Monday, Jun 24, 2024

The Miraculous Birth of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai

The great Tanna, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, was born about fifty years after the churban Bais Hamikdosh. Some sources say that he was born on Lag Ba'omer, while others say that he was born on Shavuos. There is a fascinating story about the Tanna's birth recorded in the sefer Nachlas Avos. Rabi Shimon's father, Yochai, was a leader of his generation, a respected and wealthy scion of shevet Yehudah. During the difficult years after the churban, he helped support the indigent and cultivated ties with government officials in order to help his brethren. His wife, Sarah, was a descendent of Hillel Hanosi and a baalas chessed in her own right. Unfortunately, this exemplary couple had no children for many years. As the years passed and it appeared that Sarah would remain barren, Yochai began to think of divorcing her and marrying another woman. Although they were very happily married, he was desperate to merit the blessing of a child.

When Sarah discovered his intentions, the pious woman did not say anything or react in any way. Indeed, what could she say? She could not promise him a child nor placate him or beg him to stay married. Instead, she turned to the only One Who could help her and began to daven desperately to Hashem. Every day she cried and pleaded for a yeshuah and redoubled her efforts to give tzedakah and help the less fortunate.


The Ribono Shel Olam heard the desperate woman’s pleas and the decree was reversed.


It was the night of Rosh Hashanah. Yochai fell asleep and dreamt a vivid dream. It was so real, so lifelike, that he thought he was awake.


In the dream, he stood in the middle of a vast and fruitful forest, filled with verdant trees. There were thousands upon thousands of fruit and leafy trees of every size and type. Interspersed with the fruitful trees were several sickly, barren trees that were bare of leaves.


With a start, Yochai realized that the tree he was leaning on was fruitless and barren. He knew, instinctively, that this mirrored his childless state. Suddenly, he looked up and saw a saintly white-bearded figure gliding among the trees. On his shoulder, he carried a flask of pure, sparkling water. Yochai noticed that the old man stopped to water some of the trees, which instantly began to sprout leaves, while ignoring other trees. Yochai had no idea why some of the trees were watered; to his eye, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the man’s actions.


When the elderly man reached the tree upon which Yochai was leaning, he withdrew another, special flask from his pocket and poured its contents upon the tree. Although it was a small amount of water, it quickly spread, irrigating the entire tree and the soil around it. Within a few moments, the tree began to sprout leaves and flowers and nearly doubled in size. Yochai’s heart was filled with joy as he awoke. As soon as he opened his eyes, the following posuk from Tehillim came to mind: “Moshivi akeres habayis, aim habonim semaichahWho causes the barren woman to dwell in her house, a joyful mother of children.


As soon as his wife awoke, he shared the dream with her, along with his interpretation of its meaning.


“I feel,” said Yochai, “that the forest is a parable for this world, and the trees represent women, some of whom have children, while others do not. On Rosh Hashanah, it is decreed in Shomayim who will merit the blessing of children and who won’t. Only those whose trees were watered will be blessed with the gift of motherhood and will give birth to righteous children.”


Yochai had only one question. “Why was our tree watered with water from a special flask, unlike the others?”


“Let us go to the holy sage Rabi Akiva and ask this question,” his righteous wife replied.


As soon as Rosh Hashanah was over, Yochai and his wife went to Rabi Akiva to repeat the dream and ask about its meaning. The holy Tanna confirmed Yochai’s interpretation and explained why their tree had been watered from a special flask.


“You should know, my son, that your wife, Sarah, was destined to remain without children,” said Rabi Akiva. “It was only her constant tears and pleas to her Father in Heaven that changed her mazel. The flask that you saw in the hand of the old man held the tears Sarah shed, begging the Ribono Shel Olam to bless her with a child. It was from those tears that your tree was watered.”


Rabi Akiva said to the holy couple, “This year, you will merit a child who will illuminate Klal Yisroel with his wisdom and maasim tovim.”


The following Shavuos (some say Lag Ba’omer), Sarah gave birth to a son who brought light and joy to their home. A special kedushah surrounded the pure infant, who was named Shimon, from the word shema, to hear, because Hashem had heard their tefillos.


