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Notes from the Moishe House Beit Midrash

Lag BaOmer

Daniel Silverstein

If the Omer is a period of mourning, how come we have these big parties on Lag Baomer? And how come this is to celebrate someone's death (Shimon bar Yoḥai)?

Shabbat 33b–34a שבת לג ב–לד א

R. Yehuda and R. Yose and R. Shimon [bar Yoḥai] were sitting, and Yehuda b. Gerim was sitting beside them. R. Yehuda opened and said, "How pleasant are the acts of this nation. They established [tiqnu] markets; they established bathhouses; they established bridges."

R. Yose was silent.

R. Shimon bar Yoḥai answered and said, "everything they established, they established only for their own needs. They established markets to place prostitutes there; bathhouses to pamper themselves; bridges to take tolls."

Yehuda b. Gerim went and retold their words, and it became known to the government. They said, "Yehuda who extolled, let him be extolled. Yose who was silent, let him be exiled to Sepphoris. Shimon who disparaged, let him be killed."

יתבי רבי יהודה ורבי יוסי ורבי שמעון ויתיב יהודה בן גרים גבייהו׃ פתח רבי יהודה ואמר כמה נאים מעשיהן של אומה זו תקנו שווקים תקנו גשרים תקנו מרחצאות׃

רבי יוסי שתק׃

נענה רבי שמעון בן יוחאי ואמר כל מה שתקנו לא תקנו אלא לצורך עצמן תקנו שווקין להושיב בהן זונות מרחצאות לעדן בהן עצמן גשרים ליטול מהן מכס׃

הלך יהודה בן גרים וסיפר דבריהם ונשמעו למלכות׃ אמרו יהודה שעילה יתעלה יוסי ששתק יגלה לציפורי שמעון שגינה יהרג׃

(And you thought Monty Python made this up!)

This takes place at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt: it's a time when it's not good to be heard saying things against the Romans.

[R. Shimon bar Yoḥai] went with his son and hid in the academy. Each day his wife brought him bread and a jug of water and they ate. When the decree became more severe he said to his son, "Women are simple-minded. They may abuse metsa`ari her and she will reveal [us]."

He went and they hid in a cave. A miracle happened for them and a carob tree and a spring were created for them.1 They sat up to their necks in sand. By day they sat and studied, and they took off their clothes. When the time came to pray, they went out and dressed and covered and again took off their clothes, in order that they not wear out. They dwelled in a cave for thirteen years.2

Elijah came to the opening of the cave. He sat, "Who will inform Bar Yoḥai that the emperor has died, and the decree was annulled?" They went out and saw men ploughing and sowing. They said, "They forsook eternal life and busy themselves with temporal life?!" Everywhere they turned their eyes was immediately destroyed. A heavenly voice went out and said to them, "Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!"3

אזל הוא ובריה טשו בי מדרשא׃ כל יומא הוה מייתי להו דביתהו ריפתא וכוזא דמיא וכרכי׃ כי תקיף גזירתא אמר ליה לבריה נשים דעתן קלה עליהן דילמא מצערי לה ומגליא לן׃

אזלו טשו במערתא׃ איתרחיש ניסא איברי להו חרובא ועינא דמיא׃ והוו משלחי מנייהו והוו יתבי עד צוארייהו בחלא כולי יומא גרסי בעידן צלויי לבשו מיכסו ומצלו והדר משלחי מנייהו כי היכי דלא ליבלו׃ איתבו תריסר שני במערתא׃

אתא אליהו וקם אפיתחא דמערתא אמר מאן לודעיה לבר יוחי דמית קיסר ובטיל גזירתיה נפקו׃ חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנותנין עיניהן מיד נשרף׃ יצתה בת קול ואמרה להם להחריב עולמי יצאתם חיזרו למערתכם הדור אזול׃

  1. There are parallels here with Elijah the prophet, who also goes into hiding, and first lives in a cave fed by ravens, then later stays with a woman in Sarafand.
  2. And you thought Monty Python made that up too! Question: which one of the Pythons was it that had been studying Gemara?
  3. Thus, the attitude that studying is good and earning a living is bad is deplored. This ties back in to Shimon bar Yoḥai's original comments that building up the economy is deplorable.

