RABBI SIMEON BEN YOCHAI was gifted with numerous virtues which made him a favorite among the people of his district. He also possessed much knowledge and he followed a strictly logical method of reasoning. His activity as a leader dated from the time that he returned from exile when, together with a group of others he escaped the wrath of Hadrian’s decrees after the death of Rabbi Akiba and after he was ordained by Rabbi Jehudah ben Baba. The position of his father Yochai was not very clear and from some statements it would seem that he was an official of the Roman administration and that it was his duty to report all those who did not act in accordance with the Roman laws. This seems to be implied by the story that when Rabbi Akiba was in prison Simeon came to him and asked him to teach him. Rabbi Akiba then said, “I will not teach you”, and Rabbi Simeon said to him: “If you will not teach me I will tell my father and he will report you to the government.”1)פּסחים קי״ב א׳.
It is therefore remarkable that although Yochai was an adherent or an official of the Roman government, his son Rabbi Simeon was an enemy of Rome. The authorities were probably aware of his attitude and sought for an opportunity to capture him. When the scholars returned during the reign of Antoninus Pius and resumed their scholarly labors, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai gained the disfavor of the authorities because of his criticism of the Roman government and he was condemned to death.
Numerous miracles are related concerning the escape of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai. One of these stories states that he escaped together with his son Elazar and that they hid in the academy for a long time and food was secretly brought to them from their home. But when the authorities intensified their search for Rabbi Simeon he feared his wife might not be able to withstand the stringent questioning and might reveal the hiding place of her husband and son. Father and son decided to hide in a cave and there they were fed in a miraculous manner. A number of carob trees began to grow about the cave and a spring of water appeared.
In that cave—it is further related—they sat naked and buried to the neck in sand and continued their studies. Only when prayer time arrived did they emerge from the sand and donned their garments for the prayer. With praying finished they again disrobed, in order not to wear out their garments, and continued sitting buried in sand.
Thus they sat for thirteen years until one day Elijah appeared and said, “Who will announce to Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai that the emperor died?” Rabbi Simeon and his son then left the cave and when Pinchas ben Yair, Rabbi Simeon’s son-in-law, heard that they had emerged from the cave he went to meet them and took them to his house.
As he was leaving the cave Rabbi Simeon met Rabbi Jehudah ben Gerim, who thirteen years earlier repeated Rabbi Simeon’s remarks which led to his being sentenced to death, and he exclaimed: “This person is still alive?” As he said this he stared at Rabbi Jehudah with his burning eyes and the latter fell down dead.
Rabbi Simeon then began to cure the body of his son and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair attended to Rabbi Simeon. The body of Rabbi Simeon was creased and swollen from the many years of sitting in the sand and from the diet of “Johns bread” and water. When Rabbi Pinchas saw this, he began to weep and the tears which fell on Rabbi Simeon’s body caused him great suffering because of their salty tang.
This happened in the city of Tiberias where Rabbi Pinchas then lived. Rabbi Simeon bathed in the warm springs of that city and his body healed rapidly. Out of gratitude he wanted to confer some favor on the city and he said: “Since a miracle occurred to me in the city of Tiberias I would gladly do something for this city.” His son then said to him: “For the many favors which this city extended to us we should declare it to be permissible for Jewish residence.”
According to tradition Tiberias was situated on the site of an old cemetery and many priests as well as other pious Jews refused to reside there in order not to be contaminated by the impurity of the dead. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai declared the city to be clean and fit for residence.2)שבת ל״ג ב׳, בראשית רבה פּרשה ע״ט פּיסקא ו׳.
One must bear in mind that Tiberias was founded by Herod Antipas, a grandson of Herod the Great, on the site of the ancient city Hamath. When the ancient city was deserted the ground was used as a cemetery. Priests and pious Pharisees therefore refused to settle in the city despite the fact that Herod Antipas freed its inhabitants from all taxes. Only such people as were forced to reside in the city because of their occupations settled there and even these considered their residence in Tiberias as a sin because of the contamination of its soil. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai therefore favored the city when he decreed it to be clean and fit for the residence of even the most pious.
