Posted by: gruvenreuven | May 11, 2009

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – Lag BaOmer

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – Lag BaOmer
In honor of Lag B’Omer, I’d like to re-print the below Sichos that the Rebbe gave in the year 5722. The Sichos, in addition to others can be found on the Sichos in English website. (Click HERE, to access the Sichos directly)

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, was a famous rabbi who lived in the era of the Tannaim in Israel during the Roman period, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. He was one of the most eminent disciples of Rabbi Akiva, and is attributed by many with the authorship of the Zohar, the cornerstone of Kabbalah.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai told his students to make Lag BaOmer, the anniversary of his death, a day of celebration. All over the world, children march in Lag BaOmer parades. We show everyone how proud and happy we are to be Jewish and to keep the Torah and its mitzvos.

But why do we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s yahrzeit? We don’t celebrate the yahrzeits of many other great Sages who lived in his time.

The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was different. Our Sages tell us that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s “occupation was Torah study.” That’s what he did all day. He spent all of his time studying Torah.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai should serve as an example for us. But how? We need to earn livings, We have to do many other things during the day besides studying the Torah.

Although true, Rabbi Shimon’s example teaches us how involved we should be at the time we do study. We should concentrate totally on what we are studying as if this is our only occupation; we shouldn’t be thinking about anything else.

The Below is a Sichos that the Rebbe Gave in the year 5722 that explores the above in finer detail.

Chag Sameach!

(Adapted from Sichos Lag BaOmer, 5722)

Rabbi Shimon’s Day
As is well known,[379] Lag BaOmer[380] was instituted as a day of rejoicing[381] because Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on that day. On the day of a person’s passing, his entire lifework and all his labor in Torah and mitzvos are gathered together and ascend to the spiritual realms.[382]

Therefore, at the time of his passing, Rabbi Shimon declared: “With one bond, I am bound to Him; in it as one, in it aflame.”[383] He was connected to G-d, the source of life, in an eternal bond. And thus, when he was in the midst of the verse:[384] “There G-d commanded the blessing of life..,” “the light of holiness did not complete saying the word ‘life’ before his voice was hushed.”[385] Rabbi Shimon became eternally bound to the attribute of life.

Every year, the spiritual heights reached by Rabbi Shimon on the day of his passing are “recalled and relived.”2 And thus, every year, Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration.

From the Highest Peaks to the Lowest Depths
The Jerusalem Talmud states[386] that when Rabbi Akiva ordained his students Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon, he asked Rabbi Meir to sit before Rabbi Shimon. At this, Rabbi Shimon’s face soured. Rabbi Akiva consoled him by saying: “It is sufficient for you that I and your Creator appreciate your potential.” This implies that Rabbi Shimon’s potential could not be appreciated even by Rabbi Akiva’s students.

To put the matter in perspective: With regard to Rabbi Meir, our Sages state:[387] “His colleagues could not appreciate the depth of his knowledge.” Rabbi Meir’s colleagues were, however, able to appreciate that he possessed wisdom. With regard to Rabbi Shimon, however, even Rabbi Meir could not appreciate his wisdom; only “I [Rabbi Akiva] and your Creator.”

Rabbi Akiva’s level was (as explained in Chassidus) higher than that of Nadav and Avihu, as evidenced by the fact that he “entered in peace and left in peace.”[388] And similarly, it is explained that, among the ten martyrs, Rabbi Akiva is identified with G-d Himself.[389] Therefore it was Rabbi Akiva and the Creator alone who recognized Rabbi Shimon’s potential.

So even while alive, Rabbi Shimon’s level was incomparably higher than that of his contemporaries. Surely we can appreciate that at the time of his passing, he reached an even higher peak. One might then think that because he was on such a rung, his happiness on Lag BaOmer is too elevated to be meaningful to ordinary people. As the following story[390] illustrates, this is not the case.

The AriZal had a disciple who would include the prayer Nacheim, recited for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash[391] as part of the Grace[392] after Meals, every day. From the wording of the story, it appears that the student would make this addition even on Shabbos and festivals.

