Raboyseyee and Ladies:
The Naked Rabbi & His Naked Son.
Who are these naked rabbis? We shall soon find out, ober let’s begin here. In hyntige tzeytin (in today’s times), were we to hear about a naked rebbe and his naked son hanging out together for over a decade, we would immediately label them as perverts. We’d pull our kids out of the yeshiva he was teaching at, and or, look to have him removed were he leading a shul or an institution. Ober back in Gemora times, it appears that a naked rebbe went on to become one of the most famous and revered rebbes in Jewish history? How? Why? Was it a prerequisite to greatness? Who were these naked guys? Is the famed naked cowboy typically found in the Times Square area of New York a relative? Shoin, keep your pants on; the story gets better and is our topic de jour.
And just like that, as we got to Lag B’oimer, the 33rd day of the Oimer celebrated this past Monday night and all day Tuesday, we are less than three weeks until the great and joyous Yom Tov of Shovuis when we celebrate our wedding vows to the RBSO who came down amidst thunder and brimstone to deliver the Aseres Hadibrois (the Ten Commandments). My how time flies when we’re sitting mostly at home gaining inches around the middle and convincing ourselves we’re not fat because we still fit into our sweats. May the RBSO have mercy on us when shuls open and we need to close our pants, skirts and whatever you wear. Oy vey; pretty it’s not going to be!
Just yesterday, as orthodox Yiddin all around the world were celebrating Lag B’oimer with music, bonfires, simcha trucks, dancing, and clandestinely arranged private haircuts in backyards, and basements, the Oisvorfer was deep in thought about this day and asked his chaver Ephraim Frenkel why it was –in his opinion- that Yiddin –mostly over in Israel this year, but in better times- also around the world, light bonfires on the eve of Lag B’oimer. His immediate response was “I don’t know” and taka most don’t! Grada he’s not alone as neither does the Oisvorfer chap how, when, and why fires became an integral part of the day’s celebrations. We shall address that below. Ephraim shot back with a question of his own: “why is it that the name Yochai never took off?” And taka he asked a good question, one the Oisvorfer has asked in the past about other famous and well liked (by the RBSO) Toirah personalities such as Kolave ben Yifuneh. Do you know anyone by that name?
Who was Yochai and why do people dance on Lag B’oimer to the words of “Bar Yochai” set in song? How does he and his son Rebbe Shimon, fit into the entire Lag B’oimer story? Who established Lag B’oimer? Is it a holiday? Shoin, let us go back in time and meet Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai (son of Yochai) and find out more about this mysterious mystical figure. And with those questions ringing in his head, the Oisvorfer decided to once again forgo the last two parshas in Sefer Vayikro, the second of which lists forty- seven different admonitions (a fancy word for curses) which might befall the Yiddin for bad behavior. According to some, the Yiddin have already experienced all of them and then some; we are the Chosen People. Instead let us dedicate this week’s review to the great mystery man, Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.
Who was he? Why was he naked for twelve years? What was he doing with his son who was also seemingly naked with him? Why do we light fires and sing bar Yochai songs on Lag B’oimer? Are the stories written about him emes? Are they to be taken literally? Or, are they efsher but mythical and to be understood only by people like Madonna and others who study the Kabolo? Which of the several versions of his journey is historically correct? And the list of questions goes on. Let us begin by learning some Gemora; it won’t kill you, and it won’t even put you to sleep. Farkert (the opposite is true)! Let us read but some of the words of the heylige Gemora (Shabbis 33b-34a) which teach us azoy:
“Yehuda and Rebbe Yoise and Rebbe Shimon [bar Yochai] were sitting, and Yehuda ben Gerim was sitting beside them. Reb Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the acts of this nation: They established (tiknu) markets! They established bathhouses! They established bridges! Reb Yoise was silent. Reb Shimon [bar Yochai] answered and said, “Everything they established, they established only for their own needs: They established markets – to place prostitutes there; bathhouses – to pamper themselves; bridges – to take tolls.” Yehuda ben Gerim went and retold their words, and it became known to the [Roman] government. They said: “Yehuda who extolled – let him be extolled. Yoise who was silent – let him be exiled to Sepphoris. Shimon who disparaged – let him be killed.” He (Reb Shimon) went with his son and hid in the Beis Midrash. Each day his wife brought him bread and a jug of water and they ate. When the decree became more severe he said to his son: “Women are easy-minded. They may abuse her and she will reveal [us].” They went and hid in a cave. A miracle happened – a carob tree and a spring of water were created for them. They took off their clothes and sat up to their necks in sand. All day they sat and studied, and when the time came to pray they got out of the sand, dressed [their bodies], covered [their heads] and prayed, and again took off their clothes – all in order that they not wear out. They dwelled in the cave for twelve years. Raboyseye, these words are not form the medrish, they are not imagined; they are quoted from the heylige Gemora. Let’s learn some more, here we go: Eliyohu (Elijah) came to the opening of the cave, saying: “Who will inform Bar Yochai that the emperor died and the decree is annulled?” They went out. They saw men plowing and sowing. Rebbe Shimon said, “They forsake eternal life (olam) and busy themselves with temporal life?!” Every place they turned their eyes to – was immediately burned. A heavenly voice (bas kol) came out and said to them: “Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” They returned. They dwelled for twelve months, saying: “The sentence of the wicked in Hell is twelve months.” A heavenly voice went out [and said], “Go out from your cave.” They went out. Wherever [his son] Rebbe. Elazar smote – Reb Shimon healed. He said, “My son, you and I are sufficient for the world.” When the eve of the Sabbis arrived, they saw a certain old man who was holding two bunches of myrtle running at twilight. They said to him, “Why do you need these?” He said to them, “To honor the Shabbis.” [They said] “Would not one suffice for you?” He said, “One for “Remember [the Shabbis]” (Shmois 20:8) and one for “Observe [the Shabbis]” (Devorim 5:12). Rebbe Shimon said to him (his son), “See how dear is a commandment (mitzva) to Israel.” Rebbe Elazar’s mind was set at ease.”
Shoin, let us quickly summarize this story: what brought Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai great fame was seemingly unplanned by him, but forced upon him by Divine providence (the RBSO) as described above but repeated here, and it came down to one conversation where Rebbe Shimon said azoy about the Romans. He and scholars were discussing the impact of the Roman rule over the Holy Land. Rebbe Yehuda praised the Romans for the excellent infrastructure they had developed – the marketplaces, the bridges and the bathhouses. Rebbe Shimon retorted: “Everything they did was for their own sakes. The marketplaces they established for immoral purposes, the bathhouses to beautify themselves, and the bridges to collect tolls.” The effects of their deeds may have been beneficial, but these could not be separated from the ulterior motives underneath. Next: News of their discussion reached the Romans –they were ratted out by one of their own -yikes, and Rebbe Shimon’s death was decreed (R. Yehuda by contrast was accorded high position). Rebbe Shimon, together with his son R. Eleazar, who no doubt was also in danger, went into hiding. They escaped to a cave (which tradition believes is in Peki’in, today a Druze village in the northern Galilee). The RBSO miraculously caused a carob tree to grow and a stream to flow right outside the cave, providing the two with basic sustenance. And they began studying Toirah for years uninterrupted. To prevent their clothing from excessive wear and tear, they would undress and bury themselves to the neck in sand and study like that the entire day – except briefly when they would emerge to pray. Under such lofty, surreal conditions the Rashbi and his son mastered the deepest secrets of the heylige Toirah. As well they unveiled the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. Was it their nakedness which allowed them to absorb all this knowledge?
