Lag B’Omer is the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Thousands visit his grave in Meron to pay homage to this tzaddik and leader in Israel.
Rabi Shimon was well-known as a man who performed miracles. As a disciple of the great Rabi Akiva, he carried on the tradition of 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 was opposed to the use of force.
However, following the revolt, the Roman government began a vicious campaign against the Jews, making every effort to annihilate them and to prohibit them from practicing their religion. When they murdered Rabi Akiva, Rabi Shimon turned bitterly against them.
Two years following Rabi Akiva’s death (126 C.E.), the Sages of Israel gathered in the garden of Yavneh to discuss the decrees of the Romans. Among the sages were Rabi Yehuda ben Ilai, Rabi Yosi and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Seated within the group was Yehuda ben Geirim.
Rabi Yehuda opened the conference by lauding the greatness of the Roman empire. “Look how beautiful 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 vehemently denounced this. “What they have built was for their own selfish purposes,” he exclaimed. “They created market places and bath houses for immodest socialization and the bridges so as to charge tolls.”
Rabi Shimon Condemned To death
Yehuda ben Geirim 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 remained silent, was sent into exile and Rabi Shimon, who dared to talk against the government, was condemned to death.
Rabi Shimon and his son hid in the beis medrash. Every day his wife brought food to his hiding place. When the government began to seek him out, Rabi Shimon decided not to jeopardize his wife, who would be tortured into revealing his hiding place. So, he and his son escaped out of town and hid in a cave.
A miracle occurred in the cave. 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 daven, they put on their clothes and afterwards removed them. In this way they managed to preserve their clothes.
For 12 years they remained in the cave until one day, Eliyahu HaNavi came to the entrance of the cave and exclaimed, “Know you that the Roman king has died and all of his decrees have become void.”
They went out of the cave and saw people ploughing and tilling their lands. “Look,” they exclaimed, “these fools leave aside the true world and occupy themselves with the foolishness of this world.” They cast an evil spell upon them and the men died.
They Return To The Cave
A voice rang out from heaven. “Return to your cave. I did not allow you to leave 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 for evil-doers in Gehinom is 12 months; why must we suffer more?” Then G-d commanded them to leave the cave.
It was erev Shabbos, and as they were coming home, they saw a man running with two myrtle branches.
“Why do you carry two branches?” they asked.
“In honor of Shabbos,” was the answer.
“Wouldn’t one branch have been sufficient?”
One branch represents the commandment of Zachor, Remember Shabbos, and the other branch represents the commandment, Shamor, Observe the commandment,” he answered.
“See how our people love the mitzvos of the Torah!” said Rabi Shimon to his son. The two were then filled with contentment.
Rabi Pinchus ben Ya’ir, son-in-law of Rabi Shimon, heard of their arrival and rushed to greet them. He bathed them and administered to them. Seeing the sores on Rabi Shimon’s skin, tears streamed from his eyes.
“Woe is to me that I see you in such a state,” he cried out.
“On the contrary,” answered Rabi Shimon, “happy are you that you see me thus, for if I were not in such a state you would not have found me so learned.”
Originally, when Rabi Shimon raised a question, Rabi Pinchus would give him 13 answers, whereas now when Rabi Pinchus raised a question, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai would give him 24 answers.