Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's Kabbalah

Lag Ba-Omer is coming up and since it is the day of the Hilloula (Yarzeit for ashkenazis) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, I though it would be appropriate to talk about him and his relation to Torat Hanistar (the hidden Torah also known as kabala) in general. Tomorrow, I hope to write something more general on Torat Hanistar in order to complete this post.

Who was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?

If you ask this question to different people, the most common answer you will get is that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a great mystic. Living in the hills of Northern Israel, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) was one who loved meditation, uniting himself with nature, spirituality, mysticism, niggunim etc…


While it is quite possible that Rashbi was all of these things, this was not his defining characteristic. Rather, forget the quiet meditation in the forest the Dailai Lama and imagine a religious, nationalist IDF Soldier!

Let me better explain myself:

It is well known that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was hiding in a cave for thirteen years, with all the food he needed from a Carob Tree and all the water he wanted from a flowing spring. This is the ultimate dream from any Ben Torah right? The best way to serve God! Go in a cave, have food provided and instead of struggling with the world, just dive into the world of Jewish Mysticism.


Let us remember that Rashbi did not go into this cave by choice. He did not try to find some spiritual, mystical “trip”. Rather, Rashbi was one very nationalistic Jew engaged in the revolte of Bar Kochba which was lead by his Rabbi, Rabbi Akiva. Bar Kochba was forced to flee in a cave in order to protect himself from the Romans which wanted to kill him.

So, what is exactly the Zohar?

While the Zohar might seem like the best piece of Mystical Litterature ever written, and while it probably is that too, the Zohar first and foremost the collections of thought from a very smart, very nationalistic Jew which was closed up in a cave for 13 years right after having lost a war which he hoped would bring to the rebuilding of the Temple. Lets remember that it wasn’t so long ago that the temple was destroyed so the wound of its destruction was fresh, but so was the dream of its rebuilding. As it became apparent that the Jews had to go on an extended exile, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote down the original dream, the way things are supposed to be under NORMAL circumstances, where Jews are sitting on their land and bringing Korbanot in the Beit Hamikdash. He wrote this down in a Mystical Format for reasons which I hope to touch on tomorrow.

Now, we can understand the incident that happened when Rashbi went out of the cave. He went out, and as a nationalistic Jew, saw the Jewish People working the land of Israel even when it was under the rule of the Romans. As a nationalistic Jew, he felt this was treason! This is helping the Roman Ennemy! Therefore, whenever he looked at the fields of these Jews, they would burn instantly. God told him: Did you come out of the cave to destroy my world? He goes back in the cave and comes back out later. His son was still destroying fields but he was now able to rebuild them. They then see a man running with two myrtles in the honour of Shabbat. Through this, Rashbi understood that the Jews will be able to keep their national identity through the mitsvot, which will serve as a reminder to the Jews of their Jewish way throughtout the exile, even though the mitsvot will have lost their deeper, intrinsic value of being the legislation of the Holy Nation of Israel (look at Ramban and Rashi on this who point out that mitsvot in chuts laaretz are just reminders for when we come back to Israel. This is because in Chuts Laaretz, we cannot act as a nation and therefore the Mitsvot serve a purely religious aspect and do not have the deeper, more essential nationalistic aspect to them.)

It is interested to note that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was the one who said we should study torah all day and not do any work. The question arises: How can this be the case if we are told to plant fields in the Torah? The Chatam Sofer answers that Rashbi was talking about chuts laaretz. In Chutz Laaretz, according to Rashbi, we should be learning all day and not do any work but in Eretz Israel, working the land is a mitzvah mideorayta and therefore of course we can work the land!

We can now understand why all the big mekubalim have always been the most Zionists. For example, the Ramban was the most vocal possek about the mitzvah of living in Erets Israel. What about the anti-zionist Chassidic Rabbis? Well, even Chassidim will agree that Chassidut is not Kabballah. Chassidut is Kaballah which was brought down to our individual service of God, thus leaving the nationalistic realm. The Baal Shem Tov said that explicitly in “Shivchei ha Besht”.

May we all connect to the deeper message of the Kabalah even if we are not at the level to study it. It is said in the Zohar that the learning of Zohar will lead to our gueoula. May our attachment to Am Israel and Erets Israel, which is the essential message of the Zohar, lead us to our full redemption, Bimhera Beyamenu.