Rabbi Shimon and His Son Flee
When the Roman governor of Palestine sought his head, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid in a cave together with his son, Rabbi Elazar.
The era of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was fraught with suffering and trials for the Jewish people. The Romans, then under the rule of Hadrian, persecuted Jews wherever they found them. They destroyed the Holy Temple ruthlessly and tried to force the surviving Jews to convert to their pagan religion. The Sages called dubbed their era “The generation of religious persecution” because the Romans’ principle goal was spiritual annihilation of the Jewish People. They executed ten of the nation’s leading scholars using a variety of methods of brutal torture. Among these ten martyrs were the saintly rabbis who had taught Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
In the days of Rabbi Shimon, Antoninus Pius took the throne in Rome, and the iron yoke of the foreign rule was relaxed somewhat. However, Rabbi Shimon was not to benefit from the overall change. The authorities continued to harass him endlessly, and threatened to execute him for the crime of propagating Torah. Fearing for his life, Rabbi Shimon fled, together with his son, Rabbi Elazar. The two men hid in a cave for thirteen years before they were informed that it was safe for them to emerge.
The Romans brutally repressed any Jewish observance, and ruthlessly persecuted any Jew who remained loyal to the faith of his fathers. At the same time, they set to developing the country physically. Their resources were invested in building roads, aqua ducts, bridges, bath houses and marketplaces in an attempt to win over the populace and convince them that, as a Roman province, they would be better off than as an independent Jewish state led by “scholars and philosophers.”
The Talmud reports how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai came to be set apart as an “enemy of the state” by the Roman governor. One day, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together. Yehuda ben Geirim joined them. Rabbi Yehuda said: “Look what fine projects this nation undertakes. They built marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses.”
Rabbi Yossi remained silent and said nothing.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai replied: “They did everything for their own benefit. They set up the marketplaces for their own pleasure and good. They built bathhouses to indulge in their own pleasure. They built bridges so that they would be able to charge tolls for using them.”
Yehuda ben Geirim went and told his family what Rabbi Shimon had said. Word spread from one person to another, and reached the ears of the governor, who declared: Rabbi Yehuda, who praised the Romans, will be promoted to chief spokesman everywhere. Rabbi Yossi, who remained silent, will be exiled to Tzipori. And Rabbi Shimon, who spoke against us, will be executed!”
When Rabbi Shimon learned of the governor’s intentions, he took his son Rabbi Elazar and hid in the study hall. Each day, his wife brought them bread and water.
When the search for him intensified, Rabbi Shimon feared that his hiding place would be discovered. He told his son: “I fear that the authorities will torture your mother, and she will be forced into revealing our hiding place!”
Rabbi Shimon and his son left the study hall and fled outside of the city. They hid in a cave, in the village of Pekiiin, which is in the Upper Galilee. Heaven provided them with sustenance by creating a carob tree at the mouth of the cave, and a spring of fresh water.
While they were in the cave they removed their garments so that they would not wear out. They covered themselves with sand up to their necks, out of modesty, and sat and studied Torah. When it was time to recite their prayers, they donned their clothing again.
For twelve years, the two men, father and son, remained secluded in their cave, and no one knew of their whereabouts, except for Elijah the Prophet, who visited them twice a day and studied with them. During this period of time, Rabbi Shimon attained great spiritual heights in his knowledge of the Torah. Many secrets were revealed to him. (Later, after he had left the cave, Rabbi Shimon revealed this knowledge to his comrades. Divine secrets became known to them with the same clarity as on the day when the Torah was handed down on Mount Sinai.)
For twelve years, Rabbi Shimon remained hidden. Finally, the Roman governor died, and his decree against Rabbi Shimon was annulled. However, Rabbi Shimon himself was unaware of these developments. Eliljah the Prophet came to the mouth of the cave and said: “Who will inform the son of Yochai that the governor has died and his decrees are therefore annulled?”
Rabbi Shimon and his son heard these words and left the cave.
They came upon some men plowing the soil and planting seeds. Rabbi Shimon was taken aback. He asked: “How can people set aside eternal life and occupy themselves with earthly matters? Every where the two glanced was immediately scorched. A Heavenly voice said to them: “Have you come out of the cave in order to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!”
