The saintly scholar of the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, was born approximately fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70 C.E. There are differences of opinion concerning the day of his birth, with some placing it on Lag BeOmer, the day of his eventual death, and others on the Festival of Shavuos which marks the giving of the Torah.
In the volume Nachalas Avos, we read that his father, Yocahi, belonged to the tribe of Judah. One of the recognized leaders of his generation, he was highly respected, wealthy, and had close ties with the government authorities. His wife, Sarah, was descended from the princely families, and could trace her ancestry back to the renowned scholar, Hillel the Elder, founder of the dynasty of Sages who led the Jewish People until approximately the fifth century.
Sarah had no children for many years. When time went by and it appeared that she was not able to bear him offspring, Yochai considered divorcing her. When his wife became aware of his thoughts, she said nothing. Instead, she turned to her Maker. Often she fasted and prayed intensely, pouring out her tears in pleas that her husband not divorce her. She also gave charity generously and sought every opportunity to perform good deeds and acts of kindness.
Heaven heard her pleas, saw her good deeds, and answered her prayers. On the night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Yochai had a moving dream. He saw himself standing in a large forest full of thousands and thousands of trees. Some were green and bore fruits while others were dry and barren. The tree on which he was leaning was dry and leafless.
He looked up and saw an awe-inspiring figure. On his shoulder, the man carried a flask of water. He went through the forest watering some of the dry trees, and ignoring others, even though he passed right next to them. When he reached the tree on which Yochai was leaning, he drew forth a smaller flask full of fresh water and irrigated the tree. Yochai could see that there was a blessing in this special water; although it was only a small quantity at first, it swelled up and soon covered all the soil around his tree. What was more, the tree immediately blossomed, bore fruit, and grew to immense proportions. In his dream, Yochai felt great joy at the wondrous sight. He awoke with his heart full of joy, and spontaneously, a verse from Psalms came to his lips:
Who makes the barren woman to dwell in her house as a joyful mother of children. Hallelujah!
He described his dream to his wife, telling her: “I had a dream, and I think its meaning is simple: The forest represents the world, and the trees, the women in the world. Some have children, and others are barren. On Rosh Hashana, the New Year, Heaven declares that some of those who are barren shall bear children. These are the women whose trees were watered with spring water. They will bear righteous, wise children.
However, one thing is not clear to me. Why were all the trees watered from the pitcher, while the tree that I was leaning on was watered from a special, small flask?
His wife, Sarah, replied: “Your question is a good one. Let me go to Rabbi Akiva and tell him about the dream, and he will tell us what it means.”
Her husband, Yochai, answered. “That’s a good idea. We’ll go together and tell him the dream, and he, with the holy spirit which G-d has given him, will reveal its meaning to us.”
When Rosh Hashana was over, the couple went to the saintly Rabbi Akiva. Yochai described his dream. Rabbi Akiva interpreted it as Yochai had said. He also told him why his tree had been irrigated from the special small flask. “You must know, Yochai, that your dream is a parable for the women who bear children, and those who are barren. Your wife Sarah is one of those who were destined to be barren; it is only the constant flow of tears she shed in prayer that changed her fate before G-d. The flask that you saw in your dream held the tears that G-d gathered as she poured out her heart to Him, and it is from them that your tree was watered.”
Rabbi Akiva turned to Sarah and said: “This year you shall bear a child who will be as a light to Israel in his wisdom and his deeds.”
Yochai and Sarah rejoiced greatly at the words of the sage. They went home contented. As Rabbi Akiva had predicted, Sarah gave birth to a baby boy on the following Shavuos, the day when the Torah was given to the people of Israel. The house was filled with light and joy. A special aura of sanctity hung over the infant, and everyone predicted that he would grow up to light the path of Israel with his wisdom. On the day of his bris (circumcision), the parents gave much charity and praised Heaven intensely. They gave the child the name “Shimon”, from the word “shema” – “to hear” – to recall that G-d had heard their prayers and granted them a son.
From that day onward, they had eyes only for their son. They guarded him from anything profane, and raised him with the utmost purity and sanctity. When he started to speak, they trained him in pure and holy speech. When he was five years old, they enrolled him in the school set up by Rabbi Gamliel in Jerusalem, and he excelled in his studies. Even as a young child, he asked questions of the saintly scholars of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehoshua son of Chananya and Rabbi Gamliel. Thus he grew more and more in Torah, until he became an exceptional scholar.
In addition to the hundreds of instances in which his opinion is cited in the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon authored a number of separate works. Among them are the Michilta deRashbi on the Book of Exodus, the Sifri on the Books of Numbers and Deuternomy, and, most widely known, the immense body esoteric, divine wisdom known as the holy Zohar, the Book of Splendor.
