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One of the leading figures in Jewish history, one who is intimately connected with the sefira period of the Jewish calendar through which we are now passing, is Raban Shimon ben Yochai. This great sage who lived in the second century of the Common Era was a primary disciple of Rabbi Akiva. He inherited from his great mentor a strong antipathy towards Roman rule and culture. After the defeat of Bar Kochba and the persecutions of the rabbis by Hadrian, there was an attempt to somehow restore normalcy between the Jewish community in Judea and its Roman masters. At this time when some of the rabbis openly praised the efforts of the Romans in rebuilding the physical infrastructure of the land, others remained noncommittal. Raban Shimon ben Yochai however was outspoken in his condemnation of the Roman authorities, stating that even the seemingly "positive" actions that they took all stemmed from evil and sinister motives. When Jewish collaborators with Rome reported Raban Shimon ben Yochai's words to the Roman authorities, a warrant for his arrest was issued. Raban Shimon, together with his son Elazar, fled to the desert and found refuge in a cave near to a brook of water and a flourishing carob tree. Thus nurtured by the carobs and the water, the father and son spent thirteen years in hiding, studying torah and rising to great spiritual heights. They had already become a legend in their own time amongst the Jews because of their holiness of character and behavior.

Jewish tradition attributes to Raban Shimon the authorship of the main ideas of the Zohar, the kabalistic book of Jewish mysticism and spirituality. It was during this long and isolated sojourn in the desert cave that Raban Shimon was able to delve into the hidden, secretive level of Torah and comment and explain its mysteries. The book of the Zohar itself would still remain in an unpublished and hidden state until the fourteenth century when it would be publicized by a Spanish Jew, Moses de Leon. Though there has been much debate over the centuries as to the authorship of the Zohar, tradition holds fast that Raban Shimon ben Yochai is the source of the book. When the Romans relented and annulled the warrant for their arrest, Raban Shimon ben Yochai and his son emerged from their cave home and returned to the society of the Land of Israel. However, by this time Raban Shimon had achieved such a level of spirituality that he could not countenance the ordinary workday activities of his fellow-Jews who did not spend every waking moment in the study of Torah. A voice from heaven called out to him: "Have you emerged from your cave to destroy My world? If so, that you cannot tolerate the ordinary behavior of others, then return to your cave!" Though no longer critical of others' mundane life behavior, Raban Shimon, his son and his disciples declared that toraton umnatan Torah alone was their sole occupation and pursuit in life. Because of this exemplary self-sacrifice on behalf of the study of Torah, Raban Shimon and those who followed his example of Torah study were exempted from the performance of other mitzvoth, even including daily prayer. He who devotes himself to Torah study exclusively is freed from many of the burdens of society and government.

Tradition ascribes the day of Lag B'Omer - the semi-holiday of the thirty-third day of the sefira period - as the anniversary of the passing of Raban Shimon ben Yochai. Tradition has also assigned Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee as the burial site of Raban Shimon and his son, Elazar. Over the past centuries, a custom has arisen for Jews to visit that site on Lag B'Omer to commemorate the passing of the great Raban Shimon ben Yochai. Large bonfires are lit, young boys are given their first haircut and entire families encamp on Mount Meron in commemoration of the day and the great men buried there. The custom of bonfires has spread from Mount Meron throughout the rest of Israel and the Jewish world as well, though there is much rabbinic opinion that disapproves of this custom. Nevertheless, it is apparently here to stay, acrid smoke and dangerous sparks notwithstanding. The combination of Raban Shimon ben Yochai's fierce opposition to Roman ways, his great personal holiness, his unbelievable superhuman devotion to Torah study and his contributions to the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Hadrianic persecutions, all combine to make him one of the giants of Jewish history and tradition.

Berel Wein

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