On Lag BaOmer, the student came to Meron to pray at Rabbi Shimon’s grave, and as was his practice, he recited Nachaim at that time as well. Rabbi Shimon’s spirit was disturbed at the recitation of Nacheim on the day of his celebration, and this caused the student to suffer.

To explain: Rabbi Shimon’s spiritual level was above even the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.[393] Therefore on the day of his rejoicing, when his spiritual level is revealed, it is not appropriate to focus on the destruction.

This story underscores two points:

1. Lag BaOmer possesses a quality above that of even Shabbos and the festivals, for the AriZal’s student suffered negative consequences for reciting Nacheim on Lag BaOmer, but not on any other occasion.

2. The celebration of Lag BaOmer should encompass all Jews, even those affected by the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash as reflected in the daily recitation of Nacheim.

This points to the uniqueness of Rabbi Shimon’s Divine service: he was able to fuse polar opposites, drawing down the highest levels — the level of “With one bond, I am bound to Him” — to the lowest depths.[394]

Ultimate Dedication to the Study of Torah
This fusion of opposites is reflected in Rabbi Shimon’s rulings in the realm of Nigleh, the revealed dimensions of Torah law. For example, with regard to the verse:[395] “This Torah scroll will not depart from your mouth,” the Talmud[396] mentions a difference of opinion between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon.

Rabbi Yishmael explained that the verse is not meant to be understood in an absolutely literal sense. We must follow the ordinary pattern of the world, he argued — ploughing, sowing, and the like — even though this requires a departure from the study of the Torah.

Rabbi Shimon, by contrast, maintained that the verse should be understood in its most literal sense: the entire day should be devoted to the study of Torah. Moreover, he said that if Jews dedicate themselves to G-d’s will in this manner, their work will be accomplished by others.

The Talmud concludes that many followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael and were successful. In contrast, many who followed the opinion of Rabbi Shimon were not successful. This indicates that Rabbi Shimon’s approach is above the level appropriate for this material world.

Personally, however, Rabbi Shimon followed his own opinion. “His Torah was his occupation.”[397] His days were filled with study alone.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Shimon did not compel others to follow his example. The Talmud relates[398] that when he and his son, Rabbi Elazar, emerged from the cave where they had hidden for 13 years (an experience which elevated their spiritual level immensely), Rabbi Elazar saw people engaged in worldly concerns and destroyed them with his glance. “How can they abandon eternal life for temporal matters?” he exclaimed. [He then with a glance destroyed those people.]

But “whatever Rabbi Elazar destroyed, Rabbi Shimon healed.” Not only did he not destroy as did his son, he mended what his son had devastated. For as he explained to his son: “You and I [who study in a manner of ‘his Torah is his occupation,’] are sufficient for the world.”

Moreover, we find that it is Rabbi Shimon who stated:[399] “Even if all a person did was read the Shema in the morning and the evening, he has fulfilled the charge, ‘This Torah scroll shall not depart….’ ”

According to certain opinions, the mitzvah of reading the Shema involves only the first verse.[400] Rabbi Shimon maintained that when a person is unable to study Torah the entire day because he has other concerns with which the Torah requires him to be occupied, or because he is ignorant and incapable of studying,[401] he fulfills the charge “This Torah scroll shall not depart…” with the recitation of the Shema alone.[402]

This reflects the unique ability of Rabbi Shimon to encompass the most complete devotion to Torah study — a literal fulfillment of the charge “This Torah scroll shall not depart….” — and a person incapable of studying more than “one verse in the morning and one verse in the evening.” Rabbi Shimon’s teaching reflects how the infinite dimensions of the Torah are invested in even the tiny segment which such a person is able to read.

To Mend What Needs Mending
Rabbi Shimon’s achievements are even greater; he was able to draw down the unlimited dimensions of the Torah even into worldly matters. For the Torah itself mandates activity of this nature, as it commands: “And you shall gather your grain.”[403] (People at large are not expected to make an all-encompassing commitment to the study of the Torah, as Rabbi Shimon told his son, “you and I are enough for the world”.) And furthermore, he “mended” the world, rectifying difficulties that existed beforehand.

