Talmudic pages

Shabbat 34

Radical spiritual ascetics.

The extended story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who hid in a cave to escape a Roman death sentence, began yesterday and continues today. Here’s a short recap of what we have read so far:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai criticized Rome — the empire that had in living memory massacred Jews and destroyed the holy Temple — for constructing public works (bathhouses, marketplaces, and bridges). When an informer relays his remarks to the Romans, they hand down a death sentence. To escape execution, Rabbi Shimon and his son lived in a cave with no creature comforts for more than a decade. Their time is spent in prayer and Torah study, and they become radical spiritual ascetics. When they first emerge from the cave, they cannot bear the materiality of human life. In time, Rabbi Shimon and his son learn a vital lesson about balancing body and soul when they observe a person preparing for Shabbat.

But did they internalize the value of balancing the spiritual and the material?

In the first half of our story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is forced to remove himself from civilization; in the second half he attempts to reintegrate. As a means of offering thanks for being saved from the Romans, he declares that he wants to help the city of Tiberias, and chooses to model himself on the Jewish patriarch Jacob who, according to the Talmud, established currency, marketplaces or bathhouses for the city of Shchem.

Sound familiar? These are the same Roman public works that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai criticized! At first blush, it seems that Rabbi Shimon is engaging in urban planning — just like his nemeses the Romans!

But Rabbi Shimon’s contribution to city life are driven not by commercial, but rather by spiritual considerations. He hears that there are places of uncertain impurity, where there may or may not have been a cemetery. This creates a problem for the Jewish priests, who are forbidden to contract impurity by coming into contact with a grave. To make movement easier for the priests, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai devises a test to discover the precise location of the ancient burial grounds and mark it clearly. Essentially, not unlike the Romans, he creates roads and bridges for the priests to make their way through town. Unlike the Romans, however, Rabbi Shimon’s infrastructure is not built of brick and used for commercial gain, rather, he uses logic and halachic rulings to clear a path for God’s servants.

So far so good! It seems that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has found a unique way of integrating body and soul and contributing to his community — he seems on his way to successfully rejoining society! But then things take a terrible turn:

A certain old man said: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai purified a cemetery!?

Rabbi Shimon said to him: Had you not been with us, and even had you been with us and were not counted with us, what you say is fine. Now that you were with us and were counted with us, they will say: prostitutes apply makeup to each other, all the more so should Torah scholars support one another!

He directed his eyes toward him and the old man died.

Rabbi Shimon went out to the marketplace and he saw Yehuda, son of converts, the man who had informed the Romans of his criticism. He said: This one still has a place in the world?

He directed his eyes toward him and turned him into a pile of bones.

An old man mocks Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, telling him: your method of purifying the roads doesn’t accord with the material truth! I know there once was a graveyard here. Rabbi Shimon is incensed that this old man would question his halachic methods and berates him for breaking rank, essentially saying: you were with us when we made the decision, but you said nothing until after the ruling! Even prostitutes are better at supporting one another.

Rabbi Shimon zealously defends his reputation and pride. Fueled by a dangerous mystical power, he kills the old man with a single look (and, shortly after, the informer who got him in trouble so many years ago). Ironically, while Rabbi Shimon sets out to confirm the purity of the marketplace, he ends up created a new “pile of bones” — rendering it impure.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tools — both for city planning and for punishing his enemies — are mystical and supernatural, but the results are all too painfully material. A personal insult is met by the burning intensity of the mystic who knows no moderation.

Read all of Shabbat 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 9, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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