Photo Credit: Yossi Zeliger / Flash 90

One of the major topics in this week’s parsha, Parshas Emor, is the discussion about the various Jewish holidays (Parshas Emor, 23:1-44). As such, we will take the liberty of talking about a holiday of sorts which falls out this year (5781) on Thursday night – Friday, Erev Parshas Emor, which celebrates the Rashb”i (Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. This day is known as Lag B’omer. It is also called “Hillula d’Rashb”i (the celebration of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai) on account of Rebbi Shimon’s accomplishments and contributions to the Jewish people.

The famous story about the Rashb”i (Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai) is found in Meseches Shabbos (chap. 2, “Bameh Madlikin”, pg. 33b). The Talmudic page number (33) is not arbitrary as it alludes to the 33rd day of the Omer on which we celebrate the life and contributions of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai.


The story goes that three Sages gathered together and had a conversation. Those three Sages were: 1) Rebbi Yehuda bar Ilai, 2) Rebbi Yosi, and 3) Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. There was also a fourth person present during their conversation. That person was Yehuda ben Geirim (not to be confused with Rebbi Yehuda bar Ilai).

Rebbi Yehuda praised the Romans for their contributions which improved society. Rebbi Yehuda pointed out that the Romans built marketplaces which made it convenient to go shopping. Rebbi Yehuda said that they also built bathhouses which helped with their general hygiene. Rebbi Yehuda added that they built bridges which enabled people to travel to places they would have otherwise not been able to.

Rebbi Yosi kept quiet and did not comment on Rebbi Yehuda’s compliments of the Romans.

However, Rebbi Shimon said, “Whatever the Romans did, they did for their own personal interests. The Romans are not philanthropists. They had ulterior motives for everything that they did. They built marketplaces to promote prostitution. They built bathhouses so that they could pamper their bodies. They built bridges so that they could collect taxes.”

After this meeting took place, Yehuda ben Geirim shared the nature of this conversation with others. Eventually, the contents of this conversation reached the ears of the Roman authorities. The Romans said, “[Rebbi] Yehuda who praised us should be promoted with the honor to be the first one to speak at any gathering. [Rebbi] Yossi who kept quiet (is suspicious because we do not know if he agrees with Rebbi Yehuda or with Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai; therefore he) should be exiled to Tzippori. [Rebbi] Shimon who disgraced us should be put to death.”

As a result of the death sentence that was issued against Rebbi Shimon, he ran away to a cave together with his son, Rebbi Elazar. Miraculously, Hashem created a carob tree in that cave for them to eat. Carobs became their diet. Hashem also created a stream of water to run through that cave which served as their source of water.

After spending twelve years of intense learning in that cave, Eliyahu Hanavi appeared at the entrance of that cave and announced that the Roman Cesar had died and his decrees had been nullified. When the Rashb”i and Rebbi Elazar heard this, they emerged from the cave.

There are more details to this story, but we will stop here because we already have enough information which will enable us to extrapolate a teaching for our personal self-growth.

We believe that nothing happens randomly. As such, we must ask ourselves why Hashem arranged that these three Sages (Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Yosi, and Rebbi Shimon) gathered together for this particular conversation.

The Chiddushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, first Gerrer Rebbe, 1799-1866, Poland) answers this question by pointing to a Zohar Chadash (Rus, pg. 109a) that says that the Asara Harugei Malchus (Ten Martyrs) were brutally murdered in order to serve as a tikkun for the horrible crime of Mechiras Yosef (sale of Yosef) in which there were ten participants (Reuven and Binyamin were not present when they sold Yoseph. That leaves ten brothers who were involved in the mechira).

After the Ten Martyrs were killed, these three Sages (Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Yosi, and Rebbi Shimon) had to further repair the damage that was done by Mechiras Yosef. This is because these three Sages were gilgulim (reincarnations) of three shvatim (sons of Ya’akov Avinu) who share the same name. The three shvatim are: Yehuda, Yoseph, and Shimon.

Rebbi Yehuda was a gilgul of Yehuda ben Ya’akov Avinu, Rebbi Yosi was a gilgul of Yoseph Hatzaddik ben Ya’akov Avinu (see Meseches Avoda Zara chap. 2, “Ein Ma’amidin”, pg. 37a where it says that “Yosi ben Yoezer” is called “Yoseph.” So, Yosi and Yoseph are the same name), and Rebbi Shimon (bar Yochai) was a gilgul of Shimon ben Ya’akov Avinu.

These three shvatim were especially responsible for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph, as we will see right now.

Yehuda required a special atonement for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph because it was Yehuda’s idea to sell Yoseph (Parshas Vayeishev, 37:26-27).