He did not wait until he saw a problem, and then set out to correct it. Instead, he sought out problems to correct, asking others:19 “Is there anything that I could rectify?” And when he was told that there was a place which priests avoided because of a question of ritual impurity[404], he set out to correct the difficulty. Although the question involved impurity contracted from a human corpse — the most serious form of ritual impurity[405] — Rabbi Shimon was able to make the place suitable even for priests.

When was Rabbi Shimon able to make such a contribution? After he had reached the highest peaks through his 13 years of Torah study in the cave.[406] Following the principle:[407] “It is the highest levels that can descend to the lowest depths,” it was at this time that he was best able to descend to worldly concerns, including the rectification of situations that were in need of correction.[408]

Israel’s Advocate
Our Sages[409] also quote Rabbi Shimon as saying: “I can [find a defense that will] acquit every Jew from the attribute of judgment.” Although there are people who have committed undesirable acts, Rabbi Shimon was able to find grounds for their defense.

This reflects an even greater descent than that involved in rectifying a problem involving the impurity which stems from contact with the dead. After the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge, death (and the resulting impurity) became part of the natural pattern of this world, independent of man’s free choice. Sin (and the judgment that accompanies it) is thus lower than death, being the product, not of nature, but of a Jew’s unwise choice. Nevertheless, Rabbi Shimon was able to descend to that level,[410] for in order to act as an advocate for someone one must develop empathy for him,[411] and advance arguments to acquit such individuals.

Moreover, this descent was not mandated from above, as was G-d’s command to Moshe:[412] “Go and descend.” Instead, Rabbi Shimon made the choice on his own initiative, out of his desire to “acquit every Jew from the attribute of judgment.”

Rabbi Shimon was willing and able to descend to such a low level because he was among “the superior men who are few in number.”[413]

Anticipating Redemption
As are all the stories in the Torah, the stories about Rabbi Shimon’s conduct serve as a directive for every Jew in later generations. This has been particularly true ever since the teachings of P’nimiyus HaTorah, the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, were revealed.

Following Rabbi Shimon’s example, it is necessary for us to “spread the wellsprings [of Chassidus] outward,” to join the two ends of the spiritual spectrum. We must take not only from the river, but from the wellspring itself — the very heart of the teachings of P’nimiyus HaTorah — and spread the “water” to the most extreme peripheries.

This will prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach, who will likewise join two extremes. On one hand, he will study Torah with the Patriarchs and Moshe our teacher.[414] At the same time, he will occupy himself with the poor, as it is written:[415] “He shall judge the poor with righteousness.” Indeed, he will even influence the viper, causing it to cease harming people.[416]

All this depends on our efforts. We must raise a generation in which children will study P’nimiyus HaTorah. As Rabbi Shimon said: “In the generation in which Mashiach comes, children — both children in a chronological sense and children in knowledge — will study P’nimiyus HaTorah.”[417]

Our Sages comment:[418] “Rabbi Shimon is worthy enough to rely on in a time of difficulty.” Beyond the simple meaning of the statement in its source, there is room for an extended interpretation. In an era when we are beset by the hardships of exile, we should rely on Rabbi Shimon. Indeed, Rabbi Shimon himself said that he, together with Achiyah of Shiloh, were worthy of “acquitting every Jew from the attribute of judgment until the days of Mashiach.”[419]

Rabbi Shimon has been promised:[420] “With this composition of yours, the Zohar, Israel will be redeemed from exile in mercy.” This promise involves a logical sequence; the Redemption will come when the outlook of Rabbi Shimon — who stood above the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash — is spread throughout the world.

Rabbi Shimon’s teachings must be spread everywhere, even in places which need correction, even in places which are ritually impure. And this will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy:[421] “I will remove the spirit of impurity from the world,” making even such places fit to serve as dwellings for the Jewish people — Israelites, Levites, and priests.

Thus the world will be fit for the Jewish nation, of whom it is said:[422] “And you shall be a nation of priests for Me,” and for G-d Himself, of whom it is said: “Your G-d is a priest.”[423] For Eretz Yisrael will spread throughout the entire world,[424] making the world into a dwelling for G-d.