From the day their precious Shimon was born, his parents cared for his every need, raising him in purity and sanctity. They guarded him from impure sights and trained him to refrain from idle talk. When he was a small child of five, he was sent to learn in the cheder of Rabbon Gamliel in Yerushalayim. Within a short time, he had captured the attention of great talmidei chachomim, as he asked piercing questions from the chachmei haMishnah, Rabi Yehoshua ben Chananya and Rabbon Gamliel.


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During Rabi Shimon’s era, after the churban Bais Hamikdosh, the Jews in Eretz Yisroel suffered terribly. The Romans oppressed them mercilessly, killing and torturing innocent Jews on a whim. Despite their difficult situation, Torah study flourished in the Jewish community during those days. The majority of the nation was so learned that when people met each other on the street, they would ask each other for chiddushei Torah, knowing that the other person would be able to reply.


During the generation of Rabi Shimon, Klal Yisroel was so elevated and pure that the rainbow, a warning from Heaven to do teshuvah, did not appear. The purity of Rabi Shimon protected his entire generation from pain and tragedy.


Rabi Shimon was a beloved talmid of Rabi Akiva, who called him “my son.” Shortly after his marriage to a daughter of Rabi Pinchos ben Yair, one of the leaders of the generation, Rabi Shimon left his home and went to learn in Bnei Brak, in the yeshiva of Rabi Akiva. For thirteen years he learned Torah with hasmadah, never once returning to his home during this time. He was so close to his rebbi that when the Romans arrested Rabi Akiva and tortured him in jail,


Rabi Shimon risked his life to slip into jail and learn Torah with him.


Rabi Shimon was one of the five surviving talmidim of Rabi Akiva, after the original 24,000 talmidim passed away during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuos. Undeterred by his great loss, Rabi Akiva began teaching Torah anew to a select group, who became the new leaders of Klal Yisroel. It was these five surviving talmidim who transmitted Torah to the next generation.


In later years, when Rabi Shimon’s greatness was revealed, he joined a group of ten sages called the “Chevraya Kadishah,” the holy chevrah. They included Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, his son Rabi Elazar, Rabi Abba, Rabi Yehudah, Rabi Yosi bar Yaakov, Rabi Yitzchok, Rabi Chizkiyah bar Rabi, Rabi Chiya, Rabi Yosi and Rabi Yosa.


The foundation of Sefer HaZohar was written by this holy chavraya, or group, who merited that Moshe Rabbeinu revealed himself to teach them. Eliyahu Hanovi often appeared to them as well, as did the neshamos of many great tzaddikim from the previous generations, both in the yeshiva shel maalah and the yeshiva shel matah. The malochim in Shomayim were also given permission to visit the chavraya and reveal the secrets of the Torah to them. From these secrets of the Torah were the tikunei haZohar written.


The actual Sefer HaZohar was written by Rabi Abba after Rabi Shimon’s petirah. Rabi Shimon passed away on the 18th day of the month of Iyar, the 33rd day of the Omer. This day was accepted as a day of happiness and rejoicing by all of Klal Yisroel. In Eretz Yisroel, thousands of Jews throng to the kever of Rabi Shimon to pour out their hearts in tefillah.


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After the petirah of Rabi Akiva, his talmidim gathered from time to time to learn Torah and take care of communal matters. On one occasion, Rabi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabi Yosi were sitting and discussing matters of importance to the Jewish nation. Yehudah ben Geirim (a son of converts) was also present. Soon the conversation turned to the topic of the Roman leadership and their accomplishments.


Rabi Yehudah began by saying, “How beautiful are the buildings the Romans erected! They erected marketplaces, bridges and baths to enhance life for their citizens.”


Rabi Yosi listened to his comment but did not respond. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, however, voiced his disagreement. “Whatever the Romans built, they did only for themselves. The marketplaces and the baths were built for their own glory and pleasure, and the bridges were built so that they could collect tolls!”


Yehudah ben Geirim, who was not well-versed in the art of silence, innocently repeated the conversation to someone, who repeated it to someone else, and so forth, until it reached the ears of the Roman governor of Judea. (In those days, criticism of the glorious Roman empire at the height of their power was punishable by death.)


The Roman governor was enraged at the affront to his honor and decided on the following:


Rabi Yehudah, who praised the Roman empire, would be promoted to a lofty position. Rabi Yosi, who remained quiet, would be exiled to the city of Tzipori. And Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, who insulted the Romans, would be put to death.