What do we know from this shtikel Gemora? Two things: ershtens (firstly) that Rebbe Shimon and his son were naked all day but did wear their clothing to daven. Secondly, that Eliyohu Hanovee appeared and referred to Rebbe Shimon only as “Bar Yochai,” the son of Yochai. Shoin, with your attention piqued from reading of the unusual adventures of the naked rebbe and his son, let’s learn one more shtikel Gemora also on the same pages which reads azoy:
Rebbe Shimon said, “Is there something that needs fixing [tikkun]?” They said to him, “There is a part [of Tiberias] which is of doubtful impurity and it causes much trouble for the kohanim (priests) to go around it.” […] Wherever it (the ground) was hard he ruled pure. Wherever was loose he marked. A certain old man said, “The son of Yochai made a cemetery pure!” Rebbe Shimon said, “If you had not been with us [when we made the decision to purify this place, apparently alluding to a vote on this matter], or even if you had been with us but had not voted with us, you would have spoken well. But since you were with us and voted among us, should they say, `[Even] prostitutes beautify each other with make- up. How much the more so [should] scholars!”‘ Rebbe Shimon cast his eyes at him and he died. Rebbe Shimon went out to the market. He saw Yehuda ben. Gerim. [He said,] “Is this one still in the world?” He set his eyes upon him [Yehuda] and turned him into a heap of bones.
Shoin: how and why prostitutes made their way into the conversation, ver veyst? Why did Rebbe Shimon kill Rebbe Yehudah ben Gerim? Grada that simple: he was a rat! Efsher you have a few more questions on this Gemora: Why did Rebbe Shimon (aka: Rashbi) take his son with him? And the Oisvorfer admits azoy: after learning this Gemora, he came away more confused about this mysterious Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, and had not one answer to any of his questions. What to do?
He went back to his long term memory and recalled the following myseh (story): As kids in the yeshiva system, we could hardly wait for Lag B’oimer. Kimat every yeshiva arranged for a day in the park where we would attempt to shoot our $0.99 cent bow and arrows, play games, and otherwise run around the park. Why did every yeshiva kid back in the 60’s want a bow and arrow for that day? Ver veyst, and until today mamish, the Oisvorfer never chapped the connection between the bow & arrow and Lag B’oimer festivities. And guess what? Seemingly no one else knows why either though a medrish the Oisvorfer did not find but one quoted online says azoy: Children were, and still are given bows and arrows to play with. This is likely due to influences of non-Jewish neighbors, but is explained by a medrish which claims that, during the lifetime of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, rainbows did not appear in the sky. And? Aren’t rainbows beautiful and aren’t we mesmerized at the sighting of one? We are! Ober, we need to hearken back to the heylige Toirah where we learned azoy: Following the Mabul (great flood) in the days of Noiach, a rainbow appeared in the sky -a symbol from the RBSO that He would never again destroy the world by flood. The appearance of a rainbow is therefore a sign that the world, or portions of it, are deserving of punishment. Thus, the sages were proclaiming that during his lifetime, Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the entire generation and there was no need for a rainbow to appear. And because no rainbow appeared during his lifetime, on the day of his ascension to shomayim we bring out bows and arrows to commemorate him and his great merit. And the connection between bow & arrows and the rainbow? The Hebrew word for “rainbow,” keshet or keshes in the yeshiva world, refers to both the rainbow as well as the bow used in archery (according to some, the rainbow is called G‑d’s “bow”). Says the B’nai Yisoschor: to demonstrate that after Rebbe Shimon’s passing there is now a need for the sign of the (rain)bow, many have the custom to play with bows and arrows on this day. Shoin. A second reason proffered for the bow and arrow is that when the Romans forbade study of the heylige Toirah, Yiddin would go into the forest where they pretended to go hunting with bows and arrows. Instead, they learned the heylige Toirah. The bottom line: playing with bow and arrows is seen as a way of celebrating the life of the great sage. How that makes sense, ver veyst? Another bottom line: playing with the bow and arrow is seemingly totally made up of thin air. Veyter. And the final bottom line on playing with bows and arrows? Back then, why and how Lag B’oimer was being celebrated, who cared? We were young and excited to be out and about.
