Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
and the Angels
Free translation and adaptation of a discourse
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Eve of Lag
b'Omer 5747 (1987)
by Rabbi David Rothschild
Parts 2-3 (of 3)
III. Rabbi Shimon's Legacy
II. Cave Lessons
Rabbi Shimon and his
son Elazer sought refuge from the Roman authorities in a cave near the town of
Pekein. For thirteen years they remained cloistered inside, not daring to exit.
How did Rabbi Shimon observe the mitzvahs? Matzah obviously wasn't available.
In what manner was he able to fulfill the commandment of its consumption while
holed up in the cave?
Torah regards a person as inculpable if he is forced
to violate or not perform mitzvahs. And the Talmud says, "G-d exonerates
him." Nevertheless, "He is not considered as though he actually observed
the mitzvah." Lacking the performance of the mitzvah, the individual still
bears this deficiency. Can this be said of Rabbi Shimon?
that he did fulfill all of the commandments while in the cave, but in a spiritual
manner. The physical fulfillment of mitzvahs causes Divine Light to shine in the
world. Rabbi Shimon's spiritual performance of the commandments accomplished a
That's why his soul was in the category called Leviatan.
This Hebrew word for "giant sea denizen" intimates the Future Era. It
is derived from the same three-letter root as the word for "connect."
When Leah conceived Levy she said, "This time my husband will be joined to
me" (Genesis 29:34). And through the Divine service of "whale"
souls, all of the spiritual and physical worlds are joined to the Infinite Light.
This aspect of connection alludes to the supernal unity between the seferahs of
Wisdom (Chochmah) and Understanding (Binah) in the highest spiritual World of
Emanation (Atzilus). There, an unprecedented light descends from G-d's Infinite
Bound in an everlasting union, this unification represents the ultimate
revelation. For present within their bond is G-d's Infinite Light. Called "Delight,"
its revelation is reserved for the Future Era. Rabbi Shimon, though, had already
attained its level through his personal Divine service. Bereft of self-identity,
he gave himself into G-d's Infinite Light. And just as a whale traverses great
distances with a single swish of his tail fin, so too "whale" souls
attain wondrous spiritual heights. That's why during his cave sojourn, Rabbi Shimon's
spiritual fulfillment of the commandments sufficed. He was already in a position
similar to the World to Come.
A question, though,
persists. Why didn't Rabbi Shimon perform the mitzvahs with miraculously supplied
physical objects? Surely G-d could have provided him with a succah and matzahs
in a supernatural way . And there is precedent for such Divine assistance. Elijah
the prophet was kept alive for forty days by G-d's grace. As the verse informs,
"He went in the strength of that meal for forty days and forty nights"
(The First Book of Kings 19:8).
What's more, Elijah had experienced miracles
before. G-d had instructed him to hide in a riverbed. G-d promised that ravens
would bring him food. And they did. "Ravens brought him bread and meat in
the morning and evening" (The First Book of Kings 17:4-6). The Talmud remarks
that a miracle within a miracle transpired. For the ravens brought Elijah kosher
bread from his friend, Ahab.
Moreover, Rabbi Shimon and his son themselves
ate and drank inside the cave thanks to a miracle! The Talmud relates how a fruit-bearing
carob tree and spring suddenly appeared inside the cave. Even today, the spring
and carob tree can be seen in the town of Pekein. Hence the question is reinforced:
why didn't G-d perform additional miracles and furnish a succah and matzahs? Then
Rabbi Shimon could have performed the commandments in a physical rather than spiritual
The answer is that the physical fulfillment
of mitzvahs must be according to the natural order of the world. An incident in
the life of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, illustrates this
The Rebbe's opponents slandered him to the Czar. As he was being
transferred from one prison to another, a river had to be crossed. The new moon
was visible in the night sky. The Rebbe asked the Russian oarsman to stop the
boat. That would enable him to recite the New Moon Blessing with presence of mind.
The Russian refused. Suddenly, the boat halted. The Rebbe, through spiritual power,
caused it to stand still. After the boat resumed moving, the Rebbe again asked
the oarsman to stop rowing. Only then did the Rebbe recite the blessing.
was it necessary for the Rebbe to repeat his request that the boat be halted after
he had miraculously stopped it? Chassidus explains that mitzvahs must be performed
in accordance with nature. This was also the case with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Lacking the wherewithal, he simply couldn't physically perform the commandments
inside the cave. For a miracle wouldn't have helped.
commanded the Israelites to sacrifice an omer measure of barley on the day after
Passover. Commencing then, fifty days were counted until the Shavuot holiday.
