The Celebration of Lag Ba’Omer: The Transformation of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

The story goes that a Litvak is walking down the street and he walks by a Chassidic shtiebel and he sees everyone partying, dancing, singing and drinking.  The Litvak goes in and asks one of the Chassidim, “Why are you celebrating?” The Chassid respnds, “You don’t know?  Today is the yahrzheit of our Rebbe!”  The Litvak responded, “Listen, I didn’t like the guy either, but that’s no reason to celebrate!”

This is the question of Lag Ba’Omer.  Do we celebrate the yahrzeit of a great Rabbi, someone like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?  After all, isn’t this the reason to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer and to make pilgrimages to his tomb in Meron on Lag Ba’Omer?  Rav Hayim Vital stated, in the name of the Arizal, that Lag Ba’omer is the day that he died.  But do you throw a party on someone’s yahrzeit?  We don’t celebrate the yahrzeit of Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabenu, David Hamelech or any other great people with parties and bonfires.  Some people make a l’chayim in memory of a parent on the date of the yahrzeit, but the Rema rules that one should fast.    Additionally, the Shulchan Aruch writes that some people have the custom to fast on the 10th day of Nissan when Miriam died, and others have the custom to fast on the 7th day of Adar when Moshe died, so why are we throwing a party over the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?

Some Rabbinic scholars, including the Chida, Rav Chayim Yosef David Azulai, Rav of Jerusalem in the 18th century, actually suggest that there was a mistake which led to this interpretation.  A manuscript of the “Pri Etz Chaim” by Rav Hayim Vital states v’ha’ta’am – and the reason for Lag Ba’omer – shemet Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai b’yom Lag Ba’omer – that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag Ba’omer, ki hu mi’talmidei Rabbi Akiva shemeitu b’sefirat ha’omer – because he was one of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died during sefirat ha’omer.  Other manuscripts of this work actually had the word samakh instead of shemeit – a chet instead of a tof.  Samakh means joyous.  According to this reading, samakh Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai b’yom Lag Ba’omer – he rejoiced on Lag Ba’omer, and he didn’t necessarily die on that day.

Therefore, the Chida suggests that on Lag Ba’omer, Rabbi Akiva began to teach Torah to his new students, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  Lag Ba’Omer, then, is a celebration that that Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist, didn’t give up and he persevered, teaching new students, among them Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  This is the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer, the celebration of starting again and rebuilding.

But why was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the figure associated with Lag Ba’Omer?  Why weren’t the other four students of Rabbi Akiva associated with this holiday?  They were great scholars in their own right:   Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Meir.  Why is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai singled out as the figure with whom we associate Lag Ba’Omer?

Who was R. Shimon bar Yochai?  What do we know about him?  There are many stories about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the gemara, but let me share a few of them to create a picture of who he was.

Many of us are familiar with his famous debate with Rabbi Yishmael in Brachot 35b regarding whether we should be learner-earners or just study Torah all day and believe that God will provide.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that if we become learner-earners then when it’s time to plant and when it’s time to harvest, what will be with Torah?  Rather, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai advocates that we learn Torah and God will provide.  The Gemara actually concludes that many people tried to follow Rabbi Yishmael’s learner-earner model and were successful and many tried to follow Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s “God will provide” model and were not successful.  In this debate, we find Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as an otherworldly purist.  Learn Torah day and night and God will miraculously provide for you.

We find this same quality in a story that’s quoted in Masechet Pesachim 112a when Rabbi Akiva is sitting in jail and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai tells Rabbi Akiva to teach him Torah.  Rabbi Akiva refuses to do so because of the Roman government. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai responded, “im ain ata melamdeini ani omer l’Yochai abba u’mosrecha lamalchut” – “if you don’t teach me then I’m going to tell my father” – who apparently is connected to the Roman authorities – “and he will inform on you to the authorities.”  Here Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the radical is threatening Rabbi Akiva’s life if he doesn’t teach him Torah.  Perhaps at this point Rabbi Akiva was in jail but not yet on death row for teaching Torah, but Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai appears to be a religious extremist here regarding his love for Torah.  He doesn’t seem to care if something happens to him or Rabbi Akiva, but he needs to hear Torah from his Rebbe.

Additionally, many of us are familiar with the story in Masechet Shabbat 33b of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose who were having a conversation about the Romans.  Rabbi Yehuda said, “Look what fine projects the nation undertakes.  They built marketplaces, bridges and bathhouses.”  Rabbi Yose didn’t respond and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai replied, “They did everything for their own benefit.  They set up the marketplaces for their own pleasure and good.  They built bathhouses to indulge in their own pleasure.  They built bridges so that they would be able to charge tolls for using them.”  Word got back to the Roman government what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said and he became an enemy of the state and was forced to flee.  Again, in this story, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is portrayed as this extremist who may not be so careful to watch what he says and this gets him in trouble.  Eventually he and his son hide in a cave for twelve years.  When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai leaves the cave, he sees some men plowing the soil and planting seeds and he turns to his son and asks, “How can people set aside chayei ha’olam, eternal life, and occupy themselves with chayei sha’ah earthly matters?” Everywhere that the two glanced was immediately scorched.  A heavenly voice said that, apparently, they don’t belong out in the world and they are sent back in the cave for another year, at which point it seems that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is transformed.

When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar left the cave a year later, Rabbi Elazar saw people who busied themselves with material concerns and not with Torah.  Rabbi Elazar would punish them, and Rabbi Shimon would heal them.  The Gemara then tells a story about how on the eve of the Sabbath, by bein hashemashot, as it drew dark, they saw an elderly man hurrying to his home with two bunches of hadasim, two bunches myrtle in his hand.  They asked him, “Why do you have these two bunches of myrtle?”  He responded, “I brought them to honor the Sabbath, to enjoy their aroma.”  They continued the conversation and after the conversation, Rabbi Shimon said to his son: “Come and see how precious the commandments are to the people of Israel!”

At this point, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is no longer critical of those who aren’t learning Torah day and night.  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai looks for the good in people and doesn’t only see their shortcomings.  He is a new man, more embracing and more inclusive than he ever was before.

With that in mind, let’s learn one more gemara.  In Masechet Menachot 99b, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ruled that even if you recite one paragraph of Shema in the morning and one paragraph of Shema in the evening then you will have discharged your obligation of lo yamush sefer haTorah hazeh mi’picha, that you should not allow the words of Torah to depart from your mouth.  According to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, you don’t have to learn Torah day and night, just Shema in the morning and Shema in the evening.  This statement of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is a far cry of what he said in Masechet Brachot that you should learn Torah all the time and God will provide.  How do we reconcile these two statements by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?

There have been a number of attempts to reconcile both statements, but perhaps the simplest explanation is what Sdei Hemed said, that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s initial statement of only learning was before he went into the cave, before he was transformed, and his statement in Masechet Menachot about just learning one paragraph of Shema in the morning and the evening was after he emerged from the cave.  At this point, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai had fully transformed from being a passionate extremist student to a more moderate, inclusive leader who was no longer an accuser but a defender of the Jewish people.

Perhaps now we can understand why Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is associated with Lag Ba’Omer. Yes, Rabbi Akiva had five new students, but Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai represented the sin of Rabbi Akiva’s first 24,000 students and the rectification of that sin.  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai may have been like the 24,000 students.   What was their sin?  Lo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh – they didn’t show any honor to each other, because they all knew a lot and didn’t care about other people’s opinions and, by extension, they didn’t care about other people.  Perhaps this attitude describes Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to some extent before he left the cave for good.  He was a purist, an extremist, an individual who spoke his mind and didn’t have patience for anyone who wasn’t fully committed to Torah. His truth was the truth.  Now Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s transformation was the transformation of Lag Ba’Omer, not only continuing Rabbi Akiva’s mesorah, his tradition, with new students, but continuing the mesorah while correcting the sin of lo nahagu zeh bazeh.  Maybe this is something that we should think about as we find ourselves in the home stretch to Shavuot when the Bnei Yisrael achieved unprecedented unity at Sinai that our Sages described as k’ish echad b’lev echad, like one person with one heart. Maybe Lag Ba’Omer challenges us to make more of an effort to have conversations not just to be heard, but to hear, to listen and to give kavod, respect to the other person’s view even if he or she disagrees with you.  Let us look for the good in everyone, even those who may be so different than us, because this is the legacy of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and this is the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer.


About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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