliant students of R' Akiva who had to go into hiding when the Romans in power called for his death after hearing of his criticism of the government.
Let's review some of R' Akiva's story as recounted in Nedarim 50:
When he was just Akiva, his wife directed him to study Torah. He left for a yeshiva and studied for twelve years under Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. At the completion of the twelve years, he was coming home when he heard from behind his house that one wicked person was saying to his wife, "Your father behaved well toward you. He was right to disinherit you. Your husband is unsuitable and has has left you in virtual widowhood all these years." Her response was, "If he'd listen to me, he would remain another twelve years." Rabbi Akiva heard and resolved to act according to his wife's wishes. Without stopping in to see her, he turned back and went to the study hall, and he was there for another twelve years.
At the end of that time, he returned by 24,000 pairs of students. Everyone went out to greet him, as he was by then a renowned teacher, his wife among them. Some people wanted to bar the ragged woman from access to the great sage, but R' Akiva declared:. "Both my Torah knowledge and yours are hers."
The account draws a clear connection between the number of years spent -- 24 -- and the thousands of pairs of students that R' Akiva taught. It was an unbroken span of 24 because, though he had set out for home, he did not stay and so the second set of 12 years combined with the first to form the complete unit of 24.
Now let's look at the story of his famous talmid, Rav Shimon Bar Yochai that is recounted in
Shabbat 33b (the number that corresponds to Lag B'Omer).
R' Shimon went into hiding along with his son, Elazar. Seeing that so long as anyone knew where they were, they would still be in serious danger, they went to cave. With no other food, they subsisted on the fruit of the carob tree that miraculously grew there and drank water from a stream. They spent all their time -- for the duration of 12 years - immersed in Torah study.
At the end of that time, Eliyahu came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, "Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?" So they emerged. Seeing people engaged in farming, they exclaimed, "They forsake eternal life for temporal life!" Whatever they cast their eyes on would burn. Thereupon a Heavenly voice came forth and cried out, "Have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!"
So they returned and stayed twelve more months, saying, "The punishment of the wicked in Gehenom is [limited to] twelve months." At the end of that time, a Heavenly voice proclaimed, "Go forth from your cave!"
They went out. Where his son would wound, R' Shimon would heal. He explained, "My son. you and I are sufficient for the world."
On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honor of the Sabbath,' he replied. "Would not one suffice? " The man answered, "One is for zachor and one is for shamor." Then R' Shimon declared to his son, "'See how precious are the commandments to Israel!'"
I offered my own insight into this story here: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2016/05/hadassim-for-shabbos-thoughts-for-lag.html As I mention there, the reference to 12 years followed by 12 months seems to echo R' Akiva own paired twelve years of learning and his 12,000 pairs of talmidim. Rabbi Brown explored the significance of that number here: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2014/05/counting-by-12s-and-lag-bomer.html
However, there is a major difference between R' Akiva and his talmid with respect to the way the years continued. For the former, they were consecutive, uninterrupted to count together as the unit of 24. In contrast, for R' Shimon, there was a distinct break between the 12 uninterrupted years in the cave and the 12 months that followed, namely the experience of exiting and not being able to accept that people were involved in mundane tasks. After being scolded for his destructive reaction, he returned to the cave to learn with a different attitude, and those new 12 months were categorically different than the learning of the 12 years. At the end of those 12 months, he finally achieved a change in perspective that enabled him to recognize the good in what people do in this world.
That change constituted a complete paradigm shift for R' Shimon. He was very much of the Torah only approach, seeing a clear division between spiritual and earthly matters. Accordingly, he's the one who said had he been on Mount Sinai at Mattan Torah, he would have requested two mouths for man, one exclusively for Torah, and the other for mundane activities. (Yer. Shab. i. 3). He also is the one who had the dispute with Rabbi Yishmael about how to interpret the verse, "veasafta deganecha vetirashcha veyitzharecha" (Devarim 11:14). R' Shimon's view was that one's crops should be gathered by others as a person should learn Torah the entire day. Rabbi Yishmael took it to mean that the person does the work in the field, that is whatever labor is entailed in making a living, while learning Torah. (Berachot 35b). According to R' Shimon, worldly labor was just that, and so the ideal was to avoid any such activity and be completely immersed in Torah. See more on this plus an interesting observation about a scientific approach to psak in Related post: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2018/03/thoughts-on-r-yishmael-and-r-shimon-bar.html
Understanding that such was his viewpoint, the account of the cave shows how in the first 12 years, his Torah studies further solidified that approach. Then it's no wonder that he considered those working the land to be neglecting their spiritual lives and so wasting their lives altogether. He was applying the strict demands of stripping away the physical altogether and cast that form of judgement on other with a killing gaze. That's not what G-d wanted of him, and so he directed him to learn differently and come to appreciate that people can join together the two realms, bridging that instant from chol to Shabbos and bonding together zachor and shamor in the way they live their lives -- on this earth but informed by the spiritual side, as well.
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