Before we elaborate on the customs of the hillula, we will briefly discuss the unique character of R. Shimon bar Yochai and his mentor, Rabbi Akiva. In general, our Sages preferred to follow the “middle path,” taking into consideration the difficulties that commonly arise in this world. Rashbi, however, adhered to the unadulterated truth, with no concern for the limitations of this world, and [God] performed miracles on his behalf, and he succeeded.
[Take for example], the issue of foreign rule [in the Land of Israel]. The Sages of Israel [always] taught that a Jew should pray for the welfare of the kingdom [under whose rule he lives], and they tried, to the best of their ability, to avoid clashes between the Jews and the [various] empires that ruled over them. Only when there was no other recourse, and the kingdom forced the Jews to violate their religion, did the Rabbis call for a rebellion. In the absence of religious persecution, however, they tried to find a way to reconcile with the kingdom. Accordingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that several Sages were once talking about the Roman Empire. R. Yehudah bar Ilai began the discussion with words of praise for the Romans, saying, “How pleasant are the deeds of this nation; they established marketplaces, erected bridges, and built bathhouses.” Even though R. Yehudah knew that the Romans issued harsh decrees against the Jews – even destroying the Second Temple and killing hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Great Rebellion and the Bar Kochva Revolt – he preferred to attribute the tragedies that the Romans brought upon us to other factors and concentrate on the positive sides of their rule, in order to avoid heightening the tensions. R. Yossi preferred to remain silent. Apparently, he did not agree with [R. Yehudah’s] words of praise, but he did not want to denounce [the Romans] either, so as not to create unproductive tensions. R. Shimon bar Yochi, in contrast, was unable to tolerate words of praise for the evil Roman Empire, and he said, “All that they built they built solely for their own needs. They established marketplaces in which to station prostitutes, bathhouses in which to pamper themselves, and bridges upon which to collect taxes.” The Roman found out [about this conversation] and decreed: R. Yehudah who praised us shall be promoted, R. Yossi who remained silent shall be punished with exile, and R. Shimon who denounced us shall be put to death. R. Shimon fled and hid in the beit midrash (study hall) together with his son, while his wife provided them with food and water. It is important to note that after the brutal rebellions that the Jews staged against the Roman Empire – rebellions that caused many Roman deaths and shook the [entire] Empire – the Romans took no chances and ruthlessly pursued any display of Jewish opposition to their rule. Apparently, Roman troops searched for Rashbi for years, in order to kill him. The situation became so dangerous that R. Shimon could no longer rely on his wife. Therefore, he and his son moved to a cave. Miraculously, a carob tree sprouted outside the cave and a stream of water began to flow there, providing them sustenance for twelve years, until they heard that the Caesar had died and his decree was nullified. [R. Shimon and his son] reached such great heights in Torah while there that when they left the cave they could not tolerate worldly concerns, and everything they looked at burst into flames. Consequently, they had to return to the cave for another year in order to delve deeper into the Torah and understand the value of this world. Only then did they leave the cave [permanently] (Shabbat 33b).
[Another example of Rashbi’s uncompromising nature] relates to the issue of making a living. Most of the Rabbis held that each individual needs to worry about making a living, and even Torah scholars need to work and support themselves. Rashbi, on the other hand, said, “If a man plows at the time of plowing, plants at the time of planting, harvests at the time of harvesting, threshes at the time of threshing, and winnows when there is wind, what will be of the Torah? Rather, when the Jews do God’s will, others do their work, and when they fail to do God’s will, they do their own work… (in addition to) the work of others” (Berachot 35b). 1. He also spoke a great deal about the uniqueness (segulah) of the Jewish people. [For example]: “Wherever the Jews were exiled, the Shechinah accompanied them” (Megillah 29a), and “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Jews three good gifts by way of suffering: Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and the World to Come” (Berachot 5a). ]
Even though R. Shimon bar Yochai’s path is not suitable for the public at large, and the necessities of life force us to consider life’s constraints – indeed, HaShem actually wants us work towards perfecting the world, while taking into account the obstacles in our way, without relying on miracles – nonetheless, there is great value in having a profound Torah scholar who lives his life according to [Israel’s] eternal values, without compromise. This way, everyone can see tangibly the wondrous [results] of absolute adherence to Torah. Granted, practical decisions and general guidance for the public are determined by the majority of Israel’s Sages, who take into account the limitations of this world and extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, the great vision of faith and redemption shines forth from the strength of R. Shimon bar Yochai, who sacrificed himself for Israel’s glory and its faith, establishing for future generations that the Roman Empire, which persecuted the Jews, was an evil kingdom. This is why the Jewish masses hallow and venerate R. Shimon bar Yochai.
Rashbi’s focus on the esoteric side of the Torah is related to his [unique] character. By [studying] the secrets of the Torah, one can connect better to that which is beyond ordinary life in this world, to the eternal world, to Israel’s uniqueness (segulah), and to the assurance of redemption. After all, such study elevates a person beyond the external existence that oppresses [one] and conceals [the truth], illuminating eternal ideas with a precious light.
- Similarly, Rashbi said that one may provoke the wicked in this world (Berachot 7b). In addition, he clung to the Torah so diligently that Torah became his “profession.” Therefore, the Gemara (Shabbat 11a) says that he was exempt from praying, because prayer deals with temporal life [as opposed to Torah, which is eternal life ↩