The Holy Fire of Bar Yohai (May 2007)

 (You can read an updated edition of this essay for May 2012  HERE)

This weekend sees the nearest thing Judaism has to a “saint’s day”. Though Lag B’Omer is a festival with disputed origins, by far and away its most celebrated form is as a commemoration of the Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of the Venerable Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. He is the 2nd century “Superhero” of Jewish Mysticism and a sort of honorary patron saint of kabbalists, especially since the Zohar was written in his name.

This year, Lag B’Omer falls on Sunday May 6th and though it might seem odd to celebrate a death with what can only be described as a Very Big Party Indeed, we have it on good authority that Bar Yohai ordered it to be this way himself. Many describe his death as a “marriage of heaven and earth”. Nothing to be sad about at all.

No other personage in Judaism has a whole day of feasting and festivity devoted to their passing (though perhaps the Moroccan Maimuna festival for Maimonides’ father comes close). At Meron in Israel, sheep will be slaughtered and roasted, there are bonfires and torches galore, and a mass picnic takes place around his tomb. (some photos of this from Zeek magazine can be seen HERE and there is a wonderful video HERE. )

The Venerable Shimon bar Yohai is mentioned frequently in “The Cave of the Heart” (notably HERE ) In fact, its first (2005) edition was actually a Lag B’Omer present for Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet to mark his retirement as Principal of Leo Baeck College in London. (His enlightening comments on attempts to translate the Tetragrammaton were quoted in the text HERE ). Thus Lag B’Omer seems to qualify as a Red Letter day for me on many fronts.

Bar Yohai spent a total of thirteen years in his cave. I am only in my fourth consecutive year (round two) so his example is ever before me. I’d like to join in the celebrations at Meron this year by lighting a few little celebratory bonfires here on this blog. Four bonfires to be precise.

I’ll start with a text in the form of a flaming torch:

This is an illustration which I made in November 1994 in my personal prayer book for Erev Shabbos. I was not (and am not) proud of the tatty calligraphy….but it’s the thought that counts, and my intentions were good. The text is a hymn in honour of Shimon bar Yohai written by a Spanish Jew, Shimon ibn Lavi in the sixteenth century. The chorus reads “Bar Yohai, Happy are You, For you were anointed with the holy oil of joy”.

You can see a full translation of the text HERE
and an annotated one HERE.

Some commentators on the song think that the text refers to the anointing of kings, but the more common view is that the song is comparing Bar Yohai to the high priest. There are several references to items of priestly clothing in the song, so this seems most likely. More references to priests later in this post. Be warned.

The Sefardic melody to which this text is often sung is incidentally my favourite piece of Jewish music. So for my second bonfire tribute………Here is version of it which I notated this morning:

(click on the graphic to see it clearly)

In kabbalistic texts, Bar Yohai is often called by the Aramaic name “Butsina Kadisha”….the Holy Light. For this reason (and others) the torch has become one of his symbols. There is fire and flame everywhere in his life-story. For example, the story is told that on leaving the cave for the first time, his ferocious gaze set things and people ablaze….and then there is the story that his deathbed was surrounded by fire. (some say that this is the origin of the custom to encircle his tomb with bonfires.)

This is where I light my third little bonfire… a little commentary, I think:

The precise connection between Bar Yohai and Lag B’Omer is disputed. Some say it was the day he left the seclusion of his cave, some say it was the day of his ordination by Rabbi Akiva, some say it was the day of his death. Some say all three. Judaism is nothing if not a religion where differing opinions can flourish and co-exist. Indeed, the usual answer to an unresolved Theological or legal disagreement is a statement that both opinions are right. Perhaps this is because their exact meaning had been misconstrued. The Talmud frequently concludes with a statement that one of the two opinions seems to have been accepted as the “norm” if not the “absolutely correct.”

The issue which permeates my “Cave of the Heart” (and indeed this entire blog) is the question “What value does a contemplative life-style have within the community of Israel?”. It was Shimon Bar Yohai who, as it were, started the debate on this in the tractate Shabbat33a-b.

Its format (heavily simplified) was as follows.

* Rabbi Yishmael states that we have a duty to engage in worldly occupations.