Palestine was meanwhile again agitated by political unrest. Despite the relatively favorable attitude of Antoninus Pius toward the Jews, they were influenced by the Parthians, who ruled in Babylonia and were independent of Rome, and again revolted against Roman rule. The Parthians were anxious to free themselves from the threat of Roman invasion and attempted a struggle with Rome in which the Jews aided them (or, as others maintain, the Jews began the struggle and were aided by the Parthians).
The Jews felt confident of achieving liberation with the aid of the Parthians. The Roman empire was then occupied with wars on many fronts due to the simultaneous revolts of the Germans and the Dacians. It was therefore said that “whenever one sees the horse of a Parthian tied to a tombstone in Palestine he may expect the early coming of the Messiah.” Another statement of the scholars declared that “they who have destroyed the temple will in the end fall into the hands of the Parthians.”*)The two above mentioned quotations from the Talmud use the name “Parsim” (Persians) but it is obvious that the Parthians and not the Persians were referred to.
This rebellion lasted for four years until the Romans triumphed again under the leadership of Atidius Cornelianus. It may be surmised that the Jews again had to withstand persecution and oppression. The first decree abrogated the right of the Jews to be tried before a Jewish court in civil disputes. This decree was not considered as a great calamity and Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai even declared his satisfaction with it because “Jews no longer have the wise men required to decide in such matters.”3)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק ה׳ הלכה ג׳.
The Roman imperial throne was also in an uncertain state at that time. At first Hadrian appointed Antoninus Pius as his successor. Later he made the acquaintance of Marcus Aurelius, who was a military leader, and he liked him also. Hadrian then commanded Antoninus Pius to appoint Marcus Aurelius as his successor. Since that day Marcus Aurelius assumed the name Antoninus and after the death of Antonius Pius the Roman senate decided that a son of his, named Lucius Varus, should share the throne with Marcus Aurelius. It thus occurred that two emperors reigned simultaneously.
During this war against Rome the Parthians advanced into the Roman provinces to the north west of their possessions until they arrived in Syria. Under the leadership of their king Valagesias they captured the Roman governor Atidius Cornelianus and put him to death. Afterward they occupied one Syrian city after another and for a moment it seemed that the Romans would be expelled from Palestine forever. But these victories were not lasting and when emperor Varus arrived with reenforcements of Roman legions the Parthians were driven out from all the positions which they had occupied.
It would seem that the scholars remained neutral in this war. No mention is made either of their participation or of their opposition to it. But since emperor Varus reenacted some of Hadrian’s decrees forbidding the observance of the Sabbath and the practice of circumcision it may be assumed that the masses of the people actively participated in the struggle with the consent of the scholars or against their wishes. It is also apparent that the Nasi, Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, no longer lived at that time and that no other Nasi had yet been elected by that time.
When Varus died, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai was sent to Rome to intercede with emperor Antoninus Marcus Aurelius and to obtain the nullification of the decrees of Varus. Although they knew that Marcus Aurelius was not favorably inclined toward the Jews they trusted his sense of justice for he was known as a kindly and philosophical man.
To accompany Rabbi Simeon the scholars sent Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Jose ben Chalafta, who could speak Latin. Both arrived in Rome and, with the aid of the Roman Jews, who wielded a considerable influence in government circles, they successfully completed their mission.
Legend relates the following miracle to have occurred during this journey. The emperor’s daughter Lucilla was then possessed by a “devil” or “dybbuk” with the name Bar Tamalion. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai expelled the spirit and as a reward the emperor told him to enter the treasury and to choose the most valuable gift. Rabbi Simeon entered the royal treasury and selected the document of Varus’ decrees against the Jews and he forthwith tore it before the emperor.4)מעילה י׳׳ז ב׳.
Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai was a pupil of Rabbi Akiba for thirteen years and he did not leave him until the day of Rabbi Akiba’s martyr death. But once Rabbi Akiba expressed his preference of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Simeon was displeased. Even Rabbi Akiba’s later statement that Rabbi Simeon should “be satisfied that I and God know how to appreciate your power” failed to reconcile him.5)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳. Rabbi Simeon remembered this incident long after Rabbi Akiba died and he allowed himself to say that which no other disciple allowed himself; he declared that Rabbi Akiba’s interpretation of four Biblical verses were not correct and that his own explanations were more acceptable than Rabbi Akiba’s.6)ראש השנה י״ח ב׳, תוספתא סוטה פרק ו׳. Another time he addressed his pupils in the following words: “My children, copy my manners for mine are copied from Rabbi Akiba’s best manners.”7)גטין ס״ז א׳.
Rabbi Simeon’s system of study was highly original and he always sought the cause of the interpretations of the text of the Torah. He always asked: “Why does the Torah command us to do this?” In this respect he was an exception in his generation. He based his opinions on reason irrespective of whether they were in agreement with the opinions of scholars of previous generations. In such cases he showed no reverence for his contemporaries nor for authorities of an earlier day. Intentionally he sought to exterminate ideas which others planted when he was convinced of their incorrectness.
The Torah commanded that the garment of a widow may not be taken in pawn and the Mishna8)בבא מציעא קט״ו א׳. declared that this law applied equally to rich as well as to poor widows. But Rabbi Simeon declared that this regulation applied only to poor widows because the rich ones undoubtedly possessed other garments. Unable to base his opinion on purely humanitarian grounds he explained that in the case of a poor widow, who may not have any other garments, such a pawn would have to be returned every evening and the repeated visits of the pawnbroker may cause suspicion to be cast on the character of the widow.
Rabbi Simeon also sought to lighten the burden of the observance of the Sabbath in contradiction to the other scholars who heaped prohibition upon prohibition. He thus allowed the moving of household furniture if care was taken not to dig up the ground in doing so.9)שבת כ״ב א׳. He ruled similarly concerning other types of work which were at that time prohibited.10)שבת צ״ה א׳, ק״ו ב׳.
Fully cognizant of his worth Rabbi Simeon never pretended modesty. On the contrary, he sometimes expressed himself in a manner which might indicate pride. Thus he said: “There are few good people in the world. If there are a thousand such then I and my son are among them. If there are one hundred such then I and my son are among them. If there are only two such then I and my son are they.”11)סוכה מ׳׳ה ב׳. On the same occasion he further stated: “Because of my merit I can redeem the world from judgment for all sins that have ben committed since the time of my birth until this day. Were the merit of my son Elazar to be joined to mine I could free the world from judgment for all sins that were committed since the creation of the world until this day.”
Like the other scholars of his day Rabbi Simeon also sought to preserve peace between husband and wife, but he never sought to attain this end at the expense of his own dignity. We have previously told of how Rabbi Meir allowed a woman to spit in his face when her husband commanded her to do so. Another man refused to partake of his wife’s cooking until Rabbi Jehudah and Rabbi Simeon would taste of it. Rabbi Jehudah then agreed to do so but Rabbi Simeon said: “Were the man to starve and were the woman to remain a widow and her children were to die I would not do this.”12)נדרים כ״ו ב׳.
In this connection it is interesting to relate an incident which occurred while Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai was in Sidon. A married couple who lived together for ten years and had no children came to him to obtain a divorce. Rabbi Simeon said to them: “Since you do not want to part in anger you must do now as you did at the time of your wedding. At your wedding you made a feast; you must also make a feast at your parting.”
The husband and wife did as Rabbi Simeon advised them. During the feast the husband became merry with drink and he said to his wife: “Choose that which is most beautiful and dearest to you in the house and take it with you when you return to your father’s house.” When the husband fell asleep she ordered the slaves to carry him on his bed to her father’s house. When he awoke and found himself in strange surroundings he asked his wife, “Where am I?” and she replied, “You are in my father’s house”.
The man further asked, “What have I to do in your father’s house?” and his wife replied, “You asked me to take that which I held dearest in your house and I could find nothing dearer to me than yourself”. They then went to Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai a second time to ask him what to do. He advised them not to part for he was certain that God would reward such a wife with children. He also promised to pray for them.13)שיר השירים רבה פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא ל״א.