(Adapted from Sichos Lag BaOmer, 5722)


379. There are several reasons given* for the celebrations of Lag BaOmer. The reason which concerns us is the rationale stated in the writings of the AriZal and quoted in chassidus:** that the day is set aside as the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai*** (a letter of the Rebbe, Pesach Sheni, 5711).

* See Mishnas Chassidim, Masechtes Iyar ViSivan; Pri Chadosh, Orach Chayim, 493; Maros Ayin by the Chida, Likkutim; Shem Aryeh, Orach Chayim, Responsum 14; S’dei Chemed, Asifas Dinim, Mareches Eretz Yisrael, Peas HaSadeh sec. 6.

** See Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar Sefiras HaOmer, ch. 7; the maamar of the Alter Rebbe cited by Divrei Nechemia, Orach Chayim, Responsum 34, sec. 7 [Maamarei Admur HaZaken 5564, p. 101]; Siddur Shaar Lag BaOmer. To quote the Divrei Nechemia: “The celebration of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag BaOmer has been publicized throughout the world for several generations.”

*** See Zohar, Vol. III, p. 296b, see also Zohar, Vol. I, p. 218a. The question has been raised: Traditionally, it is customary to fast on the day of the passing of a tzaddik. Why then is the day of Rabbi Shimon’s passing celebrated?

This question can be resolved even according to Nigleh, the revealed dimension of Torah law, because Rabbi Shimon himself instructed that the day of his passing be set aside for celebration (see Pri Etz Chayim, loc. cit.). As stated by Rabbeinu Yeruchum (quoted in the Shach, Yoreh De’ah 344:9), when a person makes such a request, his request must be honored. This is not the place for discussion of this issue.

380. The day is usually referred to with the name Lag BaOmer although in his Siddur, the Alter Rebbe states that days of the omer should be counted with the expression LaOmer. This is also the expression used in the Siddur (a manuscript copy) from which the Baal Shem Tov would pray, i.e., the Siddur HaAriZal. (See also Rabbeinu Nissim at the conclusion of tractate Pesachim; the Responsa of the Rashba, Responsum 126; Tanya Rabsi, sec. 50; Kol Bo, sec. 55; Sheloh; Shaarei Teshuvah; Chok Yaakov, and others.)

381. Mishnas Chassidim, Masechtes Iyar, states” “On Lag BaOmer, it is a mitzvah to rejoice in the celebration of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.” The Mishnas Chassidim does not quote any source other than the AriZal. (The Alter Rebbe as quoted by the Tzemach Tzedek, Piskei Dinim, Yoreh De’ah, sec. 116.) See also the Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar Sefiras HaOmer, ch. 7.

This rationale also explains why the day is marked, not only by the absence of mourning, but by rejoicing. (See also Zohar, Vol. III, p. 287b.) This resolves the questions raised in the Responsa of the Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah, Responsum 233, Shem Aryeh, Orach Chayim, Responsum 14, and others. See also the commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, sec. 493.

382. Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 27.

383. This wording is cited in several sources in Chassidus. It appears to be a fusion of two statements from the Idra Zuta, Zohar, Vol. III, p. 288: “R. Shimon began [speaking], saying:… “With one bond, I am bound to the Holy One, blessed be He,” and ibid., p. 292a: “My soul is at one with Him; it is aflame with Him.” See the maamar entitled VaYichulu HaShamayim, 5666.

384. Tehillim 133:3.

385. Zohar, loc. cit., p. 296a.

386. Sanhedrin 1:2.

387. Eruvin 13b, 53a.

388. See Chagigah 14b. Note the sichah to Parshas Acharei in this series, where this concept is explained.

389. Likkutei HaShas by the AriZal, the conclusion of tractate Berachos.

390. See Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar Sefiras HaOmer, ch. 7; Shulchan Aruch HaAriZal, Kavanas HaOmer 3.

391. Siddur Tehillat HaShem, p. 100.

392. Shulchan Aruch HaAriZal. The Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar HaKavanos, and the Siddur HaAriZal state that the student would make the addition in Shemoneh Esreh, in the blessing, Tishkon [Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 22, p. 330].

