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      Judaism: Lag B?Omer and Rashbi

      Published: Sunday, May 18, 2003 3:38 PM
      This coming Tuesday is Lag B?Omer, the day on which we commemorate the passing of the famous sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi). Famous indeed. There isn?t a chapter of the Mishna that does not contain a statement made by Rabbi Shimon.


      This coming Tuesday is Lag B?Omer, the day on which we commemorate the passing of the famous sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi). Famous indeed. There isn?t a chapter of the Mishna that does not contain a statement made by Rabbi Shimon. It is therefore no surprise that we find one in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which we studied this past Shabbat afternoon:

      ?Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.?

      The ?good name? that is being referred to here, is one that comes as a result of the fulfillment of good deeds. The Mishna seems to be teaching us that although Torah study is very important, it is even more important to translate that which is learned into deeds. It is interesting to hear this from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, though as whenever an example is needed of someone whose ?profession? was Torah study, Rabbi Shimon is the first name mentioned.

      Rabbi Shimon was one of the few surviving students of Rabbi Akiva. There is a famous argument whether it is more important to study Torah or to fulfill mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva maintained that Torah study is more important, since that will ultimately lead to fulfilling its mitzvot. There is also a discussion in the Talmud between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael whether one should go out to work for a living or not. Rabbi Shimon maintained it was not necessary, but the Talmud warns us right there that this may not work for everyone, as many tried this system and did not succeed.

      Why, then, is it Rabbi Shimon who teaches us that fulfilling the mitzvot is more important than Torah study?

      In the Talmud Yerushalmi we find a discussion regarding one who has to interrupt his Torah study to recite the Shema prayer. Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon that since ?we? study Torah, we do not have to interrupt. The Talmud then asks, surprised, ?doesn?t Rabbi Shimon agree that one has to interrupt to build a Sukah or to make a Lulav? And doesn?t he agree with the statement that ?whoever learns in order not to do [the mitzvot] would have been better off if he wasn?t born??? (And the answer is that yes, obviously one must fulfill mitzvot, too, but Shema is different since it is also a form of Torah study.) From the first question (sukah, lulav) we would be able to conclude that Rabbi Shimon agreed that mitzvot might be more important after all; but the second question (study with the wrong intention) takes away that possibility, as we will see from the Halacha.

      The Halacha states that one must study Torah in order to fulfill its commandments; as our sages have said: ?The ultimate purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds.? Therefore, if one were not to fulfill the mitzvot, it would follow that he studied with the intention not to fulfill it. This Halacha seems to imply that the problem of not translating the study into action is not because then one does not fulfill the mitzvot; rather, it is saying that it shows that the study was imperfect, since one is meant to study in a way that it will lead to action.

      Our question remains. Why, out of all people, is it Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who teaches us that mitzvot are more important than Torah study?

      We all know that our purpose in this world is to make a dwelling for Hashem. Since our souls were sent down from a place where they were able to study Torah constantly into this world, where it is not possible to do so, it is obvious that our main purpose is to deal with those parts of the world where one does not see revealed G-dliness. At the same time it is also very important ? and part of our mission ? to study Torah. For some, this is meant to happen in a way that they do not involve themselves with the physical world.

      There is a rule that ?a prisoner can not free himself?. If someone sinking in quicksand would grab his own hair, he wouldn?t be able to pull himself out. If all Jews would have 9 to 5 jobs, conducting themselves according to all the laws and ethics of the Torah, but limiting their time for Torah study to ?one chapter in the morning and one chapter at night? (the minimum), we would probably all assimilate. Therefore, it is very important to have part of the Jewish nation involved solely in spiritual matters, in order to share their excitement with the working folk when they come home. These are the rabbis and the yeshiva students who do not (yet) work in the outside world. It is their obligation to generate the same excitement they have, during the day when they learn Torah, in the working people, during the few hours they set aside for this purpose.

      For these people, it is not always easy to relate to fellow Jews who live in a totally different world. In order for those ?learners? to be able to relate to the ?workers?, they have to realize, while they are engrossed in their own study, that their learning has to be in a way of ?leading to action?; i.e., to share it with people more involved with the physical world. This may not be easy for everyone. In essence, it requires going into two opposite directions. On the one hand, they have to be focused only on spirituality, separating themselves from this world; yet, at the same time, think about the other direction, the physical world. The only way to accomplish this is by realizing that both are part of the Divine plan. If one were to study Torah because of the great spiritual high he derives from it, it won?t be possible for him to deal with other people on a lower level. Once one is only interested in fulfilling Hashem?s will, that too becomes possible, for Hashem is not limited to the framework and rules of the world.

      Back to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai:

      The Talmud tells us that at one point he was forced to go into hiding to escape the Roman oppressors. For twelve years, he and his son lived in a cave. Their food was miraculously provided for by a tree and a well. When they finally came out after they had been notified that the emperor had died, they were very upset with what they saw. They saw people working the land. ?How can they leave eternal life (Torah) to occupy themselves with temporary life?? they exclaimed. They had just experienced first hand that if one only dedicated himself fully to Torah study, there was no need to work. They were so upset that with their holy gaze they burned everything that came into sight. Then, a heavenly voice came out and told them to go back into the cave, for they were not meant to destroy the world. After a thirteenth year, they came out again. Then, whatever Rabbi Shimon?s son destroyed, his father healed. He said to his son: ?My son, [the Torah study of ] me and you is enough to [sustain] the world.?

      Twelve is a number connected with the cycle of the world. We know of 12 months and in Jewish mysticism, the number twelve is also connected with an organized structure. Thirteen stands above this system. When Rabbi Shimon returned to the normal world after 12 years, he was still subjugated to the laws of nature. Within that system, there was no room for two way traffic on a one way street. Either one was involved in spirituality or in physicality. Only after the 13th year, when he stood higher than the ?system?, was he able to combine the ?eternal life? and the ?temporal life?. It was then that he told his son that their Torah study was sufficient for the world. Obviously, he did not intend to say that everyone else was no longer obligated to learn Torah. It was then that it became possible for a select few to study in such a way that would be able to infuse the rest of the people with the same excitement when they learned their small share.

      This is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said in the Mishna (mishna 13!): ?There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.? Even when a person has the ?crown? of Torah , and he reaches perfection in this field for himself, he still needs to have on top of that the crown of the good name (deeds). He needs to do it in a way that he can deal with working people. Only THEN does it surpass his crown of Torah. Only in such a way is his Torah complete.

      This combination of ?eternal life? and ?temporary life? we find back in connection with Lag B?Omer. On that day, Rabbi Shimon, who had only taught laws until then, started teaching the deepest secrets of the Torah, which were written down in the Zohar, the foundation of the Kabbalah. He started revealing the unlimited deeper meanings (eternal life) of Hashem?s wisdom that is hidden in the ?dry? laws and stories of the Torah (?temporary? life). These inner meanings had always been there, of course, and many rabbis throughout the generations had been involved in studying them. However, it was Rabbi Shimon who started teaching them to the masses.
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      Asher ben Shimon writes commentary for www.TorahThoughts.tk.