Lag B’oimer is -in our times- a minor Jewish holiday that traces back not to antiquity, but to the Middle Ages. Marked on the 18th day of the Jewish month of Iyar, modern festivities include the bonfire, roasting potatoes, franks, marshmallows and other fire-friendly foods on the flames. In our times, we’re celebrating the cessation of a vicious plague that carried off tens of thousands of yeshiva students more than 1,000 years ago – maybe. What’s pshat maybe? We shall address that below. Though the holiday is relatively new, this story is rooted to biblical times, when the Yiddin were commanded (by the RBSO as delineated in Parshas Emor) to count the 49 harvest days from Pesach until Shovuis. This count is still known as Sefiras Ha’oimer (counting of the Oimer). Lag B’oimer is simply the 33rd day of this count, with “Lag” – lamed gimel – being the way Yiddin write the number 33. Guess what? Back then, the 33rd day of the Oimer had no special significance. And that’s all it was. Ober, since the 9th century, these 49 days also became days of mourning over the deaths of the 24,000 students of Rebbe Akiva, who, according to the heylige Gemora (Yevomis 62b), died of a plague between Pesach and Shovuis. Remember this line because over the generations, for reasons that remain unclear, our yeshiva rebbes forgot to teach us that they mistama died while fighting on the side of Bar Kochbar against the Romans. The bottom line is they seemingly died during these days. For some reason, none died on Lag B’oimer. Shoin, let’s party!
Decades later these celebrations began to bother me; if indeed 24,000 of Rebbe Akiva’s students died during the 49 days between Pesach and Shovuis, and that’s why we mourn them yearly by refraining from making weddings, taking haircuts, listening to live music and a few other restrictions, why are we out and about celebrating on the one day no one died? If it’s taka the case that no one died on that 33rd day of the Oimer, logic would dictate that the entire Jewish world would be out making burial arrangements, and would otherwise be in a state of mourning. Why do we recall these 24000 students with song, dance and other celebratory actions? What’s pshat? Do we dance on Taanis Esther? On Tisha Be’ov? To commemorate sad days, we typically fast and we zicher don’t celebrate. Grada this thought comes to mind during this pandemic as bodies have been piling up waiting for burial. Even among the Yiddin who typically bury their dead with alacrity, when the smoke of this pandemic clears and we are free to move about, many will be reciting kaddish for a lost parent. They will not be celebrating. Other will be busy making final arrangements. Some who were temporarily interred will be moved over to Israel. Will they be out celebrating? When there’s a break in the killing fields, are we meant to celebrate? Who started all this?
Given all the sadness associated with the loss of 24,000 of Rebbe Akiva’s students -no matter how they died- how did Lag B’oimer become a holiday and a day of at least some, if not much simcha? And the answers given go azoy: in the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari, a well-known mystic) decided that Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, who according to (efsher a false) tradition wrote the Kabbalistic book, the Zoihar, died on Lag Ba’oimer, and on his deathbed he revealed to his disciples mystical traditions. And? From that time, Lag B’oimer has been marked with joy, dancing and other celebratory activities all over the world and especially so over in Meron where bar Yochai is believed to be buried. Says the Chidah (Rabbi Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulay, 18th century Morocco) azoy: since Lag B’oimer was the day that Rebbe Akiva’s students stopped dying, it was therefore also the day that Rebbe Akiva began teaching a new group of disciples. This distinguished new group included Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yossi and Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai. His new students became the link to carry forth the Toirah to all future generations and for that reason, Lag B’oimer is celebrated. New life, new hope seemingly trumps death and mourning.
Given all that, we ask again azoy: if Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai whose life we celebrate on Lag B’oimer was known as the RASHBI -he was- an acronym of his full name, why taka don’t people name their children after Rebbe Shimon’s holy father, Yochai? And the bottom line? Ver veyst?! Shoin, having delved into Yochai and why we celebrate Lag B’oimer as opposed to fasting for all the dead students, let’s also find out how and why bonfires came into play.
