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Lag B'Omer & Reb
Shimon Bar Yochai
June 2008, Contributed by Asher ben
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Lag b'omer, the day on
which we commemorate
the passing of the famous sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Famous
indeed. There isn't a chapter of the Mishna which does not contain a
statement made by R' Shimon! It is therefore no surprise that we
find one in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot which we will be
studying Shabbat afternoon.
"Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns: the crown of the
Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but
the crown of a good name surpasses them all."
The `good name' that is being referred to here, is one that comes as
a result of the fulfillment of good deeds. The Mishna seems to be
teaching us that although Torah study is very important, it is even
more important to translate that what is learned into deeds.
It is interesting to hear this from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai though.
Whenever an example is needed of someone whose `profession' was
Torah study, R' Shimon is the first name mentioned. It doesn't come
as a surprise that R' Shimon stressed the importance of study over
action, for he was a student of rabbi Akiva.
There is a famous argument in the Talmud whether it is more
important to study Torah or to fulfill Mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva
maintained that Torah study is more important since that will
ultimately lead to fulfilling its mitzvot.
There is also a discussion in the Talmud between Rabbi Shimon and R'
Yishmael whether one should go out to work for a living or not. Here
too it is
R' Shimon who maintains that it is not necessary to work.
(But the Talmud warns us right there that this may not work for
everyone since many tried this system and did not succeed.)
Why then is it R' Shimon who teaches us that fulfilling the mitzvot
is more important than Torah study? Isn't he the 'study before
In the Talmud Yerushalmi we find a discussion whether one has to
interrupt his Torah study to recite the Shema. Rabbi Yochanan says
in the name of R' Shimon that since `we' study Torah, we do not have
to interrupt. The Talmud surprisingly asks: "doesn't R' Shimon agree
that one has to interrupt to build a Sukah or to make a Lulav? And
doesn't he agree with the statement that "whoever learns in order
not to `do' [the mitzvot] would have been better of if he wasn't
born"?" (And the answer is that yes, obviously one must fulfill
Mitzvot too, but Shema is different since it is also a form of Torah
From the first question (sukah, lulav) we would be able to conclude
that R' Shimon agreed that Mitzvot might be more important after
all; but the second question (study with the wrong intention) takes
away that possibility as we will see from the Halacha.
The Halacha states that one must study Torah in order to fulfill its
commandments; as our sages have said :"The ultimate purpose of
wisdom is repentance and good deeds". Therefore if one were not to
fulfill the Mitzvot it would follow that he studied with the
intention not to fulfill the Torah!
This Halacha seems to imply that the problem of not translating the
study into action is not because then one does not fulfill the
MITZVOT; rather it is saying that it shows the STUDY was imperfect
since one is meant to STUDY in a way that it will bring to action.
So our question remains. Why, out of all people, is it Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai who teaches us that mitzvot are more important than Torah
We all know that our purpose in this world is to make a dwelling for
Hashem. Before we were born our souls already existed in Gan Eden
were they were basking in G-d's glory and studying Torah on a
heavenly level. Then they were sent down into this dark, mundane
world. Obviously the purpose of this trip is not to have the same
experience the soul had up there. If that would have been the
purpose it could have stayed there. The purpose of the soul's
descent is to deal with the darkness that prevails down here. At the
same time it is also very important – and part of our mission- to
study Torah. For some this is meant to happen in a way that they do
NOT involve themselves with the physical world.
There is a rule that "a prisoner can not free himself". If someone
sinking in quicksand would grab his own hair, he wouldn't be able to
pull himself out.
If all Jews would have 9 to 5 jobs, conducting themselves according
to all the laws and ethics of the Torah, but limiting their time for
Torah study to "one chapter in the morning and one chapter at night"
(the minimum), we would probably all assimilate.
