One of the most magnificent figures in Jewish rabbinical literature is that of the great Tanna and compiler of the Zohar, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. The amazing story of his life and especially of the exile that he endured in fleeing from the Romans is a tale to thrill everyone, young and old.
Here is his story.
In the days after the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash, when the Romans ruled the Land of Judea with a cruel and iron fist, three great Tannaim were gathered in study. They were Rabi Yehuda Bar Ilai, Rabi Yosi and Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai.
During a lull in their study, they began to discuss the culture and civilization of the Romans. Rabi Yehuda said:
“We must admit that the Romans have made many great achievements. Look at the great marketplaces that they have built as well as the magnificent bath houses and the broad highways.”
Rabi Yosi heard all this in silence but Rabi Shimon was constrained to answer.
“Certainly these are great physical achievements, but it is clear that all that the Romans have built they have built only for their own evil benefits. True, they have built marketplaces but only so that women of ill repute may languish there. They have built baths so that they may waste their time in evil and they have built roads in order that they may tax the pedestrians and raise money for themselves.”
The Romans React
Standing nearby was a Jew by the name of Yehuda ben Gerim (so called because both his parents were converts). He listened to the three Tannaim and later repeated the conversation to friends and acquaintances.
The story was passed from mouth to mouth until inevitably it was reported to the Romans. They reacted typically. An order was issued which stated as follows:
“Rabi Yehuda who praised us shall be elevated. He shall be raised to the first rank and shall be the one who opens all discussions by speaking first. Rabi Yosi who merely kept silent and neither praised nor attacked us shall be exiled to Tzippori. Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai who attacked us is hereby condemned to death.”
When Rabbi Shimon heard that his death had been ordained by the Romans, he and his son, Rabi Elazar, and took refuge in the beit midrash.
Every day the wife of Rabbi Shimon would come and bring the two scholars food and water, and so they remained hidden in the house of study.
As the Romans intensified their search, however, Rabi Shimon grew afraid and told his son, “I fear that the Romans may seize your mother and torture her in order to find out where we hide. She may, unfortunately, divulge our hideaway.”
Rabi Shimon and his son left the beit midrash and fled to a cave deep in the forest. There a great miracle occurred to the two tzaddikim. At the spot where they stood, a tree suddenly grew bearing the fruit that is called carob bread. At the same time a spring suddenly appeared which furnished them with fresh, life-giving waters.
The two Tannaim understood that they would be forced to hide for many years and so they decided to preserve their clothing lest it wear out. Every morning as they prepared to learn Torah, they would remove their clothing, and bury themselves in the sand up to their necks and begin to study. They would remain this way until it was time for the evening prayer. Thereupon they would come out of the sand, dress, pray and repeat the process.
They remained there for 12 years, until Eliyahu Hanavi arrived to tell them that the Caesar had died and the decree against Rabi Shimon had been cancelled.
With great joy, Rabbi Shimon and his son left the cave and prepared to return home.
As they began walking down the road they saw people tilling the soil.
“What is this?” cried Rabi Shimon. “What do these people do? Behold how they allow the Torah, which gives us permanent life to languish, and they occupy themselves in work, which is vain and transient.”
Shaken by anger, the two Tannaim gazed about in such fury that all that they set their eyes upon were immediately consumed with fire.
Immediately a Heavenly voice was heard to call out: What are you doing here? Have you left your cave to destroy the beautiful world that I have created? Go, return to your cave!”
Rabi Shimon and Rabi Elazar returned immediately to their cave and remained there for 12 more months. At the end of that period, the two discussed their problem and declared:
“See now, is it not true that the punishment of the wicked in Gehennom is 12 months only? Are we then worse than they?”
Immediately a Heavenly voice declared that they may go out and return home.
As they neared their home they beheld an elderly man approaching and in his hands he carried beautiful and fragrant flowers.
The two Tannaim asked him, “Why do you carry these flowers?”
“It is the eve of the Shabbat today,” answered the man, “and I carry these home to honor Shabbat.”
Rabi Shimon thereupon turned with a smile to his son and said:
“See, my son, how precious the Shabbat is in the eyes of the Jews and how they honor it.”
When Rabi Elazar heard this he was finally comforted.