Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai

Lag b’omer 5771 – some reflections on the profound contribution of R.Shimeon bar Yochai to the understanding of Torah Judaism.

He is primarily known in his role as the father of the mystical kabbalistic tradition in Judaism, however R.Shimeon was also known as one of the most prominent Tannaim, authors of the mishna, and a star disciple of Rabbi Akiva, and therefore an important architect of the halachic system, and it is is this context, that I am looking at his writings.

I would like to draw together three separate quotations from the Talmud Bavli which initially appear unconnected, and explore an interesting underlying theme.

Firstly (Bavli Shabbat 32b) in the context of the famous story of how he came to hide in a cave for 13 years, the Talmud cites a conversation between R. Shimeon together with R.Yehuda and R.Yossi his colleagues, regarding their evaluation of the Romans. They were all living in the Land of Israel, then Judea (2nd cent. CE) under Roman rule and had suffered terribly from the persecutions and massacres which had destroyed the Beit Hamikdash, and subsequent massacres of Massada and Beitar. Nevertherless R.Yehuda states that we cannot avoid the fact that the Romans have made considerable contributions to mankind. Specifically he mentions (a) the market places, probably referring to the economic system and currency in general, (b) the bridges, probably including roads and viaducts, and (c) the Roman baths which had improved levels of hygiene. Clearly R.Yehuda was not simply making a historical or sociological observation, rather he was speaking of the spiritual value of Tikkun HaOlam that these enhancements of civilisation are considered to be valuable not only on a practical level but also spiritually.

R.Yossi is reported to have kept silent and abstained from the conversation. (One can only speculate on the reason for his silence, possibly it was emotionally hard to express any sort of admiration for a culture which had been responsible for so much destruction and suffering for centuries, along the lines of praising the Nazis for technological precision and efficiency.)

The response of R.Shimeon was very significant. Clearly the facts reported about the Romans were correct, all these innovations had indeed improved civilisation, but he argued that in order for any actions to be spiritually significant they must be driven by unselfish motives. The motives of the Romans, he argued, were all self-centred, their power, pleasure and wealth was all they were concerned with, it was self-indulgence and not in any way intended to idealistically improving the world, and therefore their behaviour was of no spiritual meaning. It was because of this negative critique of the Romans that he was sentenced to death and fled into the famous cave.

The next quotation from Rabbi Shimeon is in the area of the halachic laws of the Shabbat. Here (Bavli Shabbat 22a) he is discussing the principle of ‘unintended consequences’ known as ‘davar she-eino mitkaven’. The example cited is dragging a heavy piece of furniture across soft earth, where the intention is simply to move the item, but in addition he is making a furrow in the ground unintentionally. In principle the making of a groove in the earth is forbidden on Shabbat as a form of working the land- ‘choresh’, but here the making of the furrow was unintended, and therefore Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai rules that no violation of the Shabbat has taken place. This lenient ruling is based on the principle that when evaluating the spiritual significance of any action, it is crucial to know the intentions which motivated the activity. It is only the ‘kavvanah’ which gives the action its spiritual content, and since here there was no ‘kavannah’ -intention- to engage in any tilling of the ground, there has been no violation of the Shabbat.

Putting these two sources together a pattern begins to emerge. In the discussion about the Romans, he took a negative and highly critical approach, and in the halachic decision he was lenient, but the undelying logic of both cases is the same, i.e. the value of a human act, whether positive or negative, is derived from the intention and motive which drives it. The Romans had selfish motives and therefore did not deserve praise, the dragging of a heavy item had no intention to engage in any work of the land, and therefore is not a violation of Shabbat. Rabbi Shimeon requires that we look behind the facts of an event and examine intentions before declaring any evaluation.

In the third source (Bavli Sukkah 45b) Rabbi Shimeon remarks enigmatically about himself that he could single-handedly atone for all the sins of mankind; -‘yachol ani liftor et kol ha-olam kullo min ha-din’. This (Rashi) refers to his great spiritual merits which he would ‘donate’ to help mankind, and one can add (Rabeinu Chananel) the fact that he lived in such a state of physical deprivation that he received absolutely no rewards in this world at all, leaving all his merits to be used to cancel out the misdeeds of mankind.

However, there could be a different understanding of this statement following the analysis mentioned above. Possibly R.Shimeon maintained that by using his principle of intention-based evaluation, he could be a counsel for the defense for all misdeeds, on the basis that the person committing those sins did not genuinely intend to rebel against God or to deny the moral code of the Torah. He would argue that all misdeeds come only from a person giving in to his momentary desires and needs, or following some fantasy or illusion, but not a genuine act of heresy or immorality. This line of reasoning also requires an assumption about the deeper levels of human nature that there is a ground level of the soul which is moral and God-fearing.

Incidentally we find this idea elsewhere in the Talmud (Bavli Sotah 3a) ‘ain adam choteh ella im kein nichnas bo ruach shetut’, – a person only sins when he is in the grip of an act of madness! This expresses the same idea as a general mitigating argument for all sins. Rabbi Shimeon is able to utilise this line of reasoning to its extreme because of his general principle of ‘kavannah’ -intention as the essence of all action.

Finally there may be a link from this idea to the general goal of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in all his mystical kabbalistic teachings, that through the study of kabbalah there is an overall agenda to deepen the level of intention -‘kavvanah’ of all mitzvot and tefillot and raise the level of human motivation to a higher plane.

Zechuto ve’torato yagen aleinu.