* Rabbi Shimon sates that if we are too occupied with our work-load we will have no time for Torah study.

* As the arguments develop, Rabbi Shimon is understood to be putting forth the view that the obligation to study Torah overrides the importance of earning a living.

Centuries of commentary and discussion follow (they are superbly set forth on the net by Rabbi David Bassous HERE .

But ultimately, apart from the statement from Abaye that.

* many have followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael and have been successful

* others have followed R.Shimon Bar Yohai and they have not been successful.

The issue remains open to this day.

As readers of this blog are aware, I am living (as opposed to discussing) an answer to the question at the moment. The Carmelite rule of St. Albert instructs the hermit with the words “each of you is to stay in your cell or nearby pondering God’s Law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless some other duty claims his attention”. That is more or less what I have been doing for the last four years. I am doing it because I believe that there is space within Judaism for a monastic/hermit/contemplative movement. I am here because I am trying to generate responses to that statement. (can you smell the flames?…..I’ll stop before I self combust!)

In this week’s parsha Emor we read in great detail the instructions for the ritual holiness of the levites and priests of the tribe of Levi. In the “Cave” I wrote:

“All Jews are commanded to pray, study, and act but this inclusiveness did not preclude the establishment of the tribe of Levi. Where are they now? In Progressive Judaism their caste and its cultic status have become obsolete but should the essence of their function and service be regarded as similarly redundant?”

Moses Ben Maimon comes to my rescue with the following:
“Why did [the tribe of] Levi not merit an inheritance in the land of Israel and a share in the spoils of war together with its brothers? Because it was set aside to worship God, to teach His direct ways and His righteous judgments to the public ... Therefore, they were set aside from the ways of the world: they did not wage war like the rest of Israel and they did not inherit the land ... Rather, they are the army of the Lord, ………..

The tribe of Levi is not alone [in this]. Rather, every single person of those who live in the world,
* whose spirit has gratefully welled up,
* and who has comprehended in his mind
* to be separated
* and to stand before God,
* to serve Him,
* to worship Him,
* and to know Him;
* who has walked in the straight path that God has intended for him;
* and who has shed from his neck the yoke of the many accountings that humans make [of one another]

-- this person has become holy [like] the holy of holies, and God will be his portion and inheritance forever and ever. Such a person will have sufficient in this world, as did the priests and levites, as David, may he rest in peace, said, "The Lord is my portion of inheritance and my cup; You sustain my destiny" (Ps. 16:5).”

Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 13:12-13

(from Prof.David.R.Blumenthal’s website HERE )

Those who would join the school of Shimon Bar Yohai and attempt to live Jewish Contemplative lifestyles are always going to be few in number. No doubt much smaller in proportion to the world Jewish community than the tribe of Levi was to the entire nation. But despite the (current) silence from supporters of the "contemplative lifestyles" notion, or from “closet Jewish solitaries”…… I know you are out there!

Quick…..somebody throw a bucket of water over me……………………..

Finally. The last flame of this unusually long posting.
Not a bonfire. Something a little calmer perhaps.
This time, a memorial candle.

Every Friday night since I moved into this house I have lit a special candle as Shabbos comes in “in honour of Shimon Bar Yohai”. I don’t know why or exactly when I started doing it…but I have never missed a week. When Bar Yohai left his cave for the second time one Shabbos eve, he seems to have been calmed by his meeting with the man bearing myrtle for Shabbos ... the spirit of compromise in the debate perhaps, as he represents to some the idea of the material (work-week) bearing fruit in the spiritual (Sabbath).

I suspect that this “Erev Shabbos” incident is behind the custom (amongst Sefardim and certain Hasidic groups) of singing the Bar Yohai hymn on Friday nights as well as on Lag B’Omer. Perhaps that’s why lighting that extra Shabbos eve candle intuitively became part of my own home ritual? In the summer months it burns on a rock in the garden and in the winter months it burns indoors in my dining “room” inside a strange circular hole which someone once dug into the natural rock wall.

I lit it while I was typing this. Here’s a photo:

May the memory of Shimon Bar Yohai be for a blessing.

May his fire burn bright!

Lag B’Omer Sameach!