They went back to the cave for another twelve months. Then Rabbi Shimon declared: “We have been punished enough, for even the evil doers in Gehenna are not punished for more than twelve months. A Heavenly voice said: “Go out of your cave!”
When they went out, they met a hunter who had a bow and arrows which he used to catch birds. They watched and saw that some birds were trapped, and others escaped the arrow. When Rabbi Shimon heard a voice from Heaven declare: “Rescue and release!” the bird was not caught, but when the voice said “Spekula” the bird was trapped.
Rabbi Shimon turned to his son and said: “If a bird cannot be trapped unless Heaven so decrees, is this not the case, all the more, with a human being? Why, then, should we hide?”
THE MISSION OF THE DOVE
One day Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Yehuda rose in the morning and saw a dove in the air. Rabbi Yossi rose to his feet and said: “Dove, dove, faithful to your mission in the days of the Great Flood. It is fitting for you to serve as a symbol of the holy nation, as it says, ‘The Jewish people are compared to a dove.’
“Go and carry out a mission to the son of Yochai, wherever he is!’
The dove landed before Rabbi Yossi. He wrote a note. The dove took it in its beak, and flew away to Rabbi Shimon. It fluttered overhead, above Rabbi Shimon. He looked and saw the note in its beak, and he and his son began to cry. He said: “I weep that I set myself apart from my comrades, and I weep for the matters that were not revealed to them.”
That evening, Rabbi Shimon wrote a note and placed it in the dove’s beak. The dove flew back to Rabbi Yossi, who was standing in the same place, waiting for it. When he saw the dove, he said: “O, Dove! How faithful you are, more than any other bird of the heavens!”
He took the note from it and went inside to his comrades to reveal to them what had happened. They were very amazed.
Rabbi Yehuda wept and said: “Woe! Even though we do not know where the son of Yochai is, his friends are with him and are aroused by him and learn from him. How fortunate is the soul of the son of Yochai, that the Holy One does miracles with him. He decrees, and the Holy One carries out his decrees. In the future, he will head the righteous ones who dwell in the Garden of Eden, and he will welcome the Holy Presence, and will see the Holy One, Blessed be He, and will enjoy the company of the righteous, and say to them: “Come, let us bow down and prostrate ourselves, let us kneel before G-d, our Maker.” (Psalms 95:6)
When they left the cave, Rabbi Elazar saw people who busied themselves with material concerns and not with Torah. Rabbi Elazar would punish them, and Rabbi Shimon healed them. Rabbi Shimon said to his son: “My son, it is sufficient for the world that you and I occupy ourselves with Torah.”
On the eve of the Sabbath, as it drew dark, they saw an elderly man hurrying to his home with two bunches of myrtle in his hand. They asked him; “Why do you have these two bunches of myrtle?”
“I brought them to honor the Sabbath, to enjoy their aroma.”
“And why two? Wouldn’t one be enough for you?”
He answered them: “One for the word ‘Remember! (the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’ And one for the word ‘Guard! (the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’)”
Rabbi Shimon said to his son: “Come and see how precious the commandments are to the people of Israel!”
The two of them rejoiced that they had found this fine Jew on their way.
Their minds were set to rest, and Rabbi Elazar was no longer so demanding.
After their long years in hiding, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar were weak, and their bodies were covered with sores and wounds. When Rabbi Shimon’s father-in-law heard that they had left their cave, he went to welcome them. He took them to Tiberius so that they might bathe in the warm spa there. He took them to the bath house and treated their sores and washed their bodies with water and oil. Rabbi Pinchas saw that their skin was full of cracks and sores from sitting so long in the sand. He began to cry, and his tears fell onto Rabbi Shimon’s wounds, and caused him even more pain.
Rabbi Pinchas declared: “Woe to me that I see you wounded and stricken so!”
Rabbi Shimon said to him: “How fortunate you are that you see me so. If you had not seen me so, (If I were not in such a state) you would not find so much Torah in me!”
Before Rabbi Shimon hid in the cave, he would respond to each of Rabbi Pinchas’ questions with twelve answers. After his period of seclusion, he supplied twice as many responses to each of his father-in-law’s questions.
After they were treated at the spa of Tiberius, they were healed and regained their strength.