Lag B’Omer is the yahrzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Thousands visit his grave in Meron to pay homage to this saint and leader in Israel.
Rabi Shimon was well known as the man of great learning who later performed miracles. As a disciple of the great Rabi Akiva, he carried on the traditions of the Torah. In his earlier years Rabi Shimon and his father advocated cooperating with the Roman government. They did not participate in the revolt of Bar Kochba and they adhered to the policy of Rabi Yehoshua who opposed the use of force.
However, following the revolt, the Roman government began a vicious campaign, making every effort to annihilate the Jews and to prohibit them from practicing their religion. When they murdered his beloved rebbe, Rabi Akiva, Rabi Shimon turned against them.
Two years after Rabi Akiva’s death (126 C.E.), the sages of Israel gathered in the city of Yavneh to discuss the decrees. Among the sages were Rabi Yehuda ben Ileye, Rabi Yosi and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Also with them was Yehuda ben Garim.
Rabi Yehuda opened the conference by lauding the greatness of the Roman Empire. “Look how wonderful are the deeds of the Romans,” he said. “They build market places, bridges and bath houses.” Rabi Yosi remained silent. But Rabi Shimon bar Yochai exclaimed, “What they have built was for their own selfish purposes. They created market places within which to indulge in lewd behavior, the bath houses to prepare for this lewdness and the bridges so they could charge tolls.”
Rabi Shimon Condemned To Death
Yehuda ben Garim repeated this conversation to some important officials and it soon reached the ears of the Roman government. A decree was immediately issued honoring Rabi Yehuda for his kind words on behalf of the government.
Rabi Yosi, who had remained silent, was exiled and Rabi Shimon, who dared to talk against the government, was condemned to death.
Rabi Shimon and his son hid in the beis midrash. Every day his wife brought them food. When the government agents came looking for him, Rabi Shimon, not wanting to jeopardize his wife, decided that he and his son should hide in a cave.
There a miracle occurred – a stream of water bubbled forth and a carob tree began to grow. The fruit of the tree sustained them while they learned Torah together. During the day they removed their clothes and sat in the sand up to their necks. When it came time to pray they put on their clothes and afterwards removed them. In this way they managed to preserve their clothes.
Twelve years went by until Eliyahu HaNavi came to the entrance of the cave and exclaimed, “The Roman emperor has died and all of his decrees have become void. You are no longer under a death sentence.” Rabi Shimon and his son left the cave and saw people ploughing and tilling their lands. “Look,” they exclaimed, “these fools leave aside the True World and occupy themselves with foolishness.” The force of their anger was so strong that it caused a fire to come down and consume the workers.
They Return To The Cave
A voice rang out from Heaven. “Return to your cave. I did not allow you to leave it to destroy My world.” They returned to the cave and remained there for another 12 months. At the end of that time they prayed to G-d, “The punishment of evil doers in Gehenom is 12 months, why must we suffer more?” They were allowed to leave.
It was erev Shabbos when they were coming home and they saw a man carrying two myrtle branches and running.