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Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai

The grave of this second century rabbi is the site of a large annual pilgrimage.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai was a rabbi who lived in the land of Israel in the second century of the Common Era. He is mentioned frequently in the Talmud, where he is often named as Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai or simply Rabbi Shimon. 

He was one of five chief disciples of the great Rabbi Akiva credited with carrying on the teaching of Torah after the mass deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. Rabbi Shimon is also reputed to be the author of the Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism that appeared on the scene roughly 1,000 years after his death. Modern scholars generally believe the work was authored by the Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon, who merely attributed the secret knowledge contained in the work to a tradition tracing back to Rabbi Shimon. 

Perhaps the best-known story of Rabbi Shimon is that he lived in a cave in northern Israel for 13 years after being sentenced to death by the Romans. The story is recorded in Tractate Shabbat, which describes his response to another sage who celebrated the Romans, the sovereign empire in ancient Israel, for building markets, bridges and bathhouses. Rabbi Shimon replied that they did these things out of self-interest. “Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes,” he says in the talmudic account. “They established marketplaces to place prostitutes in them, bathhouses to pamper themselves, bridges to collect taxes from all who pass over them.”

When the authorities heard of this, Rabbi Shimon was sentenced to death. For a time, he and his son, Rabbi Elazar, took refuge in the study hall. But eventually, they fled to a cave, where a miracle occurred and a carob tree and spring water appeared to sustain them. After 12 years in the cave, Elijah the prophet appeared to inform them that the Roman emperor had died and Rabbi Shimon was no longer in danger. But after emerging from the cave, Rabbi Shimon was outraged to see people working instead of dedicating themselves entirely to Torah study. His anger was so great, that everything he looked at was burned. 

A divine voice then rang out and instructed Rabbi Shimon and his son to return to the cave. They emerged after another year, at which time the Talmud reports: “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” Only after they encountered an elderly man rushing home before Shabbat with two myrtle branches in hand — one, he explained, to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering Shabbat, and the other to fulfill the mitzvah of observing Shabbat — were their minds completely at ease. 

Many of the statements attributed to Rabbi Shimon are concerned with ethical matters or esoteric interpretations of biblical verses. According to Rabbi Shimon, it’s better to serve a Torah scholar than study Torah (Berakhot 7b), and it’s better for a person to jump into a furnace than embarrass another person in public (Bava Metzia 59a). Rabbi Shimon says a woman is required to bring an offering after childbirth because while she’s in the throes of birth pangs, she likely made a false oath swearing never to have sex with her husband again (Niddah 31b). 

Rabbi Shimon is reputed to have died on Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day after Passover, and buried in a tomb in Meron, in northern Israel. For centuries, the site has been one of the largest Jewish pilgrimages, drawing hundreds of thousands of celebrants on Lag Ba’omer who dance and sing at Rabbi Shimon’s grave. Among the customs are the lighting of large bonfires and the giving of first hair cuts to three-year-old boys, a ritual known as upsheren.

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