The lesson of Bar Yohai

It's not often that tradition criticizes a great sage, yet this story is intended just for that purpose.

bar yohai 88 (photo credit: )
bar yohai 88
(photo credit: )
The Omer season, the time of counting, is upon us and in two weeks we will be celebrating Lag Ba'omer - the 33rd day of the counting - as a special holiday, a break, indeed for many the cessation of the mourning aspect of the period. Although talmudic tradition traces the origin of the day to the end of a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students (Yevamot 62b), kabbalistic tradition added to it the idea that it was the date of the death of one of the most important and most interesting of the second-century Tannaim - Shimon bar Yohai. This is turn led to the celebration held at Mount Meron, held by tradition to be his burial place. Bar Yohai was one of Akiva's outstanding students, an important authority for Jewish law and the transmitter of the traditions of his teacher. He was also a man of very strongly held opinions, some of which went to extremes. Having lived through the disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion and witnessed the execution of his teacher, put to death by the Romans for publicly teaching Torah, not surprisingly and not without justification he voiced his hatred and disdain for the Romans. "All that they have done they have done for their own benefit. They built market places to set harlots in them; they built baths to rejuvenate themselves; they built bridges in order to levy tolls for their use" (Shabbat 33b). The better part of discretion would have been to keep such an opinion to himself. Unfortunately word of this was conveyed to the Romans who sentenced him to death. The most interesting part of the story is what comes next. The Talmud relates that he and his son went to hide in a cave where they were supplied with a well of water and a carob tree. Their physical needs being met - they even discarded their garments to preserve them and covered themselves in sand - they then devoted themselves entirely to study and prayer. This went on for 12 years. The legend says that when the emperor died, Elijah informed them and told them they could emerge because the death sentence had been annulled. They did so. But when they came out and saw people going about their normal activities, sowing and plowing, they exclaimed, "They forsake eternal life to busy themselves with this world!" A heavenly voice then proclaimed, "Have you come forth only to destroy my world?! Return to the cave!" After 12 months they were permitted to emerge again. Just before Shabbat they saw an old man running with two bundles of myrtle. When they asked him why, and why two bundles, he replied that they were for Shabbat - one because of the command "remember" and one for '"observe." Bar Yohai then said, "See how precious the commandments are to Israel!" and their minds were at ease. What is the point of this story? Bar Yohai and his son were placed in a situation where they could devote themselves solely to study and prayer, having to give no thought to worldly, physical needs. They were living a monastic life and when they saw other people doing the things that need to be done for this world to exist, they disdained them as if to say that everyone should live as they had done. But God informs them that this would destroy the world. Without engagement with everyday needs, without doing the work that needs to be done this world could not exist. But more than that. When they see a plain old man, not a scholar, so concerned with honoring the Sabbath, they realize that one can engage in a worldly occupation and still be a devoted Jew. It is not often that the tradition criticizes a great sage, yet this story is intended just for that purpose. Bar Yohai, for all his learning, for all his importance, had become an extremist. Were his way to be followed, there could be no world. Study and prayer are indeed important, but so are sowing and plowing. It is the combination of Torah v'derech eretz - study and a worldly occupation - that enables the world and our society to exist. There is indeed a conflict between the desire to disengage from the world and devote oneself wholly to the spiritual life and the need to perform the work without which human life cannot exist. Judaism in this, as in so much else, looks for the golden mean. Do not separate yourself from the rest of the population. Do not enter that cave and do not disdain those who do the work that sustains us all. Do not ignore study of Torah, but do not ignore the world. Seek the golden mean. Torah is not meant only for those who can devote themselves to it and to it alone. So when we remember Bar Yohai this Lag Ba'omer, let us also remember the lesson that he had to learn and find the combination that Judaism favors: study together with a worldly occupation. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.