Shimon bar Yoḥai took part in Bar Kochba rebellion; this text is written by people who were trying to understand the catastrophic defeat that that led to. The Judaeans thought they had the ultimate leader—Bar Kochba—but they lost. The writers of the text are trying to understand the why—it's the hand of G-d in history, but why does G-d act the way He does? Sometimes the answer they come up with is that G-d deliberately chose to conceal His hand.

R. Akiva was Shimon bar Yoḥai's master. His students died because they did not have respect for each other. The text says they died in a plague; but some people interpret this to mean the Romans killed them. (According to tradition the plague ended on Lag BaOmer, hence another reason to celebrate then.)

They dwelt there for twelve months. They said, "the sentence of the wicked in hell is twelve months."1 They went out. Wherever R. Eleazar smote, R. Shimon healed. He said, "My son, you and I are sufficient for the world."2 איתיבו תריסר ירחי שתא׃ אמרי משפט רשעים בגיהנם שנים עשר חדש׃ יצתה בת קול ואמרה צאו ממערתכם נפקו כל היכא דהוה מחי רבי אלעזר הוה מסי רבי שמעון׃ אמר לו בני די לעולם אני ואתה׃
  1. Is this why we have the custom of saying kaddish when mourning for twelve months, given that the custom of mourners reciting kaddish for a year is to save the souls of the departed from Gehinnom?
  2. R. Shimon has learned his lesson, that there is a place for being part of the world; R. Eleazar has not. But by saying "You and I are sufficient for this world," he is saying that there is a place both for people who take part in the world and those who just study.

    Though should one not want someone who studies and heals?

Recall, this is a time when the religion was reinventing itself: the Temple had been destroyed, and the Temple cult destroyed along with it; and in its place rabbinic Judaism was arising. People at this time were wrestling with the issue of what the role of rabbis should be. There is no single answer they come up with; they continue to wrestle with the issue.

They saw a certain old man holding two bunches of myrtle, running at twilight. They said to him, "Why do you need these?" He said to them, "To honour the Sabbath."1 [They said] "Would not one suffice for you?" He said, "One for remember [the Sabbath], and one for observe [the Sabbath]".2 He said to him (his son), "See how dear is a commandment to Israel."3 [Their minds were set at ease.] בהדי פניא דמעלי שבתא חזו ההוא סבא דהוה נקיט תרי מדאני אסא ורהיט בין השמשות׃ אמרו ליה הני למה לך אמר להו לכבוד שבת׃ ותיסגי לך בחד חד כנגד זכור וחד כנגד שמור׃ אמר ליה לבריה חזי כמה חביבין מצות על ישראל יתיב דעתייהו׃
  1. Myrtle at Succos symbolises the eyes. This appeases the fact they had been burning things up with their eyes.
  2. Referring to the discrepancy between the wording of the two accounts of the Ten Commandments in the Torah. But cf. also the two portions of manna for the Sabbath.
  3. They're impressed because he's doing this not because that's what the law is, but because he loves honouring Shabbos.
R. Pinchas b. Yair, his son-in-law, heard and went out to greet him. He took him to the bathhouse. [R. Shimon] was massaging his flesh1. He saw that there were clefts in [R. Shimon's] flesh2. He was weeping and the tears were fallings from his eyes and hurting [metsa`ari] him. [R. Pinchas] said to him, "Alas that I see you so." [R. Shimon bar Yoḥai] said to him, "Happy that you see me so. For if you did not see me so, you would not find me so [learned]." For originally when R. Shimon bar Yoḥai raised an objection, R. Pinchas b. Yair solved it with twelve solutions. Subsequently when R. Pinchas b. Yair objected, R. Shimon b. Yoḥai solved it with twenty-four solutions.3 שמע רבי פנחס בן יאיר חתניה ונפק לאפיה עייליה לבי בניה הוה קא אריך ליה לבישריה חזי דהוה ביה פילי בגופיה הוה קא בכי וקא נתרו דמעת עיניה וקמצוחא ליה׃ אמר לו אוי לי שראיתיך בכך אמר לו אשריך שראיתני בכך שאילמלא לא ראיתני בכך לא מצאת בי כך׃ דמעיקרא כי הוה מקשי רבי שמעון בן יוחי קושיא הוה מפרק ליה רבי פנחס בן יאיר תריסר פירוקי לסוף כי הוה מקשי רבי פנחס בן יאיר קושיא הוה מפרק ליה רבי שמעון בן יוחי עשרין וארבעה [בראשית] פירוקי׃
  1. So he's completely changed his views on bathhouses.
  2. From being buried in the sand. Also, metaphorically, wounds from being in isolation.
  3. I.e. two for every month he was learning. The connection between twelve and twenty-four is something that keeps coming up in connection with R. Akiva, who is in the background to this story.

[R. Pinchas] said, "Since a miracle1 occurred I will go and fix [atqin] something, since it says, And Jacob came whole [shalem] (Gen. 33:18).

(Rav said, "Whole in his body, whole in his money, whole in his Torah." And he was gracious to the city. Rav said, "He established [tiqqen] coinage for them." And Shmuel said, "He established markets for them." And R. Yoḥanan said, "He established bathhouses for them.")2

אמר הואיל ואיתרחיש ניסא איזיל אתקין מילתא דכתיב ) ( ויבא יעקב שלם

ואמר רב שלם בגופו שלם בממונו שלם בתורתו׃ ויחן את פני העיר אמר רב מטבע תיקן להם ושמואל אמר שווקים תיקן להם ורבי יוחנן אמר מרחצאות תיקן להם׃

  1. That he survived—or survived the Romans being out to get him.
  2. I.e. all the things that R. Shimon bar Yoḥai was originally deploring at the beginning are now being attributed to the Patriarch Jacob, who is looked up to as a paragon. Also, Jacob was a synthesis of the chesed—lovingkindness—of his grandfather Abraham, and gevura—strength and sternness—of his father Isaac.

This paragraph is probably a later interjection(?).

[R. Shimon bar Yoḥai] said, "Is there something to fix [letaqonen]?"1

They said to him, "There is a place of doubtful impurity and it causes trouble [tsa`ara] for priests to go around it." He said, "Does anyone know if there was a presumption of purity here?" A certain old man said, "Here and there Ben Azzai cut down lupins of teruma." He did the same. Wherever it [the ground] was hard he ruled pure; wherever was loose he marked2.

A certain old man said "Bar Yoḥai made a cemetery pure."3 [R. Shimon bar Yoḥai] said, "If you had not been with us, or even if you had been with us but had not voted with us, you would spoken well. But now that you were with us and voted among us,4 should they say, "[Even] prostitutes paint each other. How much the more so [should] scholars!"5 He cast his eyes at him and his soul departed.6

אמר איכא מילתא דבעי לתקוני

אמרו ליה איכא דוכתא דאית ביה ספק טומאה ואית להו צערא לכהנים לאקופי׃ אמר איכא איניש דידע דאיתחזק הכא טהרה אמר ליה ההוא סבא כאן קיצץ בן זכאי תורמסי תרומה׃ עבד איהו נמי הכי כל היכא דהוה קשי טהריה וכל היכא דהוה רפי צייניה׃

אמר היית עמנו<לא>ההוא סבא טיהר בן יוחי בית הקברות אמר לו אילמלי ואפילו היית עמנו ולא נמנית עמנו יפה אתה אומר׃ עכשיו שהיית עמנו ונמנית עמנו יאמרו זונות מפרכסות זו את זו תלמידי חכמים לא כל שכן יהב ביה עיניה ונח נפשיה׃

  1. See how far he's come!

  2. Where the ground is hard, no one's ever been buried there. Shimon bar Yoḥai goes out of his way to try and make it possible for people to go there—to help people: the Torah is not all about hassle.

  3. He is being sarcastic! (The Talmud would be so much easier to understand with smileys... though there are sometimes subtle smileys in the form of use of certain terminology).

