The eighteenth day of the month of Iyyar, the month of brilliance (ziv), is a festive day for the little children of Israel: it is Lag Ba’Omer (the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, leading to Shavu'ot.
This day marks the end of the plague that afflicted and killed the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. As I write about this holiday, many memories return to me from my childhood and I think on all the things that I did year after year. These recollections come before me now.
Lag Ba’Omer is a great and important holiday to me; it was then, and it still is now. I grew up in the lap of a certain sect in Israel which, in this country, is called the sect of the Chasidim. This sect follows after the Baal Shem Tov of Medzhybizh (also called Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, or Besht) and his disciples. For those of us who belong to this sect, Lag Ba’Omer, the day that Rashbi died, is a holiday. We also call it “Rashbi’s wedding,” or “Hillula de-Rashbi.” It is a day of joy and celebration, for on this day Rashbi abandoned the valley of sorrows and ascended to be conjoined with eternal life, forever satiated with heavenly joys.
Every single year my fellow Chasidim and I would decorate our synagogue with candles and banners. We would put the banners in the synagogue windows and on them we would write in big letters, “Hillula de-Rashbi.” This is how it has been for generations. My joy on this day was greater than any other because the memory of Rashbi is very holy to me. From my youth I followed those who were mighty in spirit amongst our people: Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, etc. However, I loved Rashbi much more than all the others.
When I was young there was nothing I craved more than to be with Rashbi. I poured out my heart before God on high, asking him to give me the strength and fortitude to live in a cave for thirteen years, eating only carob and dates like Rashbi and his son. He was one of the Chasidim—men of faith—whose whole being was constantly engrossed in the service of the heart (prayer). All his ways were ways of modesty, self-control, perseverance, and piety, and he always walked after HaShem with a pure heart (Keifa the apostle mentioned all of these attributes (middot) in his second letter [1:6]).
While I was still a youth I drank from the waters of his well. His instruction was like some healing remedy or magic potion for my very being, and my soul was strengthened because of it. Therefore even now, as we approach that day, that time of the year when we commemorate him, we do not fast or refrain from eating, rather we dine well in memory of his soul during the counting of the Omer.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was one of the sages of Israel. The Mishnah records his name 325 times, and the times that he is mentioned in the tractates of Talmud are innumerable.
We can reasonably assume that in the dawn of his youth Rashbi was a devoted disciple and a quick learner, for his righteous end testifies to a righteous beginning. Just as Scripture says, “Do not let this book of Torah ever depart from your lips,” he never let it depart from his (Joshua 1:8). Even after he was married he no longer continued to pursue worldly vocations in order to support his own physical needs and those of his wife, rather he chose the vocation of eternal life. In so doing, he studied in a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, the city in which Rabbi Akiva taught his students who were hungry for the bread of Torah and thirsty for the word of HaShem. Rashbi’s wife agreed with his decision to do this.
We know that he remained in Bnei Brak for thirteen years. His neighbors praised him, and Rabbi Akiva, his rabbi, ordained him. Many disciples came to collect the dust from his feet.
In those days HaShem’s burning wrath was still upon the land of Israel. Hadrian Caesar was dead, but his evil intentions still thrived. When Rashbi protested the actions of the Romans the Roman commissioners issued an evil decree concerning him, so he was forced to flee and hide in a cave somewhere on the outskirts surrounding the city Meron. There he remained for thirteen years. His son Elazar was with him in the cave, and they sustained themselves by eating carob and drinking water. They engrossed themselves in Torah study and prayer day and night.
HaShem showed him kindness by miraculously sustaining him through those thirteen years. Then a voice from heaven told him to leave the cave. When he returned to civilization he chose to bathe in the warm springs of Tiberias, and there he resided, teaching Torah to the masses. All record of the end of his life has disappeared, but we have a tradition that his tomb is in the city of Meron. Rashbi indeed was a favorite subject of legend, and legend wove an intricate crown of flowers around his head, making him into a holy man of God, for HaShem did many wondrous things for and through him.
It is not my intent to plumb the depths of the legends or critically assess their validity. I do not attempt to separate the actual history from the embellishments and hyperbole of the legends. However, this much may be ascertained from the legend: Rashbi was a pious, righteous man. His theology and practice attest to this. I actually believe that the spirit of the disciples of Yeshua our Master was in him.