393. See Pelach HaRimon, Shmos, p. 7, in the name of the Alter Rebbe.

394. This is also reflected in the fact that Rabbi Shimon’s passing is associated with the Sefirah Hod ShebeHod, which as explained in the Alter Rebbe’s Siddur, Shaar Lag BaOmer, is associated with the lowest levels.

395. Yehoshua 1:5.

396. Berachos 35b.

397. Shabbos 11a.

398. Ibid., 33b.

399. Menachos 99b.

400. See Shulchan Aruch HaRav 58:1, the conclusion of sec. 60.

401. See Tanya, ch. 8, which speaks of “devarim betalim [’empty words’] which are permitted to be recited, e.g., by an ignorant person.” A question could be raised, however, for seemingly such a person should be obligated in the recitation of verses from the Written Law (see Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah, the conclusion of ch. 2). This, however, is not the place for the discussion of this issue.

402. See Shulchan Aruch HaRav, loc. cit., Kuntres Acharon, the conclusion of ch. 3, where the Alter Rebbe reconciles the apparent contradiction between these two statements of Rabbi Shimon.

403. Devarim 11:14.

404. See the sichah to Parshas Metzora in this series, where this point is discussed.

405. See Rashi, Pesachim 14b, and the commentaries to the Mishnah in Keilim and Ohelos, who employ the term Avi Avos HaTumah. To explain: Generally, a substance which imparts ritual impurity is referred to as an Av Tumah, “a father of impurity,” for just as a father begets children, this substance imparts impurity. A human corpse is considered Avi Avos HaTumah, literally, “a father of a father of impurity,” because not only does a person who comes in contact with it become impure, that person himself becomes an Av Tumah.

406. Before he reached these peaks, not only did he not seek to improve the world, he (like his son, Rabbi Elazar afterwards) sought to lay waste to the world because of man’s lack of spiritual involvement (Shabbos 33b).

407. Cf. Shaarei Orah 58a.

408. This concept is also reflected in the narrative recorded in Shabbos 33b, which quotes Rabbi Shimon as saying: “Since a miracle [i.e., a revelation of G-dliness above the natural order] occurred, I will go and rectify a problem.”

409. Sukkah 45b.

410. See the letter printed at the beginning of Kuntres 30 (Sefer HaMaamarim Kuntresim, Vol. II, p. 712).

411. See Tanya, ch. 30.

412. Shmos 32:7; see Berachos 32a.

413. Sukkah, loc. cit. On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between the two quotes. Significantly, they are both attributed to the same source: “Chizkiyah, in the name of Rabbi Yirmeyah, in the name of Rabbi Shimon.”

414. See Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, p, 17a; Shaar HaEmunah, ch. 56; Menachos 29a. See also Vayikra Rabbah 11:5, which states: “The Torah which a person studies in the present age is empty when compared to the Torah to be taught by Mashiach.”

415. Yeshayahu 11:4.

416. Ibid.:8. See also Sichos Simchas Torah, 5690, sec. 39ff. (Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. II, p. 633ff).

417. Zohar, Vol. I, 92b, et al. See also Kedushas Levi, Parshas Vayechi.

418. Berachos 9a.

419. This is the version cited in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berachos 9:2, Bereishis Rabbah 35:2, Pesikta d’Rabbi Kahane, Vayihi Beshallach.

With regard to the connection between Rabbi Shimon (and the Baal Shem Tov, who revealed P’nimiyus HaTorah) and Achiyah of Shiloh, see Sefer HaMaamarim 5709, p. 172 in the note, and Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 512, in the note.

420. Zohar, Vol. III, p. 124b; see Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 26, which discusses this issue.

421. Zechariah 13:2.

422. Shmos 19:6. See the Mechilta to this verse, which emphasizes that this applies to each and every Jew.

423. Sanhedrin 39a.

424. See Yalkut Shimoni, Yeshayahu, sec. 503; Pesikta Rabasi, Parshas Shabbos VeRosh Chodesh; Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar, p. 89b.


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