Every year, when Lag BaOmer (18 Iyar) comes around, we remember the great and holy Tanna (Mishnaic sage) Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who died on this day about eighteen centuries ago. To this day, pious Jews make an annual pilgrimage to Kefar Meron, in the Land of Israel, to pray at the tomb of this great and holy scholar.
When Shimon was a young boy, he studied in the great academy of the scholars of Yavneh, founded by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who died just about the time that Shimon was born. Shimon’s principal teacher was the famous Rabbi Akiva, who had his academy at Benei Berak. So attached did Shimon become to his master, Rabbi Akiva, that the latter called him “my son.”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is the author of the sacred Zohar (“Brilliance”), containing mystic interpretations of the Torah, and chief source of the Kabbalah. For many generations the teachings of the holy Zohar were studied by a few select scholars, until the great scholar Rabbi Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon published the Zohar about seven hundred years ago.
Rabbi Shimon is also the author of Sifri and “Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died in Meron, a village near Safed, in the Land of Israel. As we mentioned before, many Jews make an annual pilgrimage to his grave on the eighteenth of Iyar (Lag BaOmer), the day he died, where they light candles and pray at his grave.
Many are the wise sayings and teachings of Rabbi Simeon, which are to be found in all sections of the Talmud. Here we want to mention some of them, so that we can learn a little more about this great Sage.
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai lived in a difficult time, when his beloved land and people were under the rule of the cruel Romans. But he knew that G‑d was always with His people. Said he:
"Great is G‑d's love for Israel, for He revealed Himself to them in a land of uncleanliness and idol worship (Egypt) in order to free them from there."
Again, Rabbi Simeon said: "See how beloved Israel is to the Holy One, blessed be He, for wherever they went into exile, the Divine Presence (Shechinah) went with them: they were exiled to Egypt, and the Shechinah went with them; they were exiled to Babylon, and again the Shechinah went with them. And when Israel will be redeemed in the future, the Shechinah will be redeemed with them, as it is written, 'And G‑d, thy G‑d, will return (with) thy exile.' "
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai was a great lover of the Holy Land. Said he:
"No one should leave the Holy Land as long as there is something to eat there at any price. Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon (mentioned in the Book of Ruth) were leaders of their generation. "When they left the Holy Land during the famine, they were punished and died in a strange land."
On another occasion, Rabbi Simeon said: "G‑d gave Israel three wonderful presents, but each one was earned through pain and suffering: The Torah, the Holy Land, and the World to Come."
Rabbi Simeon's love for the Torah knew no bounds. As he himself never wasted any time, but devoted every minute to the study of the Torah, so he urged others to do likewise, even when people have very little time to spare. He gave the following example:
"There were two brothers. One was saving every penny until, in time, he had quite a large fortune. The other thought, What's the use of saving pennies? So he spent everything, and remained always poor.
"So it is with learning," said Rabbi Simeon. "If one learns two or three things during the day, and two or three things at night, two or three chapters during the Sabbath, and the same during Rosh Chodesh, then in time he will be rich with knowledge. But the one who says, How much can I learn, I have so little time? and wastes those precious minutes, will always be poor in knowledge."
Rabbi Simeon taught that the welfare of the people depended upon their observance of the Torah, for he said:
"The bread-loaf and the rod came down together from Heaven. Said G‑d, If you keep the Torah, you will have bread to eat if not, you shall get the rod."
One of Rabbi Simeon's students once went abroad, and returned with great riches. The other students were filled with envy and also wanted to go abroad to make their fortunes. This made Rabbi Simeon sad, and he told them that they could have the choice of gold or the Torah. In fact, he took them to a valley, and prayed to G‑d to fill it with gold. The next moment the valley was filled with gold. Rabbi Simeon then said, "Whoever wants it, may have as much as he likes; but know that whoever takes this gold, will lose his share in the World to Come." No one took any of it.
Rabbi Simeon spoke very lovingly of the holy Shabbos. He said that it was a gift which G‑d gave to the Jews alone, and that the Jews and the Shabbos are a fitting pair. Here is what Rabbi Simeon said of the Sabbath:
"The Sabbath said to G‑d, Master of the World! Each day of the week has a campanion (Sunday has Monday, Tuesday-Wednesday, etc.), except for me, for I am the odd day of the week! Replied G‑d, The People of Israel shall be your companion!"
Rabbi Simeon also had this to say about the Sabbath:
"If the people of Israel would observe but two Sabbaths properly, G‑d would redeem them immediately!"
Rabbi Simeon taught his people to be honest and truthful, and with good manners. Said be:
"To cheat one by words is even worse than to cheat him out of money."
"One who enters his house suddenly, and especially one who enters somebody else's house without knocking, is disliked by G‑d.
Rabbi Simeon urged the good people not to lose all the good they have done by turning away from G‑d in the end. The wicked people he urged to return to G‑d and in this way wipe their record clean:
"A man, even if he was completely righteous all his life, may lose all his benefits, if he turns away from G‑d in the end. But he who was wicked all his life, yet returns to G‑d in the end-his wicked past will be forgotten." (This does not include, of course, one who thinks that he can go on sinning, hoping to turn over a new leaf some day, and get away with it.)
Because of Israel, G‑d blesses the whole world. Said Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai: "When the people of Israel are worthy, the rain comes down on the fields and trees and seeds, and the world is blessed. But if the people of Israel are not worthy, the rain falls into the oceans and rivers (bringing nothing but floods)."
Once Rabbi Simeon was asked, "Why did the manna come down from heaven every day? Could not G‑d rain down enough manna in one day to last them a whole year?"
To which Rabbi Simeon replied: "A king had a beloved son. The king gave his son an allowance once a year, and only saw him one day in the year, when he came for his allowance. So the king began to give his son his allowance in small instalments every day, and the son came to see his -father daily. So it was also with the children of Israel. Every day the Jews would lift their eyes to G‑d praying for food, so that His children would not die in the desert. If they would receive in one day enough food for a whole year, they would pray to G‑d only once a year."
Thus Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught us the importance of our daily prayers, not because G‑d has to be reminded about us, but because praying to G‑d and keeping G‑d in our hearts and minds every day, constantly, is good for us and will make us better people.