The teachings of Yeshua and his apostles erupted all throughout the land during his time, and disciples were being made daily. Even the nations situated around the land of Israel had sons and daughters that were being brought into the Assembly of Messiah. The more the Roman caesars afflicted the disciples, both men and women, the more they multiplied and the stronger they became. They paid no heed to the fury of their oppressors and persecutors, and they sacrificed their earthly lives for eternal life in the presence of our Master. The strong resolve that Rashbi saw in those disciples greatly inspired him.
Many in Israel believed in Yeshua, and those believers remained with the rest of their brothers. They did not separate themselves, even though their brothers rejected Yeshua and burdened and insulted them with the name minim (sectarians). These “minim” loved their people sevenfold, even after their people started calling them minim. They continued to pray for their brothers, following Yeshua the Messiah’s example when he wept over Jerusalem.
In Rashbi’s days the writings of the minim circulated through the camps of Israel. The holy Gospel of Matthew was well known in the community, and Rashbi surely would have read it. Thus it should be no surprise to us that traces of the sayings of Yeshua the Messiah and King of the Jews can be found in his teachings. Rashbi said, “When you pray, do not make your prayer a fixed formula, rather appeal for mercy and grace” (m.Avot 2:18); “Recite prayer softly in a whisper” (b.Sotah 32b); “Solomon and a hundred like him will be annulled, but not one yod of the Torah will ever be annulled!” (Leviticus Rabbah 19:2).
I will no longer weary you, dear reader. But before I leave you I want to show you proof that Rashbi read the book of Matthew. In the Gemara it says:
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that a stolen lulav is invalid because it is a commandment fulfilled through a transgression. Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “What does the verse ‘I, HaShem, love justice and hate robbery with a burnt offering’ (Isaiah 61:8) mean? It can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who went to the tollbooth and said to his servants, ‘Give the tax to the tax collectors,’ and they said to him, ‘Does not all the tax money belong to you?’ He said to them: ‘All those who travel this way should learn from my example never to avoid paying the tax.’ So too the Holy One, blessed be he, says, ‘I, HaShem, hate robbery with a burnt offering, and my children should learn from me and flee from robbery.’” (b.Sukkah 30ab)
Look! Everyone who has eyes can see and will understand, even at first glance, that this king is Yeshua our King and Savior. This King commanded Simon Keifa to go to the sea, cast a fishhook in it, and pay the tax with the money he found inside the fish’s mouth: the half-shekel that the collectors were requesting (Matthew 17:24-27). This parable of Rashbi’s is certain proof that Rashbi read these words in Matthew. He greatly enjoyed Yeshua’s words when he said, “In order that we will not be an obstacle to them,” and those words penetrated the heart of this pious man who engrossed himself in prayer.
He repeated those words to his own disciples and passed them down to his disciple Yochanan, and Rabbi Yochanan always spoke them in the manner that Rashbi had taught him. Rashbi did not even introduce this citation from Isaiah 61:8 of his own accord. Instead, it was also a part of the original teaching passed down by Yeshua’s disciples, for Matthew employed the interpretative method of comparing one passage to another seemingly unrelated passage in order to explain the first through the second.
In recounting the incident of the half-shekel, Matthew attempted to explain what Yeshua had said just before, “The son of man will ultimately be handed over to men” (Matthew 17:22). In essence, Matthew was asking: Why would the Messiah be a man of sorrows and pain, sick and wounded because of our crimes, and beaten because of our transgressions? Because HaShem loves justice. Human beings sinned and the mouth of HaShem commanded that a sacrifice be brought for that sin. His words shall not be overruled. Therefore, HaShem himself made the Messiah the offering.
Through the medium of a sign and miracle, Yeshua commanded that the half-shekel should be paid because the kings of the land do not take the tax from their children. If the Messiah had not been the offering, there would have been “robbery with the burnt offering” (Isaiah 61:8). If the Messiah had not handed himself over to be that offering, the burnt offering would have legally been considered stolen.
Matthew placed this event of the half-shekel in the seventeenth chapter, the chapter of the transfiguration—the chapter of the sukkah—for in my opinion when Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain it was during Sukkot, and the Gemara cites the words of Rashbi in conjunction with Sukkot in Tractate Sukkah. The critical eye will immediately notice the thread that connects the book of Matthew with the words of Rashbi. This is my commemoration of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Lag Ba’Omer is the day we remember him.