Lag B'Omer and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (May 2012)

Lag B’Omer is intimately related to the memory of  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is intimately connected to the Jewish contemplative tradition, especially where it involves solitude and seclusion.  In 2008,  I published  an essay on this website to celebrate Lag B’Omer and as that is now a good while ago,  I have decided to repost  some of it here today  with a few editorial additions: 

The Holy Fire of Shimon Bar Yochai

Graphic: N.R.Davies 1994
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 Yochai. He is the 2nd century “Superhero” of Jewish Mysticism and a sort of honorary patron saint of Jewish contemplatives and kabbalists, especially since the Zohar was written in his name.

This year (2012), Lag B’Omer falls on Thursday May 10th  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 Yochai 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. ( There are two interesting video-clips of the celebrations at Meron  HERE and HERE )

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

You can see the Hebrew text HERE and there is a beautiful new translation of this piyut with a commentary  (both by Rabbi Dovid Sears) 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.

The Sefardic melody to which this text is often sung is incidentally my favourite piece of Jewish music. Here is version of it which I notated in May 2007.

(RIGHT-click on the graphic to open in a new window and see it clearly)

In kabbalistic texts, Bar Yochai 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.)

The precise connection between Bar Yochai 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.”

Rabbi Shimon and this website

The issue which permeates my “Kuntres M'arat Ha-Lev” (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 Yochai 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... 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.....

Though some think that  Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides) may have been advocating an  intentionally dedicated life-style of Torah  study and prayer in the following passage:
“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 Yochai 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 then size isn’t everything: “a little Yud” can change worlds.

In that essay I wrote of the intimate connection between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the Jewish Contemplative tradition.  There is also an especially  “intimate connection” between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.   This year the  Breslov Research Institute has very kindly made a free booklet available for the use of those who wish to celebrate this special day with appropriate prayers and reflections.  You can download it HERE.
An annotated translation of Reb Noson's supplication in the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai can also been found on the Breslov Center website HERE

Finally, for those readers who are visiting this page on Lag B’Omer itself. Perhaps you would like to use the following few thoughts as “pegs” in your  hisbodedus on this special day.  They are aspects of the story which might shed light our own personal situation and progress while we are engaged in solitary  discussion with HaShem:

-Part of the Lag B'Omer story relates to the way Shimon Bar Yohai copes with his fear of the Romans (and perhaps his internal fears which are expressed in rage).

-Part of it concerns the way a contemplative learns to rely on Providence (the carob tree and the spring).

-Part of it concerns developing the knack of knowing what our true target is (the lessons of secluded retreat followed by an attempted return to society to test the transformation).

-All of it is about the way Prayer/Torah study guides our aim. 

A very Happy Lag B'Omer
-To all who visit this website;
-To all Jewish Contemplatives who would drink from the Nachal Novea of  Bar Yochai's stream;
-And to all the Worlds it feeds.

May 9 2012