The Torah specifies that the mitzvah of bringing the barley omer would take effect
after the Israelites entered the Land of Israel, for the verse says, "When
you come to the land that I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall
bring an omer measure of the initial harvest to the High Priest" (Leviticus
23:10). This also means that the barley could only be brought from their habitations.
falls on the fiftieth day after Passover. Then a different set of offerings were
sacrificed. Among the animals and produce brought were two loaves of wheat bread.
They too had to be prepared from the newly reaped grain crop.
asks, "Can wheat which descends from clouds be used for the bread sacrifice?
Doesn't the Torah prohibit miracle wheat since we are commanded to use only a
humanly grown species? It would seem not, for the verse informs, 'You shall bring
from your habitations two loaves of bread for a wave offering' (Leviticus 23:17)."
expand the Talmud's query: "Suppose the wheat wasn't actually grown in the
clouds. Would the prohibition also apply to cloud-transported wheat? Such wheat
doesn't owe its existence to a miracle. It was merely delivered by a cloud?"
"From your habitations," then, instructs us that
man's Divine service must be in the fashion of "from below to above."
This fundamental principle is also illustrated by the commandment to count forty-nine
days of the omer. The verse instructs us to, "Count for yourselves
seven complete weeks" (Leviticus 23:15-16).
The gist of religious
observance is that our actions must be initiated from "below," and progress
in increments to "above." And they must be realized solely within the
boundaries of the natural order of the world. That's why we commence our counting
of the omer reciting, "one day"; followed by "two days"; until
culminating in "seven complete weeks."
It follows that our Divine
service must be in accordance with the laws of nature. And we can only discharge
our duties using physical objects. Without miracles, Rabbi Shimon couldn't observe
the mitzvahs in a physical manner while he was inside the cave. He could only
perform them spiritually. In doing so he realized the supernal unity of the Infinite
Light to all the worlds. This state of being was called a Leviaton - whale or
III. Rabbi Shimon's Legacy
Shimon fulfilled the commandments in two different ways. When he was cave-bound
all of his service was accomplished spiritually. Since he reached the supernal
realm of "whales," Rabbi Shimon could simultaneously pray, learn and
perform mitzvahs. For at that level, all three categories of service are inter-included.
He annulled himself before G-d. Hence his occupation in prayer, Torah and
mitzvahs were likewise consumed into Divinity. The Zohar describes Rabbi Shimon's
state as, "A single bond, bound together with G-d." His condition was
similar to the assembly of angels who thrice acclaimed G-d's praise, "Holy,
holy, holy is the L-rd of hosts" (Isaiah 6:3).
However, after Rabbi
Shimon exited the cave, his method of Divine service returned to usual. For then,
his Torah learning and performance of mitzvahs had to be manifest in everyday
physicality. Therefore he established certain times for Torah study. And on other
occasions he fulfilled the mitzvahs.
Rabbi Shimon's personal manifestation
of these two methods of observance isn't merely a matter of history. Rather, his
legacy descends from above and becomes incorporated within the totality of the
Jewish People. There are times when our Divine service must concurrently include
prayer, Torah and mitzvahs. On other occasions each one of these types of service
must be fulfilled independently.
year on Lag B'Omer, these principles descend into the world in accentuated form.
For on the day of his passing, the spirituality of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's life
accomplishments is revealed below. Then they cause miracles. As King David said
in Psalms, "Accomplishing salvation in the midst of the earth" (Psalms
74:12). Indeed, the Kabbala calls Lag B'Omer "Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai Celebration
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, delivered the following
insights into Lag B'Omer.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai never experienced
the Exile. Although the Temple was destroyed in his lifetime, he remained bound
to G-d's revealed Light. Every Jew who travels to Rabbi Shimon's resting place
in Meron on Lag B'Omer attains this above-Exile condition.
Shimon's soul is in a constant state of elevation. Indeed, it reaches the ultimate
domain of the Infinite Light, which precedes the Great Contraction (tzimtzum).
That's why the light of his holy accomplishments -- that shines below each year
on his anniversary - reaches below until it affects every grade of Jew. This explains
the multitude of simple Jews who gather in Meron on Lag B'Omer.
Shimon revealed great secrets to his students [recorded in the Idra Rabba section
of the Zohar] in the last hours before he passed away. Since the Zohar was physically
introduced into the world on Lag B'Omer, its great light shines on that day. And
every succeeding year the light increases in intensity.
David Rothschild, a resident of Tsfat, is the founder and editor of Nefesh Magazine.]