When Rabi Shimon heard about the sword literally hanging over his neck, he immediately escaped to the bais medrash, along with his son Elazar. His wife would secretly send him bread and water every evening. When the situation worsened and the Romans intensified their hunt, Rabi Shimon said to his son, “Women can be easily broken, and if the Romans will torture your mother, she is apt to reveal our hiding place.” Thus, they decided to escape to a secret location outside of the city until the danger would pass.


Under cover of darkness, Rabi Shimon and his son slipped out of the city, heading for the remote village of Piki’in, in the Galil, where they hid deep inside a cave. They burrowed into the sand and began to learn Torah by heart, with exemplary diligence.


Hakadosh Boruch Hu miraculously fed them by creating a carob tree and a pure spring of water, which sustained them during the entire time. The carob tree whose fruits were immediately ripe was a double miracle, since the tree usually produces fruit only after 70 years. On Erev Shabbos, the carob tree became a palm tree, so that they could enjoy fresh dates for Shabbos.


In order to preserve their clothes from wear and tear, Rabi Shimon and his son took off their garments and burrowed in the sand until their necks, learning Torah for hours on end. Only for tefillah did they immerse in the river, put on their clothes and daven.


Rabi Shimon and his son remained in the remote cave for 12 years and no one knew their whereabouts, except for Eliyahu Hanovi, who visited them twice a day to learn the hidden meaning of the Torah. They remained secluded from the rest of the world, pure like angels, plumbing the innermost secrets of the Torah.


Twelve years after Rabi Shimon and his son entered the cave, the Roman king died and, according to the Roman law, all his decrees were null and void. Thus, as soon as the king’s death was announced, Eliyahu Hanovi appeared at the mouth of the cave and said, “Who is the person who can notify Rabi Shimon that the king has died and his decrees are void?” As soon as Rabi Shimon and Rabi Elazar heard the news, they left the cave.


As they made their way back home, they saw farmers tilling the fields. Rabi Shimon, who had spent the last 12 years solely immersed in Torah study, wondered at their actions. “Why don’t they hire non-Jews to do the work, while they sit and study Torah? Hakadosh Boruch Hu sustains those who do His will.”


Wherever Rabi Shimon looked with his blazing eyes, the earth burst into flames. A bas kol came out of Shomayim and said, “Do you want to destroy My world? Go back into the cave!”


They immediately returned to the cave and remained there for another 12 months, since that is the standard time that sinners must spend in gehennom. After a year, Hashem said to them, “Go out of the cave.” As soon as they heard the Heavenly voice, Rabi Shimon and his son left the cave, heading homeward.


As they were rushing before Shabbos, they saw an old man with two bundles of haddassim. They asked him, what do you need them for? He answered them, “They are lekavod Shabbos — in honor of Shabbos!” “Why didn’t you just use one bundle?” they queried. He answered, “One is for zochor and the other is for shomor.” Rabi Shimon said, “Look how dear mitzvos are to the Jewish people!!”


Rabi Pinchos ben Yair, Rabi Shimon’s father-in-law, would often visit an elderly man, Rabi Rechumai, who lived near the Kinneret. Rabi Rechumai, who was blind, was a brilliant Torah scholar with a far-reaching spiritual vision. During one visit, he said to Rabi Pinchos, “You have surely heard that your friend Yochai has a diamond. I see that this diamond has been revealed from its hiding place and it is shining like the noonday sun! Go out, my son, and greet the diamond who is arriving.”


Rabi Pinchos went to the edge of the water, planning to board a ship and search for his son-in-law on several islands. As he waited for a boat, Rabi Pinchos and his two companions saw two birds flying toward them. He asked the birds, “Do you know where Rabi Shimon is?” The birds flew away, and returned with a note that said, “Rabi Shimon left his cave and has gone home.” Rabi Pinchos ben Yair returned home and found his son-in-law waiting for him.


The reunion was a joyful occasion, as the two Torah giants greeted each other for the first time in 13 years. Rabi Pinchos blessed Rabi Shimon with the words, “Hakadosh Boruch Hu appointed you a shining light which illuminates the entire world.”


May the merit of the holy Tanna be a blessing.




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