Yoseph Hatzaddik required a special atonement for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph even though he was the victim. The reason why Yoseph Hatzaddik had to pay the price for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph was because Yoseph instigated the sale by speaking Lashon Hara (evil reports) about his brothers to Ya’akov Avinu (Parshas Vayeishev, 37:2). Yoseph’s Lashon Hara caused his brothers to become so angry with him that they eventually sold him. Therefore, Yoseph shared responsibility for his own sale.

Shimon required a special atonement for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph because Shimon was the first one to suggest that they kill Yoseph (Parshas Vayeishev, 37:19-20; Rashi Parshas Vayechi, 49:5, based on Yalkut Shimoni remez 158). It was Reuven who convinced them to throw Yoseph into a pit rather than murder him (Parshas Vayeishev, 37:21-22). After they threw him into a pit, they sold him as Yehuda advised. But Shimon was the one who triggered these series of events which led to the sale.

Since these three shvatim required a special atonement for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph, they were reincarnated into the three Sages we mentioned above. Hashem orchestrated that these three Sages would gather together because they were connected to Mechiras Yoseph in a major way.

The Chiddushei Harim continues to show how fitting it is to say that Shimon became Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. This is because the Midrash in Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Vaeira, 7:1) says that Yoseph spent twelve years in an Egyptian jail. Since Shimon triggered a series of events which led to Yoseph’s suffering in an Egyptian cell for twelve years, Shimon had to come back to this world as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai who had to run away to a cave for twelve years. That cave was like his prison because he was stuck there. He could not leave the cave because that could have endangered his life.

It turns out that the twelve years that Rebbi Shimon spent in a cave was a tikkun for Shimon ben Ya’akov who caused Yoseph to suffer twelve years in an Egyptian prison.

The Chiddushei Harim continues to say that it is also fitting that Rebbi Yehuda was a gilgul of Yehuda ben Ya’kov Avinu. This is because Rebbi Yehuda was given the honor of speaking first at any gathering. This honor was placed upon Rebbi Yehuda not just because the Romans were happy with his compliments, but because of a hidden reason as well.

In Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Vayeishev, 84:17), it says that there were three instances in which Yehuda spoke up first in front of his brothers for the purpose of saving Yoseph and Binyamin.

The first instance was when Yehuda spoke up first in front of his brothers and said, “What gain will there be if we kill our brother?” (Parshas Vayeishev, 37:26)

The second instance was when Binyamin was arrested for allegedly stealing the royal goblet of Yoseph. Yehuda spoke up first in front of his brothers and said, “What can we say to my master, we are ready to be slaves, both we and the one in whose hand the goblet was found” (Parshas Mikeitz, 44:16). Yehuda would not abandon Binyamin. Rather, he would be enslaved together with him.

The third instance is at the very beginning of Parshas Vayigash (44:18) when Yehuda spoke up first in front of his brothers and tried to supplicate Yoseph to convince him to let Binyamin go.

Since Yehuda spoke up first in front of his brothers, Rebbi Yehuda, his gilgul, was promoted to the position of speaking up first in front of everyone at every occasion.

By the way, the opinion of this Midrash about the three times Yehuda spoke up first in front of his brothers is Rebbi Yehuda bar Ilai. It is interesting how this worked out. It is almost as if Rebbi Yehuda was explaining the reason behind his own promotion, pointing to Yehuda ben Ya’akov, his previous transmigration. (Shvilei Pinchas).

The Chiddushei Harim goes on to say that it is very fitting that Rebbi Yosi was a gilgul of Yoseph Hatzaddik. Rebbi Yosi’s silence got him into trouble. He was exiled because of it. The reason for this was because Yoseph Hatzaddik was silent when he was supposed to speak up. In Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (chap. 39) it says that Yoseph heard his brothers refer to Ya’akov as “his (Yoseph’s) slave” ten times. Yoseph kept silent each time he heard them say that. Silence is a sign of admittance.

That was considered to be chutzpadik on Yoseph’s part. We are not just talking about his (Yoseph’s) father, but we are also talking about Ya’akov Avinu. Yoseph should have told his brothers that it is not necessary to refer to their father as “my (Yoseph’s) slave.” Yoseph could have said that Ya’akov is a holy man and as such he should be given the honor of not being referred to as a slave.

Since Yoseph was silent ten times, ten years were taken off of his life. Yoseph should have lived to 120. Yet, he only lived to be 110 (Parshas Vayechi, 50:26). The Chiddushei Harim says that to further atone for Yoseph’s silence, Rebbi Yosi had to be exiled.

