Today’s daf introduces a famous story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who spent 12 years hidden away in a cave, studying Torah. The story at first appears to be an associative tangent, having little to do with Shabbat.
As the story opens, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai makes a cuttingly critical assessment of Rome — the empire that had routed the Jews and destroyed the Temple within living memory — in the course of a conversation with colleagues:
Rabbi Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the actions of this nation (i.e. the Romans) as they established marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses.
Rabbi Yosei was silent.
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai responded and said: Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses to pamper themselves; and bridges to collect taxes from all who pass over them.
Unlike Rabbi Yehuda, who praises the marketplaces, bathhouses and bridges (which the rabbis no doubt used on a daily basis), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai sees a dark side to the materiality of Roman urbanization: sensuality, lust, and greed.
Rabbi Shimon’s criticism gets back to the Romans and they condemn him to death. Along with his son, Rabbi Shimon makes an escape — from the city to the beit midrash (study house), from the beit midrash to a hidden cave — away from the very civilization he criticized. For 12 years, he subsists on only a carob tree and a natural spring, without access to the warm water of any bathhouse or the delicacies of a market place — and certainly with no use for a road. During this time, he and his son pray and study Torah.
Shabbat may be understood as a sort of escape from the “city,” from material production, hard labor, and concerns of income. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s extreme Shabbat lasts 12 years! The transition back to civilization, where body and soul must integrate, proves challenging for the mystical father and son duo:
They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: These people abandon eternal life (hayyei olam/חיי עולם) and engage in temporal life (hayyei sha’a/חיי שעה).
Every place that they [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son] directed their eyes was immediately burned.
A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge to destroy My world? Return to your cave.
The 12 years of seclusion exacerbated Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s view; now even the simple farmer is too materialistic for this mystic and is burned by the judgement of his eyes!
The second time the pair emerge from the cave, a simple man preparing for Shabbat teaches them a much needed lesson:
As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight.
They said to him: Why do you have these?
He said to them: In honor of Shabbat (…)
Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease.
The man rushing home for Shabbat, presents a model of balance that is foreign to the bifurcated view of Rabbi Shimon and his son. At twilight, the moment of transition between the mundane workweek and the sacred Shabbat, the old man carries myrtle branches (today’s equivalent of a bouquet of flowers). He brings the beauty and fragrance of the material world into his home for Shabbat.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai finally understands the significance of embodied Jewish practice. Shabbat is not about severing the material from the spiritual, but rather about learning how to transition smoothly between these two vital elements of human existence.