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Lag B'Omer, Meron, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi
© by Eliezer Cohen
To talk about Lag B'Omer (the thirty third day after Passover)
with out talking about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is ignoring the
main point of the festivities of the day. Although all through-out
Israel, the evening is marked by the lighting of large bonfires
that are visible for miles, the real celebration in Israel of
Lag B'Omer, is in the northern Galilee town of Meron. A small
town by all measures, on Lag B'Omer, it becomes filled with celebration.
An estimated 250,000 to 300.000 people congregate on this normally
sleepy mountainside during the 24 hours of Lag B'Omer. What is
the reason that in a country of five and a half million Jewish
inhabitants, such a large percentage of people make their way,
through traffic and police barricades to come to Meron?
The answer is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
(or Rashbi) as he is some times refereed to, died on this day
2287 years ago and was buried in Meron, together with his son
Rabbi Eleazer. So what is the festivities? Why the carnival atmosphere?
Why the enormous amounts of pilgrims, both religious and not?
To answer this question requires a brief explanation of one of
the most unique personalities in Jewish history. Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai was one of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. Although Rabbi
Shimon Bar Yochai is mentioned many times in the Talmud, his fame
is known because of the Zohar (The Book of Splendor). This is
a book which is the basis for most mystical thought in Judaism.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived during the time of the Romans. When
one of his colleagues praised the Romans for building up the Land
of Israel, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai slandered them by stating that
they did it for themselves and not for the Jews. When word reached
the Roman governor, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was forced to flee
for his life. He and his son, Rabbi Eleazer, took refuge in a
cave. In the cave, he and his son began studying the Torah, a
miracle occurred for them, that a Carob tree sprouted and a water
spring opened up providing them with sustenance. Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai and his son lived in the cave for twelve years, studying
by themselves with out interruption and with out going outside.
After twelve years of seclusion, the Roman governor died and the
decree of death was rescinded. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his
son emerged from the cave. They saw a man plowing and planting
his field. They, who had lived for twelve years eating carobs
and water and studying the Holy teachings, were surprised that
man would resort to such folly as work! What ever they would look
upon with displeasure, burnt from their stare. A voice from heaven
commanded them to go back into the cave and not to bring destruction
upon the world.
They remained in the cave studying for another year. Afterwards
they came out and were pleased to see that the Jewish inhabitants
of Israel were occupying themselves with the Holy Commandments.
This found favor in their eyes and they ceased destroying property
with their gaze. The only exception was the man that gave over
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's name to the Romans. Rabbi Shimon Bar
Yochai looked at him and the man burnt into ashes and bones.
Later, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai took his son, Rabbi Eleazar, his
son-in-law, Rabbi Phineas Ben Yair, and several of his closest
disciples and began revealing to them the deepest secrets of creation
and G-d, that had been passed down orally from teacher to selected
student and never committed to writ. This time Rabbi Abba, a student
of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was told to write down what Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai began revealing. These writings became the Book of
The Zohar is written in a Israeli dialect of Aramaic akin to that
of the Talmud Bavli, however the subject matter is esoteric and
mystical. Due to it's difficult nature, it was not made available
to all, but rather, only the truly learned and pious were able
to understand the complicated writings. The book remained hidden,
known only to the Kabbalistic scholars and passed down selectively.
Approximately 500 years ago, the famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak
Luria, known as the Ari, came to Sfad, a small city located
several miles from Meron. Here in Sfad, the Ari learned
the writings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and with the help of Heaven,
was able to codify and explain the secrets of the Zohar. Although
the Ari died as a young man, his students completed his works
and the revelation of the hidden secrets of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
became accessible to other scholars who could not otherwise understand
Then two hundred and fifty years ago, the saintly Rabbi Israel
Baal Shem Tov, known as the Besht, began revealing these
very same secrets, but this time in a style called Chassidic discourses.
This revelation was very powerful and soon began a movement called
Chassidism which swept Eastern European Jewry, revealing these
secrets to even the simplest person. This became the founding
of the various Chassidic groups that we have today.
To return to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as he was on his bed, prior
to his departure from this world, he began to reveal more and
more secrets that had to be revealed. He knew that from this revelation,
all the various future Jewish groups would be nourished. The day
which was marked for his last day on this physical world was Lag
B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, thirty three
days after the Passover holiday. On this his last day, he had
to give over all of the secrets which he possessed, lest they
be lost and unknown to the future generations. The sun was sinking,
Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing,
the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing
to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No
one could enter, no one could leave. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept
speaking, Rabbi Abba continued writing. Finally, Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai finished speaking, a tremendous glow, a brilliant light
illuminated the house as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai returned his
soul, pure and righteous, to his maker.
|Click on small picture to see large picture of the traditional haircutting cerimony of the three year old on the roof of the tomb of Rasbi
As a tribute to him every year the bright fire is rekindled. Thousand
swarm to Meron to study the Holy Zohar and to petition G-d, in
the memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to grant them goodness and
bounty. The Chassidim bring their young three year old sons to
the building under which is the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
and give haircuts to their sons amidst the music and bonfires.
|Click on small picture to see large picture of the dancing festivities in front of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi!
May we all merit being together in Meron and dance together with
the festivities and the spirit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
from theMay, 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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