Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and the Old Man
It took an old man holding myrtle twigs to calm down Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and stop him from destroying the world.
The Talmud, in Shabbat 33b, relates the story of how Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and his son secreted themselves in a cave, hiding from the Romans. They spent twelve years secluded in Torah study and prayer, living off the fruit of a carob tree and a spring of
Analyze the significance of the two ways that the mitzvah of Shabbat appears in the Decalogue.
When at last they heard that the Roman decree had been nullified, Rabbi Shimon and his son left the cave. But after years of seclusion, the two scholars had changed greatly. When they saw people engaged in everyday activities, plowing fields and sowing grains, they became incensed.
"They are abandoning eternal life for temporal life!" they exclaimed. In their zeal, wherever they looked was immediately consumed by fire. Unable to reconcile themselves to the realities of everyday life, a Heavenly voice commanded them to return to their cave for an additional twelve months.
Upon their second excursion from the cave, they came across an old man holding two twigs of myrtle branches. It was twilight, just before the approach of the Sabbath, and the old man was running. Rabbi Shimon questioned the old man: "What are the myrtle twigs for?"
"They are in honor of the Sabbath," the old man replied. And why two twigs? "One is for Zachor ('Remember the Sabbath') and one is for Shamor ('Keep the Sabbath')."
Rabbi Shimon remarked to his son, "See how beloved the mitzvot are to the Jewish people!" And their mind was put to rest.
What was it about the old man and his myrtle twigs that finally reconciled Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and his son to this world and its mundane activities?
Shamor and Zachor
We first need to analyze the significance of the two ways that the mitzvah of Shabbat appears in the Decalogue - as shamor (Deuteronomy 5:12) and zachor (Exodus 20:8). According to the sages, they are two sides of the same coin - shamor and zachor were spoken in one utterance: "God spoke once, but I heard twice." (Psalms 62:12)
Shamor and zachor correspond to the two principle aspects of Shabbat. Shamor ("Keep the Sabbath day holy") relates to how the Sabbath sanctifies and elevates the Jewish people. It refers to the intrinsic sanctity of the day, above and beyond all mundane activities, as it inspires us to a higher realm of holiness.
Zachor ("Remember the Sabbath day"), on the other hand, refers to the influence of the Sabbath on the other days of the week. While we fulfill the mitzvah of shamor on the Sabbath day by avoiding all forms of halachically defined work, the mitzvah of zachor is performed during the weekdays. As the sages explained, if one comes across a nice portion of food, it should be set aside for the Sabbath (Mechilta Yitro).
Zachor thus represents the power of the Sabbath to draw forth the energy of the days of activity, with all of their mundaneness, and elevate them with the special holiness of Shabbat. True, this is just a reminder of the Sabbath, and during the week we are primarily occupied with worldly activities. Yet, the soul is naturally drawn to holiness, and the elevated purpose of life is ingrained deep within us - an ultimate goal rooted in holiness.
It was precisely the aspect of zachor that allowed Rabbi Shimon and his son to view everyday life in a positive light. The Sabbath influence on the days of work reveals the soul's innate closeness to God, according to the measure that it pursues goodness and holiness.
Honoring the Sabbath
Now, we can examine many of the details in the story. Why the emphasis that it was twilight time? Why was the old man running? Why was he holding myrtle twigs?
Twilight (bein hashemashot) is a bridge between past and future. Twilight between Friday and the Sabbath is the hour that connects the profane and the holy. The old man was running at twilight Friday eve; thus, his activity reflected the influence of the Sabbath on the rest of the week through its connection to it.
Why did the old man honor the Sabbath with fragrant myrtle twigs? Superficially, the weekdays appear mundane and lowly. In truth, they contain an inner resource of holiness, but this inner holiness can only be perceived through a fine spiritual sensitivity. The myrtle twigs reflect this refined sensitivity, since we appreciate their fragrance through our sense of smell (the sages wrote that, of our five senses, the sense of smell is the most refined, providing enjoyment to the soul [Berachot 43b]). The two twigs correspond to the two aspects of Shabbat, one for zachor, the connection of the Sabbath to the rest of the week, and one for shamor, guarding the essential sanctity of the Sabbath, regardless of its positive influence on the weekdays.
Why did the old man honor the Sabbath with fragrant myrtle twigs?
And what is the significance of the old man running? The elderly do not usually run; what gave him this youthful energy and liveliness? The old man held in his hands fragrant myrtle twigs - he was aware of how the Sabbath influences and redeems the other days of the week.
Combining the Temporal and the Eternal
We must still clarify: How did this sight allow Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and his son to accept the mundane activities of everyday life?
The key lies in Rabbi Shimon's statement, after witnessing how the old man honored the Sabbath: "See how beloved the mitzvot are to the Jewish people!"
The two scholars were no longer troubled by the phenomenon of eternal life being neglected due to occupation with day-to-day activities. The image of the old man running with myrtle twigs brought home the realization that the mitzvot are truly the inner life-force of all our activities. They saw that even in everyday life, the Jewish people is tightly bound to eternal values. This connection gives strength to the weak and tired, so that even the elderly can serve God with exuberance and vitality.
Their mind was put to rest when they realized that such a transformation of weary old age to youthful energy is only possible when worldly activity leaves its usual boundaries and enters the realm of holiness. They now understood that there is an added value to be gained precisely through this wonderful combination of the temporal with the eternal.
[Adapted from Ein Ayah vol. III pp. 207-208]