Therefore it is very important to have part of the Jewish nation
involved solely in spiritual matters in order to share their
excitement with the working folk when they come home. These are the
rabbis and the yeshiva students who do not (yet) work in the outside
world. It is their obligation to generate the same excitement they
have during the day when THEY learn Torah by the working people
during the few hours they set aside for this purpose.
For these people it is not always easy to relate to their fellow
Jews who live in a totally different world. In order for those
`learners' to be able to relate to the `workers' they have to
realize, while they are engrossed in their own study, that their
learning has to be in a way of "leading to action" i.e. to share it
with people more involved with the physical world.
This may not be easy for everyone. In essence it requires going into
two opposite directions. On one hand they have to be focused only on
spirituality, separating themselves from this world; yet at the same
time think about the other direction, the physical world. The only
way to accomplish this is by realizing that BOTH are part of the
Divine plan. If one were to study Torah because of the great
spiritual high he derives from it, it won't be possible for him to
deal with other people on a lower level. Once one is only interested
in fulfilling Hashem's will, that too becomes possible for Hashem is
not limited to the framework and rules of the world.
Back to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The Talmud tells us that at one point he was forced to go into
hiding to escape the Roman oppressors. Twelve years he and his son
lived in a cave. Their food was miraculously provided for by a tree
and a well. When they finally came out after they had been notified
that the emperor had died, they were very upset with what they saw.
They saw people working the land! "How can they leave eternal life
(Torah) to occupy themselves with temporary life!" they exclaimed.
They had just experienced first hand that if one only dedicated
himself fully to Torah study, there was no need to work. They were
so upset that with their holy gaze they burned everything that came
into sight. Then a heavenly voice called out and told them to go
back into the cave for they were not meant to destroy the world.
After a thirteenth year they came out again. Then whatever R'
Shimon's son destroyed, his father healed. He said to his son: "My
son, [the Torah study of ] me and you is enough to [sustain] the
Twelve is a number connected with the cycle of the world. Jewish
often uses the number twelve. In our own non mystical world we find
this number back in connection with the months of the year. Thirteen
stands above this system. When Rabbi Shimon returned to the normal
world after 12 years he was still subjugated to the laws of nature.
Within that system there was no room for two way traffic on a one
way street. Either one was involved in spirituality or into
physicality. Only after the 13th year when he stood higher than the
`system' he was able to combine the `eternal life' and the
`temporary life' . It was then that he told his son that their Torah
study was sufficient for the world. Obviously he did not intent to
say that everyone else was no longer obligated to learn Torah. It
was then that it became possible for a select few to study in such a
way that would be able to infuse the rest of the people with the
same excitement when they learned their small share.
This is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said in the Mishna. (mishna
"There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of the
priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name
surpasses them all."
Even when a person has the `crown' of Torah , he reaches perfection
in this field for himself, he still needs to have on top of that the
crown of the good name (deeds). He needs to do it in a way that he
can deal with working people. Only THEN does it surpass his crown of
Torah. Only in such a way is his Torah complete.
This combination of `eternal life' and `temporary life' we find back
in connection with lag b'omer. On that day rabbi Shimon, who had
only taught laws till then, started teaching the deepest secrets of
the Torah which were written down in the Zohar, the foundation of
the Kabballah. He started revealing the unlimited deeper meanings
(eternal life) of Hashem's wisdom that is hidden in the `dry' laws
and stories of the Torah ("temporary" life). * (these inner meanings
had always been there of course and many Rabbis throughout the
generations had been involved in studying them. However, it was
Rabbi Shimon who started teaching them to the masses.)
May the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his Zohar help us to be
redeemed with the coming of Moshiach now!
Mazor Guide to Lag b'Omer brings you much more about the holiday, its
meaning and its traditions... See the links below.
MazorGuide Recommended Reading
A Tzaddik in Our Time : The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin
by: Simcha Raz / Hardcover / Published 1989
An amazing tale of an amazing man who lived in amazing times.
A story of goodness and kindness in action!