Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Lag B’omer Picnic Service
A chilling episode reported in the Talmud inspired a modern storyteller. The story brings together Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, students disguised as hunters, the Zohar, and even the Jewish “mystery man” – a Lag B’omer treat.
Rabbi Shimon’s Cave
A little history, then an interesting Jewish folktale.
A chilling historical episode is recorded in the Talmud.(Shabbat 33b) Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, were once sitting together discussing the Roman Empire. Rabbi Yehuda declared, “How magnificent are the accomplishments of that nation! They established marketplaces, bridges, and bath houses.”
Rabbi Yosi was silent.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was critical. “They established marketplaces to make room for the prostitutes, bath houses to spoil themselves with pleasures, and bridges in order to collect taxes and tolls.”
Unfortunately, the conversation was overheard and reported to the Roman authorities. Rabbi Yehuda was rewarded for his praise with an official appointment. Rabbi Yosi was castigated for his silence with exile to Zipori. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was punished for his negative comments with a death penalty sentence.
The great sage escaped with his son and hid out in a cave, where a carob tree and a well miraculously sprung up to their aid. Subsisting almost exclusively on carobs and water, father and son devoted twelve years to the study of the secrets of the Torah. This study resulted in the Zohar, the basic sourcebook of Jewish mysticism, of which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is considered the father.
So much for the history lesson. Now the folktale:
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son sat across from each other on the floor of their cave. They were supposed to be eating lunch, but, as always, Rabbi Shimon was studying.
“Carob stick?” his son Eleazar asked, breaking a long silence.
“No, thank you”, his father answered.
“Eleazar let a moment pass, “Mashed carob?”
“No, thank you”, his father answered.
“Some carob juice, then?” Eleazar couldn’t help smiling.
Rabbi Shimon looked annoyed, “Don’t try to be funny, son. Has it occurred to you that maybe I, too, miss eating something other than carob day in and day out for eleven years?”
“But Father, don’t you think the emperor might have forgiven you by now? Can’t we go home? I miss Mother. I miss home. I miss food.”
“I know, son, but no one speaks out against the Roman Empire and goes unpunished. Fortunately God gave us this safe cave to hide in, this carob tree, even a spring of water. Without these miracles we wouldn’t be alive today. So, I will continue to devote my life to being grateful and praying and studying for as long as God grants me the privilege of doing so, and you should be grateful too, son.”
Rabbi Shimon paused to catch his breath, and then he added more gently, “Now son, let’s not talk about this anymore. It’s time to rest and be glad we still have a drop of wine left to greet Shabbat. After all, what is Shabbat without wine?” He smiled for the first time in a long while.
And so they spent their days, father and son, eating carob, praying, studying and telling stories at night. Only once a year did they receive visitors. On the 33rd day of the omer counting, Rabbi Shimon’s students came disguised as hunters, although the only thing they were really hunting for was learning. While the students drank in Rabbi Shimon’s wisdom, Eleazar devoured the wine and bread they had brought along. And even more than food, Eleazar hungered for news of the outside world.
But not his father. Apart from asking about his own family, Rabbi Shimon did not seem to care a bit about the rest of the world. If something did not concern study or prayer, to him it simply did not exist.
One morning while it was still dark, Eleazar was startled out of his sleep by the sound of footsteps. It couldn’t be the students back so soon, could it? Eleazar whispered: “Father, did you hear that?”
Rabbi Shimon nodded. “Who’s there?” he called nervously.
There was no answer. The footsteps stopped at the edge of the cave. Finally, an old man stepped inside and spoke, in a deep voice: “I’ve come to tell Shimon Bar Yochai that the emperor is dead, so your death sentence is cancelled. You are free to leave this cave and return home.”
Eleazar stared at the man for a moment, then he jumped up from under his blanket and began to sing and dance for joy.
His father, however, did not move. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Someday you will know”, the man said simply. Then he turned on his heel and disappeared.
Eleazar was ready to leave the cave that instant, but Rabbi Shimon did not rush. He said his prayers, then he slowly packed up his holy books and a bit of carob, and finally, he took tentative steps outside the cave. After eleven years ,at first it was all too much – the blinding sun, wide-open spaces. Even the gentle whistling of the birds was more than he could bear.
While Eleazar ran ahead picking wild berries, his father held tight to his little bag of carob. Despite his own delight at being out of the cave, Eleazar soon saw that everything here was a distraction and an irritation to his father. Even the farmers lying idly in the field laughing and eating lunch annoyed him.
“Look at them, Eleazar,” Rabbi Shimon grumbled. This is how they choose to use their freedom, thinking only about feeding their bellies? They care nothing about feeding their minds; they could be spending their days studying God’s holy words. They wouldn’t even have to hide in a cave to do it!”
“Perhaps they would if only God sent them carob too,” Eleazar answered with a laugh, “But then who would grow food for all the rest of the people?”
His father did not seem to hear him. Rabbi Shimon walked on, looking disapprovingly at everyone – from the shepherds resting by a well to the merchants on their way to market. They more he saw, the angrier he got.
Just then, the old man appeared on the road in front of them and spoke harshly in his deep voice. “It seems that Shimon Bar Yochai is not ready to leave his cave after all. He needs to remember how to appreciate everything that God created. He needs to return to his cave for another year and study – study how to live in THIS world.”
Now it was Eleazar’s turn to be the teacher while his father was the student. During the next year there was much to teach. He brought Rabbi Shimon figs and dates so that his father could learn to savor the tastes he had forgotten. After they stood on the nearby hill to watch sheep grazing, Eleazar brought a blanket made of their wool back to the cave to keep his father warm. And every Friday, Eleazar bought wine in the nearest village so they could properly welcome Shabbat.
Finally, it was time to try to leave the cave again. As they set out, Rabbi Shimon took a deep breath of fresh air. This time he praised the trees, the farms, and the animals along the way. This time he stopped to talk to the same laughing farmers out in the field. “You there,” Rabbi Shimon called to them. “What are you working at? Please tell me how this makes you so happy.”
The men looked up, surprised, “We’re harvesting, of course”, one of them answered, holding out a big cluster of sun-warmed purple grapes. “Who wouldn’t be happy with grapes like these?”
“And, don’t forget”, the other farmer added, “When they get turned into wine, they will make you even happier.” Both farmers started laughing again.
As Rabbi Shimon bit into one of the grapes, a smile spread across his face. “That’s right”, he told Eleazar. “What is Shabbat without wine?”
Learning and Jewish living in this world is truly the lesson of Lag B’omer, known in our tradition as The Scholars’ Holiday. Oh yes, who was that old man with the deep voice? Elijah, of course!
— The story appears in “A Year of Jewish Stories” by Maisel & Shubert. —