Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), whose yahrtzeit is on Lag Ba’omer, was one the five survivors of the plague that took the lives of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Rashbi was a fiery and fascinating personality.
Like his teacher Rabbi Akiva, Rashbi was considered a fierce enemy of the Romans. He and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in a cave on Mount Meron in the Galilee for 13 years. (According to tradition, they sustained themselves with the fruit of a carob tree, hence the custom to eat bokser - Hebrew for carob - on Lag Ba’omer.) When the Roman throne changed hands, the pair of scholars were able to come out of hiding, but reintegrating into the world was not easy. The Talmud notes:
Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, ‘They [the Jewish farmers] forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!’ Whatever they [Rashbi and Elazar] cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, ‘Have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!’ So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, ‘The punishment of the wicked in Gehinnom ("Hell") is [limited to] twelve months.’ A Heavenly Echo then came forth and said, ‘Go forth from your cave!’ (Shabbat 33b).
Rashbi’s intense study of Torah revealed the deeper, esoteric meanings of the Torah. With the approval of his teachers, Rashbi set out to share the hidden secrets of the Torah, what is today called Kabbalah, with his fellow Jews. His teachings were written in a book called the Zohar, which means “shining light.”
According to tradition, Rashbi requested that his death be marked by rejoicing as the soul takes its proper place with G-d. The great sage was buried in a cave on Mount Meron, where, each year, tens of thousands of people gather on Lag Ba’omer to joyously celebrate the anniversary of his death.
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