Rabbi Shimon was the son-in-law of the saintly scholar of the Mishnah, Rabbi Pinchas son of Yair. He passed away on the thirty-third day of the Omer, in the year 3020.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a disciple of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehuda son of Baba, who secretly ordained Rabbi Shimon when this was forbidden by the Roman government. He was the greatest of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, and it is from him that he acquired the greatest portion of his Torah knowledge. He traveled to Bnei Brak, where Rabbi Akiva taught, and remained there for thirteen years. Afterwards, he himself opened a yeshiva and began to teach. Even then, he continued to visit his teacher in Bnei Brak and to draw on his vast wisdom. When Rabbi Akiva was arrested by the Romans and imprisoned, his devoted disciple continued to visit him and to study with him. We find an expression of the deep love between teacher and pupil in the way Rabbi Akiva addressed Rabbi Shimon, calling him “My son!”
It once happened that Rabbi Akiva showed more deference to another disciple than to Rabbi Shimon, who was dismayed; he feared that his teacher was displeased with him. Rabbi Akiva noticed his malaise, and said to him: “It is enough that your Creator and I know of your great strength.”
From here we can learn of the great esteem Rabbi Akiva had for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and also ordained Rabbi Shimon as a teacher and rabbinical authority in Israel.
Rabbi Shimon responded to his teacher’s esteem and affection in kind. Many years after Rabbi Akiva’s passing Rabbi Shimon would admonish his disciples and say to them, “My sons, study my ways, for I have learned them from my great master, Rabbi Akiva!” Even long after his great teacher was no longer with him, Rabbi Shimon acknowledged how greatly his character had been molded by his irreplaceable instructor.
Many other outstanding scholars studied together with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, but all acknowledged him as the greatest of their generation. In many instances we find that they deferred to his opinion. In his humility, Rabbi Shimon honored them as equals, even when he disagreed with their opinions. His custom was first to cite the view of a colleague and to explain how he had arrived at his conclusions in the matter. Only then would he go on and present his own outlook of the issue, explaining why he disagreed with his contemporary. Even when the majority was opposed to his decision, Rabbi Shimon paid no heed and maintained his position without hesitation. However, when others asked him what halachic decision they should hand down, his own, or that of the majority, he always advised that they follow the majority.
The name Rabbi Shimon is mentioned frequently in the Talmud, and in each instance it refers to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He transmitted the teachings of his master to his disciples of the coming generation. The most famous of his works is the Zohar, also known as the Midrash Yehi Ohr. Tradition tells us that he composed it, together with his colleagues and disciples, after having spent thirteen years hiding from the persecutions of the Roman authorities who ruled the Holy Land at the time.
Rabbi Shimon wrote other volumes, among them: Reiya Mehemna, Safra deTzinusa, Tikunei haZohar, and Adra Raba Kadisha.
His Teachings Are Recorded
During Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime, so long as his yeshiva was functioning, his works were not gathered in book form. However, so that the esoteric teachings of the Torah not be lost, Rabbi Shimon appointed one of his outstanding followers, Rabbi Abba, to record them. Originally, the Book of the Zohar included commentaries on all the Scriptures. The manuscripts were so numerous that, taken together, they were a full camel-load. Unfortunately, today we have left of them only those portions written on the Five Books of Moses.
Some historians maintain that centuries later, the saintly scholar, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, found a copy of the book of the Zohar in the Holy Land and sent it to Catalona, in Spain. It made its way to the hands of his disciple, Rabbi Moses deLeon, and was then published.
With its appearance, some people challenged its authenticity, but it became accepted by rabbinical authorities who were disciples of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, or of his disciples, and continues to be fully accepted today.
After the death of his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon established a yeshivah in the city of Takoa and taught many students there. This was the fourth generation after the destruction of the Sanctuary in Jerusalem. Among his more outstanding followers were: Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rabbi Elazar, his son, Rabbi Dostai son of Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Zakkai, Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar, Rabbi Shimon the son of Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabbi Yossi ben Lakonia, and Rabbi Shimon son of Mansia. The first of the scholars of the Talmud also studied in his yeshiva, including the revered Rav, who is cited in the Talmud as both a Tanna, a scholar of the Mishna, and an Amora, a scholar of the Talmud.
Rabbi Shimon continued to teach in Takoa and in the village of Meirosn, and many flocked to learn from him. Of the more outstanding disciples, he selected nine scholars to study the hidden secrets of the Torah with him. This group were called the “friends.” Together they devoted themselves to spiritual achievements and achieved great personal perfection, harmony, peace of mind, and intellectual insight. The disciples, in turn, transmitted their knowledge further, and their teaching was characterized by the calm and harmony they had acquired from their master. They were true loyal friends, and loved and admired each other deeply.
Rabbi Yosef Chayim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai, writes of Rabbi Shimon and his inner circle of disciples: “And know, that this is a major ethical teaching for us, to learn from their ways, that all Israel should be bound together with love and brotherhood, care and friendship, particularly during the days of the Counting of the Omer.”