TRADITION TODAY: Celebrating Bar Yohai with caution

I suppose Bar Yohai attained this status because he was thought to be the author of the Zohar, the central book of the Kabbala, the magnificent text of Jewish mysticism.

WORSHIPERS GATHER at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Lag Ba’omer in 2016 in Meron (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WORSHIPERS GATHER at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Lag Ba’omer in 2016 in Meron
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rashbi – Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai – has been praised and celebrated by thousands this week as crowds gathered in Meron, where his grave is said to be, on Lag Ba’omer, the traditional date of his death. Songs were sung in his praise, dances danced, children’s hair was cut and in general Bar Yohai’s status as a folk hero was ratified once again. I am not aware of any of the other great Sages of Israel receiving that kind of attention and adulation, even though many were much more important than he was, nor are the days of their deaths celebrated in such a way. I sometimes wonder why.
I suppose Bar Yohai attained this status because he was thought to be the author of the Zohar, the central book of the Kabbala, the magnificent text of Jewish mysticism. The fact is that scholars today are quite certain that he had nothing to do with the Zohar, which was probably written in the 14th century in medieval Spain, possibly by Moses de Leon, long after Bar Yohai’s time. But facts like that are not likely to interfere with long-held traditions and beliefs.
Who exactly was Shimon Bar Yohai? He was a very complex individual. The main thing we know about him is that he was one of Rabbi Akiva’s most important students. He carried on Akiva’s work and teachings, although he was a very different personality than his teacher Akiva. Akiva was a mild-mannered person, avoiding extremes, generally tolerant and loving. Bar Yohai was much more strident in his ideas. He was an extremist in many ways – some positive, some less so. Some of that may be ascribed to the conditions under which he lived. He survived the defeat of Bar Kochba by Rome and passionately hated the Romans, who continued to forbid many Jewish practices. He was certainly devoted to the Land of Israel, to Judaism and the Jewish people, but at times in a fanatic way that overstepped the bounds of reason. That is illustrated by the most famous of all the stories told about his life, found in the Talmud, Shabbat 33a.
According to the Talmud, following the terrible destruction inflicted by the Romans with great cruelty at the defeat of Bar Kokhba – perhaps the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history until the Shoah – Bar Yohai detested Rome and spoke against it in public.
“All they did was only for their own benefit,” he said, mocking all the great achievements of the Romans in building their great empire. When this was reported to the Roman authorities, they condemned him to death. He and his son fled and hid in a cave where they spent all their time studying Torah. The story has it that they lived that way for 12 years and emerged only when the emperor who had condemned him died.
When they emerged from the cave and saw someone plowing and sowing – i.e. doing that which human existence requires – they criticized him for not spending all of his time in Torah study as they had done.
The legend says, “Whatever they looked upon was immediately destroyed by fire.”
A voice from heaven then proclaimed, “Have you come out in order to destroy My world? Return to the cave!” They stayed there 12 months as punishment, but when they emerged and saw someone scrupulously honoring Shabbat, they realized that one could live an ordinary life working and laboring and still honor the commandments. Thus they were reconciled to a normal way of life.
This story is particularly relevant today when large segments of Israeli society are claiming that every male should be allowed to devote himself to Torah learning exclusively rather than serving the country or working in productive ways. Were everyone to follow that the world would surely cease to exist. Would that a heavenly voice – or even an authoritative earthly one – would repeat what was said to Bar Yohai! Bar Yohai’s hatred of the Romans can be understood and even justified. It can certainly be compared to the feelings so many Jews had concerning the Germans and others immediately after the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it led to some teachings that have been harmful in the long run and must be rejected. For example, Bar Yohai taught, “The best of the gentiles should be slain” (Y. Kiddushin 60c) and “You [Jews] are called ‘adam’ [human] but idolaters are not called ‘adam’” (Yebamot 61a). Whatever he meant by this – and they are surely exaggerations – the result of such teachings can be seen in many ideas found in later kabbalistic and hassidic literature denigrating non-Jews.
Recently these and similar statements have been used to justify the radical statements found in such books as Torat HaMelech, in which non-Jews are depicted as a lesser species whom it is permissible to harm and even kill. Extremist groups in turn have turned this into action one way or another.
Surely if the Shoah has taught us anything, it is that the moment any group of people is dehumanized, that can only lead to seeing that group as not only inferior but worthy of destruction. That is a teaching Jews must reject categorically.
Therefore, while celebrating Bar Yohai, it is important to be careful about what one learns from his teachings and his life. Love of Israel and Jews is one thing, hatred of all non-Jews is quite another.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Schechter Institute, is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law of the Rabbinical Assembly. A prolific author, two of his books have received the National Jewish Book Council Award as the best work of scholarship of the year. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).