Not only was Yoseph quiet when he should have spoken up, but he spoke up when he should have been silent. Yoseph spoke Lashon Hara about his brothers. Now, a person becomes a metzora (one smitten with spiritual leprosy) because of Lashon Hara. When a metzora goes through his purification process, he must bring two clean living birds (Parshas Metzora, 14:4). Rashi (ibid) cites the Gemara in Eirachin (chap. 3, “Yesh B’Eirachin”, 16b) that explains the reason for the birds.

It is because blemishes come about because of Lashon Hara which is a bunch of babbling words. Therefore, a metzora is required to bring birds for his purification because birds chirp constantly. Somehow, the chirping of birds atones for his negative chirping of Lashon Hara.

Now, since Yoseph sinned with Lashon Hara which stoked the coals of anger within his brothers’ hearts which brought about the sin of Mechiras Yoseph, therefore, when Yoseph came back to this world as Rebbi Yosi, he had to be exiled to a place called “Tzippori.” The name “Tzippori” comes from the word “Tzipporim” (birds), which teaches us that Rebbi Yosi’s exile was meant to atone for his previous transmigration’s (Yoseph’s) sin of Lashon Hara which led to the crime of Mechiras Yoseph.

Perhaps we could add that just as a metzora must dwell in isolation (Parshas Metzora, 13:46), so did Rebbi Yosi have to dwell in isolation when he was exiled to further atone for his sin of Lashon Hara when he was Yoseph Hatzaddik.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that although these three shvatim were more involved in Mechiras Yoseph than the other brothers, Shimon was the primary instigator of Mechiras Yoseph because Shimon was the first one to suggest that they kill Yoseph. That suggestion triggered a series of events which led to the sale of Yoseph.

Therefore, if the Asara Harugei Malchus died because of the sin of Mechiras Yoseph, then Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was the gilgul of Shimon, should have been among them. The reason why he was not among them was because Rebbi Shimon began to share Torah secrets with the rest of the Jewish people. That caused there to be a sweetening of the harsh verdict and his sentence was reduced to twelve years imprisonment in the cave (B’nei Yissasschar in hosafos Mahartza”h on Sur Meira Va’asei Tov, #5).

It was during those twelve years in the cave that Rebbi Shimon became the master of the mystical teachings of the Torah. We can see this from the second stanza of the song “Bar Yochai” (composed by Rebbi Shimon Levi, 16th cent. Kabbalist from Lybia) which says, “In the cave of rocks that you stood, there you acquired your glory and majesty.”

It is interesting to point out that, on the one hand, the twelve years in the cave was a punishment for the sin of Mechiras Yoseph, and yet, on the other hand, it was during those twelve years that Rebbi Shimon became proficient in Toras Nistar.

It seems like there is a connection between the punishment of twelve years and the Torah knowledge that he possessed during those twelve years. Let us explore to see what that connection is.

To do so, we will take a look at the Zohar (Parshas Kedoshim, pg. 81a) which quotes Rebbi Aba who said, “Parshas Kedoshim incorporates the entirety of Torah. All of the Torah’s secrets can be found within Parshas Kedoshim. When the Chevraya Kadisha (holy friends; that is what the Rashb”i and his group called themselves) got to Parshas Kedoshim, they rejoiced tremendously.”

Perhaps we could add a hint which supports this idea that Parshas Kedoshim contains the Torah’s secrets. There are 64 pesukim In Parshas Kedoshim. When you want to write the number 64 using letters, they would be semech (60) dalet (4). The letters samech dalet spell the word “sod” (secret). This could be an allusion to the fact that Parshas Kedoshim contains the “sodos” of the Torah.

In any case, we still have to ask the following question. Although Parshas Kedoshim has many mitzvos in it, how can it contain the entire Torah?
The Shvilei Pinchas addresses this question by pointing out that Parshas Kedoshim (19:2) instructs us to be holy. Holiness is a prerequisite for receiving Torah. We know this from Matan Torah. Before the Jews accepted the Torah, they had to undergo a purification process which emphasized holiness (Parshas Yisro, 19:10-15).

This demonstrates to us that in order to acquire Torah, we must first becme holy. Once we are holy, we will be able to possess the entire Torah. This explains how Parshas Kedoshim contains the entire Torah. Since Parshas Kedoshim charges us to be holy, therein lies the key to possess the totality of Torah.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that Shimon ben Ya’akov Avinu fought a war for the preservation of holiness. That war was the one which he waged against the people of Shechem who protected Shechem ben Chamor after he violated Dina (Parshas Vayishlach, 34:31). The people’s protection of Shechem made them partners in that crime of immorality. Although both Shimon and Levi fought that war, Shimon was the older of the two. As such, he was the main force behind their attack against the inhabitants of Shechem.

Since Shimon fought for kedusha (holiness), tahara (purity), and tzniyus (modesty), he would come to be blessed with incredible Torah knowledge. That came to fruition when he came back to this world as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai who possessed a huge reservoir of Torah insights.

As we mentioned above, Shimon was the primary instigator of Mechiras Yoseph. However, this meant that Shimon was also kind of responsible for Yoseph’s achievements in Mitzrayim. Yoseph withstood tremendous temptation from the wife of Potifar even though the chips were stacked against him (Parshas Vayeishev, 39:12). The Midrash in Vayikra Rabba (Parshas Emor, 32:5) tells us that by Yoseph fortifying himself against immorality, he broke the ice and paved the way for the rest of the Jewish people to follow his lead.

Since the Jews of Egypt did not assimilate, they deserved to be redeemed. Shortly after their redemption, they were given the Torah because kedusha leads to Torah. We have to keep in mind that Shimon triggered these series of events.

Now we can understand the connection between Rebbi Shimon’s twelve-year imprisonment in the cave which served as a tikkun for the sin of Mechiras Yosef, and the enormous Torah knowledge that he amassed in that cave. Even though Yoseph’s twelve years in prison was a painful and difficult thing, it was also a good thing. Those twelve years of Yoseph’s imprisonment represented Yoseph’s mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) for kedusha and tahara because he wound up in prison because he would not lie with the wife of Potifar.

That prison sentence served as a shining example for the rest of the Jewish people. They followed Yoseph’s example and did not intermarry with their Egyptian neighbors. As a result of that, they were liberated and went on to receive the Torah because kedusha leads to Torah.

All of this can be traced back to one person; Shimon. Through Mechiras Yoseph, Shimon triggered a series of events which led to Yoseph’s mesirus nefesh for kedusha which led to Kabbalas HaTorah.

Since Shimon created a situation of kedusha, he was granted an immense amount of Torah when he became Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. It turns out that the connection between the twelve years of the Rashb”i in the cave and the Rashb”i’s knowledge of Torah is clear. The twelve years in the cave correspond to the twelve years of Yoseph in jail which represents mesirus nefesh for kedusha which leads to possessing Torah concepts. (Shvilei Pinchas).

Another sentence in the Bar Yochai song will become clear. In the fifth stanza it says, “Bar Yochai, you girded yourself with strength, and you battled for the Torah of fire in the gates, and you took your sword out of its sheath, and brandished it against your enemies.”

This seems strange. Where do we ever find that Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai girded himself for battle and engaged in war? Nowhere in Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrash, or Zohar is such a thing mentioned.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that we do find Rebbi Shimon going to battle when he was Shimon ben Ya’akov Avinu. The battle was waged against the people of Shechem. Shimon’s military campaign was to preserve kedusha, tahara, and tzniyus. Therefore, he was given an enormous amount of Torah when he came back to this world as Rebbi Shimon.

It is not surprising that the Chevraya Kadisha were so happy when they reached Parshas Kedoshim which charges us to be holy. Their joy was because they understood that all of the Torah secrets that their teacher, Rebbi Shimon, taught them came from the kedusha that he stood for, not just in his own life, but in the life of his previous transmigration as Shimon ben Ya’akov Avinu. Shimon battled Shechem to preserve kedusha, and Shimon sent Yoseph to Mitzrayim which further engrained kedusha into the hearts of the Jewish people.

After peeking behind the scenes into the Rashb”i’s lives, we should try to take advantage of his day, Lag B’omer, by trying to improve a little bit more in the area of kedusha. Each person knows himself and what he has to work on. It could be what we look at, what we listen to, what we say, what we think about, and what we do. Any increase in kedusha will result in possessing the deepest Torah teachings. This kabbala (resolution) would certainly be a true Hillula d’Rashb”i.

So, may we all be blessed to follow in the footsteps of Yoseph Hatzaddik, Shimon ben Ya’akov, and Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and possess the strength and willingness to fight the battle for holiness by curbing our own appetites and thus serve as role models for others to follow, in order to obtain a mastery over all aspects of Torah, and merit the redemption from our galus.

Lag Sameach, Good Shabbos, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg

Lag Sameach, Good Shabbos, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg
“The Heart of the Matter”
Lag Baomer - The Heart of the Matter
Parshas Emor: "AcCOUNTable" - Rabbi Aba Wagensberg

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Rabbi Aba Wagensberg, a close Talmid of Harav HaGaon Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, ZT”L, is a sought-after lecturer in institutions in Israel and abroad. Rabbi Wagensberg is the author of "Inspiring Change" (about self growth) and "A Shot of Torah" (a collection of shorter divrei Torah on the Parsha and holidays), as well as weekly Torah articles. He has created a Torah audio and video library and can also be heard weekly on the Lakewood radio station, Kol Berama 107.9 FM.