Rabbi Simeon’s attitude toward the Romans was always one of condemnation. He could never forget the suffering which the Romans inflicted upon the Jews nor the fact that all scolars had to flee Palestine to save their lives. Even when they were allowed to return during the rule of Antonius Pius they were forced to wander from city to city. At first they settled in Sidon, later in Usha and finally in Jabneh. When Rabbi Simeon expressed criticism of the Romans he was forced to hide in a cave. All of these events aroused within him a hatred for all Romans and he declared that the best among the Romans was like a snake whose head should be crushed.14)מכילתא פּ׳ בשלח. Another time he said that only Jews may be considered as human beings.15)יבמות ס״א א׳.
As a result of these events and also because of his personal misfortunes Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai became embittered and he ruled that as long as Jews are in exile no one must laugh wholeheartedly.16)ברכות ל״א א׳. When in later life he suffered from being reported to the government he ruled that even wicked people who curse their fathers and deserve to forfeit their lives according to law, should not be reported to the authorities.17)פּסחים פּ״ז ב׳.
Rabbi Simeon valued the Torah above all else and he declared that “Three who have eaten at one table and have not said over it words of the Torah are as if they had eaten of the sacrifice of the dead.”18)אבות פרק ג׳ משנה ג׳. He further said that no scholar may partake of a feast the purpose of which is not to fulfill some commandment,19)פּסחים מ״ט א׳. and that people who do not engage in learning are to be punished.20)שבת ל״ג ב׳.
“Three valuable gifts God granted to the Jews”, he said, “and all three are bound up with suffering. These three gifts are: the Torah, the Land of Israel and the world to come.”21)ברכות ה׳ א׳.
“If I had been present on Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to the Jews”, he said, “I would have asked God to grant us two mouths, one for the study of the Torah and the other for all other purposes.” But he immediately added that two mouths might even be worse than one for if one mouth can cause so much trouble by carrying reports, how much worse might the world be if people possessed two mouths.22)ירושלמי ברכות פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳.
Being imbued with such a great love for the Torah Rabbi Simeon abhored all those who rebelled against its commandments and he said: “Whoever wishes to taunt a wicked man may do so without compunction”,23)ברכות ז׳ ב׳. for the gain of a wicked man is the loss of a just man.24)הוריות י׳ ב׳.
Speaking of relations between people Rabbi Simeon declared that deceiving one’s neighbor by words is even more wicked than obtaining his money under false pretenses.25)בבא מציעא נ״ח ב׳.
The saintliness of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai was revered among Jews long after his death and it was said that during his lifetime no rainbow ever appeared because no flood could have descended upon the world due to his merit.26)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ט׳ הלכה ב׳. It is also related that when Rabbi Joshua ben Levi died he entered paradise and there he found Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai reclining on thirteen golden thrones. Rabbi Simeon asked him: “Did a rainbow ever appear during your life time?” and Rabbi Joshua said that it did. Rabbi Simeon remarked: “If so, then you were not a very just man.”27)כתובות ע״ז ב׳.
Upon returning from his hiding place in the cave Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai settled in Meron where he lived until his death. The anniversary of his death is observed in Meron to this day.
During all the years that Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar remained secluded in their cave they pondered the mysteries of the Torah. It must be borne in mind that no books except the Bible were then available. The Mishna was then still being repeated orally and if someone wrote down interpretations of the Torah these were not circulated in writing in order to prevent such writings from assuming the sanctity of the written scriptures. It is therefore quite certain that Rabbi Simeon possessed no written books in his cave.
Leading an isolated existence and deriving nourishment from a carob tree and a spring of water for thirteen long years the thoughts of Rabbi Simeon and his son naturally turned to the mysteries of the creation of the world and to original interpretations of the Biblical texts. The proximity of the desert, the encounters with wild animals and poisonous snakes and their miraculous escapes, all these no doubt still further accentuated their interest in the imponderable aspects of life.
When they emerged from the cave later and resumed their teaching in the academy they expressed many of the mystical conclusions and observations which accumulated during the years they lived as hermits. These ideas they wrote down, or repeated orally to their pupils who gathered them in book form. But since these ideas had no direct bearing on the legal regulations they remained unknown for centuries until a Jewish scholar discovered them and compiled the famous book of “Zohar”.