  4. If you'd just come along now and didn't know what was going on, then fair enough. Or if you'd said something and raised an objection at the time. But not objecting at the time, and disagreeing later, is just making trouble.

  5. Even prostitutes help each other look nice. Why aren't you making me look good! We're supposed to be on the same side.

    Why does it matter that Torah scholars look good? Because we don't want to end up in a situation in which everyone hates legislators.

    Also, he's attacking not the reasoning but the person behind it.

  6. Just when we thought he was a reformed character.
He went out to the market. He saw R. Yehuda b. Gerim. He said: Is this one still in the world? He set his eyes upon him and he became a heap of bones. נפק לשוקא חזייה ליהודה בן גרים אמר עדיין יש לזה בעולם נתן בו עיניו ועשהו גל של עצמות

Yehuda ben Gerim is the one who snitched on them to the government at the beginning. We don't normally extol revenge. But maybe it's to show that even the greatest of rabbis are not saints; they're as human as the rest of us.

Did Yehuda ben Gerim deliberately mean to get him in trouble? Maybe he was tactless, not malicious. But at this time, talking like this about the Romans would have put them in great jeopardy.

Is this a relapse of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai, or showing that there are now two sides to him: a healing side, and a destructive side now acting only with justification?

Interesting that these last two victims did not die the same way. Did the second even die? (The term נח נפשיה, used for the first, is used in lots of places to mean dying.)

Quote from (I think) Talmudic Stories, by Jeffrey Rubenstein (from which the translation here was taken):

The death of the accuser is the second time R. Shimon bar Yoḥai kills with a gaze. He now kills someone who objects to his amelioration of temporal life, as opposed to last time when he killed someone engaged in temporal life.

The murder of Yehuda ben Gerim provides closure by returning [to the subject with which this story opened]. Ironically, R. Shimon bar Yoḥai encounters him by going out to the marketplace. Considering his previous attitude to marketplaces, Yehuda ben Gerim probably didn't expect to encounter him there.

The possibly unjustified destruction signals that tension between the value of Torah and the outside world remains, and [...]

The basic lesson, that R. Shimon bar Yoḥai learned a lesson, that however important the eternal life of Torah is, it's [not the only valid purpose to existence] is well-defined, but not clearly stated, in that you could only find it if you looked at this story.

A lot of the issues with this text are cleared up in the parallel account in the Palestinian Talmud [which the Moishe House Beit Midrash may be studying next time].

R. Akiva, who is in the background to this story, is central to the Omer, because of the death of his 24,000 students. There is a lot that connects the two. For instance compare the use of twelve and twenty-four with the story of R. Akiva, who first has 12,000 students, and then after years more learning, 24,0000.

R. Akiva's students died because they didn't show honour to each other. They were learning incredible depth of Torah, but didn't know how to see each other's points of view. The Torah can be a tree of life, but it can also be a poison.

Tradition says R. Akiva was eighty years old when all 24,000 of his students died. His life's work had been destroyed. But then he acquired four more students, including R. Shimon bar Yoḥai. At first Shimon bar Yoḥai does not show honour either, but as this story shows, in this respect, he learned the lesson.

There is a discussion in the Talmud as to whether one should spend one's life learning Torah or earning a living; it concludes you should pursue your Torah as if it's eternal, but you shouldn't ignore your other work either.

So, finally, why do we celebrate his anniversary of the death of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai, and not his birth? This might be the archetype that launched the custom of the Hillula, the commemoration of the yarzheit of famous rabbis.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-05-22 06:21 am (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
I went to a really good session on this Gemara at Limmud, I should dig out my notes. But thank you for this, you explain it really clearly.

Date: 2008-05-26 03:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I am not very sure which parts you mean Montipython included. Do you just refer to Life of Brian or to other films, too.
You said these Rabbis were sitting nacked in caves. I think you mean here the scene in Life of Brian when this nacked old man was sitting in a whole completely nacked and without saying a word until Brian jumped on his foot by accident.

Date: 2008-05-26 03:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
That, and also the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene.

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