Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was one of the more prominent Sages and personalities of the Talmud, especially in the Mishnah. Within Talmudic texts, he is referred to in several ways, including “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai” and “Rashbi.” In the Mishnah, he is simply referred to as “Rabbi Shimon.” In fact, any reference to a “Rabbi Shimon” refers to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.1 While his father’s name, Yochai, is well known, his mother’s name is not. Most sources record his mother’s name as Chami,2 while others suggest that her name was Sara.3 Among his many accomplishments, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is credited with having authored the Zohar, the primary work of Kabbalah.4 He was also one of the most prominent students of Rabbi Akiva. It has even been suggested that Rabbi Shimon and his son were the greatest scholars of their generation.5
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was forced to flee and go into hiding for having criticized the Roman government, which was ruling the Land of Israel at the time. He fled with his son and hid in a cave in the city of Peki’in for thirteen years.6 According to tradition, a carob7 tree miraculously emerged at the entrance of the cave as well as a spring of fresh water, which allowed Rabbi Shimon and his son to survive. Some sources indicate that Eliyahu Hanavi would also bring them bread and wine from time to time,8 as well as matzah and wine for Pesach.9 We are told that in order not to wear out their clothes they would keep their clothes exclusively for prayer, while at all other times they simply immersed themselves in sand up to their necks. Rabbi Shimon and his son spent their days studying Torah.10 Talmudic scholars point out that all references in the Talmud to “Rabbi Shimon” refer to the period before he went into hiding, while references to “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai” or “bar Yochai” refer to him after he had emerged from the cave.11
According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag Ba’Omer, although this is disputed by some sources.12 Similarly, while it is widely believed that Rabbi Shimon and his son are buried in Meron, which is a tradition that has been in existence for generations, there is a minority view that they are buried in Kfar Chanania. Other sources suggest that no matter where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai may have actually been buried, G-d miraculously transported his body to Meron as a result of the Jewish people having “declared” that he is buried there. His yahrzeit is celebrated with singing, dancing, feasting, and, of course, bonfires.13
The reason why the day is called Lag B’Omer and not Lag L’Omer14 is that Lag B’Omer is the gematria of the word Moshe. This emphasizes the belief that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a reincarnation of Moshe Rabbeinu and that he reached the same levels of greatness that Moshe did.15 It is also noted that the yahrzeits of Moshe Rabbeinu and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai always fall on the same day of the week. It is interesting that although Rabbi Shimon was a brilliant scholar who was often able to answer the most complicated Talmudic questions with over two dozen explanations,16 normative halacha is almost never in accordance with his view.17
- Pesachim 51b.
- Pirushim U’psakim al HaTorah (Rabbeinu Avigdor Tzarfati), Parshat Shelach, p. 34; Yerushalmi Shabbat 15:3; Midrash Rabba, Parshat Behar 34:16, cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29, n. 32.
- “Yesh Omrim,” cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29, n. 32.
- The authorship of the Zohar is the subject of some controversy. Some scholars attribute it entirely to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, while others argue that it was Rabbi Moses de Leon who wrote it. Yet others suggest that it was started by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or that it contains the thoughts and teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, but was compiled and completed by de Leon. It is simply not possible to credit Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai with authorship of the entire Zohar, as it discusses rabbis who lived long after him. It also discusses certain ritual matters that were only instituted after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had died.
- Sukka 45b.
6.There is a minority opinion that the cave in which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid when fleeing the Romans was located in Lod. Zohar Chadash, Ki Tavo.
- Some say that it was a date tree and others say that it was both. Esther Rabba 3:7; Yerushalmi Shevi’it 9:1, cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29, n. 44b.
- Sefer Ha’eshel, Reish 15, cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29:2, n. 45b.
- Hagadda shel Pesach Tzemach Menachem, cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29:2, n. 45c.
- Shabbat 33b.
- Minchat Elazar 4:64, cited in Nitei Gavriel, Minhagei Lag Ba’omer. There are eminent authorities such as the Chida, the Ben Ish Chai, and Rabbi Chaim Vital who are of the opinion that Lag Ba’omer is not the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. They argue that this claim is based on scribal errors. See http://www.shofar.net/site/ARDetile.asp?id=8159 for more. See also Divrei Yitzchak (Kaduri), Sha’ar Moadim U’zemanim 5.
- The idea of lighting bonfires in honor of a departed saint is of non-Jewish origin. European Christians used bonfires to honor saints hundreds of years before Jews began to do so in the sixteenth century. The word bonfire derives from the words fire of bones, apparently originally a pagan practice later adapted by Christianity. (See http://www.kashrut.org/forum/viewpost.asp?mid=8751.) Nevertheless, lighting bonfires in honor of the dead may indeed have a loosely related scriptural source; see 2 Divrei Hayamim 16:14. See also http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/05/is-burning-pyre-to-rabbi-shimon-bar.html.
- This would be consistent with the “la’omer” formula that most people use to count the omer each night.
- Likutei Sichot, vol. 7, p. 337; Birurei Chaim 3:29:2, n. 29; Nitei Gavriel, Pesach, vol. 3, p. 268 in the footnote; Shemen Sasson Mechaverecha, cited in Birurei Chaim 3:29:2, n. 29, 30.
- Shabbat 32b.
- Eruvin 46b.