As it turns out, the most well-known custom of Lag B’Oimer is the lighting of bonfires throughout Israel and worldwide, wherever religious Jews can be found. In Meron, the burial place of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Eleazar, hundreds of thousands of Yiddin gather throughout the night and day to celebrate with bonfires, torches, song and feasting. Why? The earliest mention of this custom is found in a letter written by Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro to his brother when he traveled to Israel. He wrote azoy: on the 18th of Iyar (Lag B’oimer) they would gather and light large fires. According to one tradition, this was a specific request by Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai of his students. Some say that as bar Yochai gave spiritual light to the world with the revelation of the Zoihar, bonfires are lit to symbolize the impact of his teachings. As his passing left such a “light” behind, many candles and/or bonfires are lit.
Another flavor: Says the Bnei Yissoschor, on the day of his death, Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai said azoy, “Now it is my desire to reveal secrets… The day will not go to its place like any other, for this entire day stands within my domain…” Daylight was miraculously extended until Rebbe Shimon had completed his final teaching and died. This symbolized that all light is subservient to spiritual light, and particularly to the primeval light contained within the mystical teachings of the Torah. As such, the custom of lighting fires symbolizes this revelation of powerful light. What all that means, ver veyst?
And taka says the Zoihar azoy: on the day that Rebbe Shimon passed away, sunset was delayed until he finished revealing the secrets of the Torah. Additionally, he himself shone so brightly that his students could not gaze upon him. A fire burned around them, and the sun did not set. Throughout the day a fire burned in the house, and no one could come near him because he was engulfed by light and fire. The bottom line: exactly why the celebrations involve bonfires, no one knows for sure. What is certain is that bonfires are zicher a significant part of the pageantry, and the right to light the first bonfire each year has become a shtikel business which also involves bragging rights.
In recent years, at the tomb of Rebbe Shimon, the honor of lighting the main bonfire traditionally goes to the Rebbes of the Boyaner dynasty. How did that come about? The privilege was purchased by first grand rabbi of the Sadigura sect who purchased the right from the Sephardic guardians of Meron and Tzefat. Did they but it from the Indians, ver veyst? In any event, the The Sadigura Rebbe bequeathed this honor to his eldest son, Rabbi Yitzchok Friedman, the first Boyaner Rebbe, and his progeny. So happens that many years back –I’m talking 1969 or 1970- the future Oisvorfer shared a dormitory room over at the Mirrer Yeshiva with a gentleman who was slated to become the Boyaner Rebbe. What happened to him? Were his chances ruined by his association with the future Ois? Not! He abdicated! Mamish! He chose real science over the rebbe voodoo business and became a scientist at NASA where he would be seen on TV with his yarmulka. This is emes! He married later in life and in recent years became a father for the first time. In any event, the first hadlakah (lighting) is attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
Over the years as jealousy raged among the Chassidic sects and another rebbe (let’s call him the Bostoner), in 1983, reinstated a century-old tradition among Bostoner Chasiddim to light a bonfire near the grave of Rebbe Akiva over in Tiverya (Tiberias) on Lag BaOmer night. The tradition had been abandoned due to murderous attacks on participants in the isolated location. The bottom line: over the years many a Chasidic Rebbe has found unique ways to mark the passing of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and there are myriad customs associated with that day. Many have the tradition to give their 3 year old son’s their first haircut over at Meron on that day. Grada, with kimat all the barber shops closed here in the United States, a trip over to Meron for a haircut might be considered. Time and space don’t allow for a listing of the many other minhogim associated with this day; perhaps we will revisit them in future years.
The final bottom line: being quarantined for the past weeks isn’t giferlich; would you rather be naked in a cave for twelve years?
A gittin Shabbis-
The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv