Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, is unique in that even Jews who are not familiar with the hidden secrets of the Torah celebrate his death. And so, Lag Ba’Omer has become a day of joy in the spirit of Jewish mysticism, and many make a practice of travelling to Meron for the Sage’s Hillula. Among those who make the pilgrimage, the scholars are joyful about the secrets that have been revealed to them thanks to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, his students, and others who followed his example. The rest of the masses who take part in the Hillula, even though they do not understand the secrets of the Torah, are joyful about the fact that the Torah is deeper than the sea, and that there are scholars and righteous individuals who manage to penetrate its great depths. By virtue of these scholars, our dark world becomes much more pleasant. Moreover, the mere acknowledgment that deep secrets beyond the comprehension of the average person exist, demonstrates wisdom and humility, and through this affirmation, the common folk too merit elevation.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – the Man
The Jewish Sages have traditionally pursued a middle path, taking into consideration the difficulties of our present world. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, though, pursued absolute and ultimate truths. Concerning foreign rule the Sages, in an attempt to prevent confrontations between Jews and the empires which ruled over them, taught that Jews must pray for the peace of the kingdom. Only when there was no other choice, and the kingdom forced the Jews to betray their religion, did they advocate rebellion. Yet when no such decrees existed, they tried to find a way to get along with the kingdom.
The Talmud relates a discussion that took place between three Sages regarding the kingdom of Rome. Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai began by saying, “How praiseworthy are the actions of this nation; they have built market places, bridges and bath houses.” Though Rabbi Yehudah was aware of the fact that the Romans were responsible for placing many harsh decrees upon Israel; though he was aware that they were even responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Bar Kochba rebellion, it appears that he preferred to link all of these hardships to extraneous causes. Instead of denouncing the Romans, he chose to emphasize the positive aspects of their regime. Rabbi Yose, upon hearing the words of Rabbi Yehudah, remained silent. Apparently, while he did not agree with the praise expressed by Rabbi Yehudah, he did not feel the need to condemn the Romans and, by so doing, to cause unnecessary irritation. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, though, could not bear hearing praise for such an evil kingdom. He retorted, “Everything they built, they built for themselves: They built market places in order to place prostitutes there; bathhouses, in order to refresh themselves; bridges, in order to collect taxes.”
When this discussion became known to the Romans it was decreed: “Rabbi Yehudah, for praising us, shall be promoted; Rabbi Yose, for remaining silent, shall be punished through exile; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for speaking out against us, shall be put to death. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai fled and hid in a cave with his son – his wife providing them with food and water. It is important to note that after the fierce rebellions by the Jews against Rome – rebellions which took the lives of many Romans and shook the entire Roman Empire – the Romans refused to take any more chances; they pursued vigorously even the slightest appearance of opposition to their rule. It seems that large numbers of Roman soldiers spent years searching for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in order to kill him. Finally, he was no longer able to trust his wife – he and his son went to hide in a different cave. There, a miracle occurred: A carob tree sprouted up, and a natural spring began to flow, sustaining them for twelve years until they were informed that the emperor had finally died, his decree nullified. By then, as a result of their study in the cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son had become so elevated in Torah that when they came out they were unable to bear the sight of mundane worldly endeavors. Every place upon which they set their eyes was set aflame. They had to return to the cave for an entire year in order to delve even deeper and grasp the true value of this world. Having achieved this, they came out.
Concerning one’s livelihood, the opinion of the majority of the Sages is that each individual must earn his own living, and that Torah scholars are no exception. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, though, held that if man were to plow at the fixed time, sow at the fixed time, harvest at the fixed time, thresh at the fixed time, and winnow at the fixed time, nothing would be left of his Torah study. Rather, when the Jews fulfill God’s will their work is carried out by others, but when they do not fulfill God’s will they have no choice but to work for themselves… what’s more, they end up having to do the work of others as well!
And while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s approach may not be appropriate for the masses, and necessity causes us to compromise and give in to the pressures of life, still, there is abundant value in the existence of a great Torah scholar who lives his life uncompromisingly and in accordance with absolute values. For, through him all of us are able to see with our own eyes what absolute devotion to the Torah really is. A great vision of faith and redemption radiates in the personage of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who sacrificed himself for the pride of Israel and declared to all generations that the Kingdom of Rome which brought suffering to the Jews, was “the Evil Kingdom.” Because of his outstanding self-sacrifice for the sake of the Torah and the faith of Israel, large numbers of Jews continue to demonstrate their honor and respect Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai each year on Lag Ba’Omer.
Rabbi Shimon’s perusal of the secrets of the Torah, then, is very much in keeping with his nature. Through the Kabbalah it is possible to grasp the realm of eternal values, complete faith, the uniqueness of Israel, and the certainty of redemption, for the Kabbalah elevates the student above the deceptive and illusive world of the senses illuminating before him true and eternal values in magnificent light.
Bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer
For hundreds of years now there has been a custom to light a large bonfire in Meron in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s Hillula. Even in places other than Meron, Hassidic Jews make of practice of lighting bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer. Some also light candles in the synagogue in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s Hillula. The candle and its light symbolize Torah and Mitzvoth, as it says, “For the commandment is a candle, and the Torah, light” (Proverbs 6:23).
Indeed, fire is an incredible substance; it is truly amazing that cold, lifeless wood or oil is capable of producing a flame with the power to illuminate, heat, and burn. Hence, the Torah and its commandments are likened to the fire and its light, for by virtue of the Torah and the Mitzvoth performed in this cold and dark world, man merits life in the world to come. Hassidic Jews, then, make a practice of lighting bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer in order to hint at the great light of the secrets of the Torah which were revealed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar records that on the day on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died, he revealed the secrets of the Torah, and the house became filled with light and fire to the point that the students could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon.
There are some who make it their practice to throw expensive clothing into the bonfire at Meron, claiming that they do this in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Yet, many authorities have questioned this practice claiming that not only is it senseless and unfounded, it is also in direct violation to the Torah prohibition of “Bal Tashchit,” not to destroy objects for no good reason. Other authorities come to the defense of such a practice claiming that only when one destroys an item for no reason whatsoever does one violate the prohibition of “Bal Tashchit,” but when it is done for a reason – in our case, in honor of Rabbi Shimon – it is not forbidden. At any rate, it appears that it is better to sell these garments and donate the money to the needy than to throw them into the fire.
When praying at the graves of the righteous one must be careful not to address them in prayer, for we are commanded to pray to God only, and when one prays to the righteous he has violated a Torah prohibition. Such an act is similar to “calling upon the dead” which the Torah explicitly forbade (Deuteronomy 18:11). Still, there are authorities that permit entreating the soul of a righteous one with the request that it intercede before God on behalf of the one praying by its grave. However, others forbid this as well claiming that even this is a form of calling upon the dead, and that every prayer must be directed to God and God alone, without involving any intermediary. One is permitted to pray with the request that God receive his prayer through the merit of the righteous, for by attaching ourselves to the good deeds and wisdom of the righteous we ourselves become better people, and by virtue of this we request that our prayers be accepted.
At any rate, it is important to emphasize that the Lag Ba’Omer customs are not obligatory, and neither the “Rambam” (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) nor the “Shulchan Aruch” advocated lighting a bonfire on Lag Ba’Omer, or journeying to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and many great Torah scholars did not practice these customs at all.