Torah reading 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the central figure of Lag Ba’omer celebrations, was one
of the most colorful figures of the Tannaitic period. He became so well known
that numerous legends grew up about him and even the authorship of the Zohar was
ascribed to him, although it was clearly written in Spain in the Middle
Bar Yohai was a man given to extremes. A pupil of Rabbi Akiva, he
shared his teacher’s abhorrence of the Romans and put himself in danger. Whereas
Akiva defied the Romans by teaching Torah in public when the Hadrianic decrees
had forbidden it, Bar Yohai’s defiance was in making unguarded remarks about the
Romans and denigrating their civilization, remarks which were undoubtedly true
but were certainly politically incorrect and dangerous at the time after the Bar
Kochba debacle when the Romans were in complete control of Judea.
was to be gained by his words. There was no way in which the Roman authorities
could be challenged or defied at that time.
The result was that he was
denounced to the Romans and both he and his son had to flee and to hide away in
order to save their lives.
How they did so became the subject of a
legend. As told in the Talmud, however, the story is both another illustration
of his extremism and a rebuke of it. According to Shabbat 33b, they hid in a
cave where a miracle occurred: a carob tree grew and a water well sprang up so
they that they had food and water in abundance. They took off their garments and
sat covered with sand and studied Torah all day long, except for times of prayer
when they put on garments. That way their clothing lasted for years.
went on for 12 years, after which the emperor who wanted them dead died himself
and they could emerge. But when they came out, the story continues, they had
nothing but contempt for people who did anything but study all day long. Having
experienced such a life in which they had to do nothing in order to keep alive
and had no needs since everything was furnished for them miraculously, they
forgot what real life was all about. In the words of the Talmud, “Seeing a man
ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, ‘They forsake life eternal and engage in
life temporal!’ and whatever they looked upon was immediately burnt up.” Because
of this they were punished from Heaven by having to go back into the cave for
another year. When they emerged on Friday before Shabbat, they saw an old man
holding two bundles of myrtle and running to get home before Shabbat, and when
they asked him what they were for, he replied, “In honor of the two commandments
of Shabbat – ‘Remember’ and ‘Observe.’” Upon hearing that Bar Yohai said, “See
how precious are the commandments to Israel!” The lesson God taught Bar Yohai is
that the world cannot exist unless people engage in the normal pursuits of
living. Unless farmers plow, there will be no food, and without food humanity
Therefore do not disparage those who must work and cannot sit
isolated and do nothing but study all day long. That would be the end of
civilization, the end of society, the end of the Jewish people. Ordinary people
who work for a living can still be pious and still honor the commandments. There
is time for study and time for work and we cannot depend upon miracles to keep
the world going. That is why a core curriculum for all children, teaching them
the skills needed to earn a living, is not only a national imperative, but a
religious imperative as well.
This lesson is something that Judaism
learned long ago and our greatest scholars managed to both study and work.
Certainly that was always expected of the general population. It is not either
Torah or work but rather Torah and work. The task that God gave to Adam in the
garden, “to till it and tend it” (Genesis 2:15) is the task given to every human
being. We have to till the world and tend it in whatever way is necessary. It is
a task we cannot escape and we cannot expect others to do it while we spend our
lives divorced from the world. That is not the way of the Torah.
writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time
winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution