The Book of Radiance: Tales from the Zohar
By Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
2. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochei
We’d already introduced R’ Shimon Bar Yochei, so let’s explore the sort of person he was and how important others considered him to be. For one thing, we’re taught that he was gifted with Ruach HaKodesh (Breishit Rabbah 79), but so were others of his ilk. How did he stand apart from the rest?
Perhaps one of the most significant things to know about R’ Shimon Bar Yochei’s spiritual stature is the fact that he was a student of the great R’ Akiva for 13 years (Vayikra Rabbah 26). Recall that R’ Akiva was the only individual we know of to have entered the Pardes (The Mystical Garden) “in peace”, i.e., well aware of what he was doing; and to have left it “in peace” as well, i.e., alive and well-grounded (Chaggiga 14b). That itself speaks volumes about the quality and strength of the tradition that R’ Shimon was privy to.
In fact, we’re told by other greats of his generation that R’ Shimon Bar Yochei was so holy that “whoever would look upon him could see the entire world (and experience) the delight of the upper and lower worlds”. And we’re informed that thanks to his revelations he came to be regarded as “the light of the world and equal in worth to the entire world”, that he could “light up the world with (his) Torah (revelations), and could ignite many lights” (Zohar 1, 155 b-156 a). So he was clearly in a class of his own. But do we have any other insights into this great sage?
Here’s an account that says something of the makeup of his heart. We’re taught that “a certain man and woman who’d been married for 10 years and still hadn’t had any children appeared before R’ Shimon for a divorce”. R’ Shimon couldn’t help but notice that the two still loved each other despite their impasse, and yet he knew that what they were asking for was perfectly halachically acceptable. So R’ Shimon came up with a ruse of sorts.
He offered them the following proposal: “Since your wedding was marked by a feast, let’s mark your divorce with a feast, too”, he said. So a lavish meal was set up. At a certain point husband and wife gazed at each other in the special light that shines at weddings alone, and they changed their minds. Thrilled by their decision, R’ Shimon prayed for them to have a child, and G-d finally granted them one within the year (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:4).
Let’s conclude by honing in on a few special moments near and at the end of R’ Shimon’s life as depicted in the Zohar that underscore his greatness.
R’ Shimon became deathly ill at a certain point and was visited by his anxious disciples. “How can someone (like you, R’ Shimon,) who upholds the world be near to death?” one cried out. They heard him say something, but they soon “realized that R’ Shimon wasn’t there” in fact. They’d heard his voice out of nowhere and were dumb-struck. All of a sudden, “the aroma of many fine spices wafted by them”, and R’ Shimon began to speak again right before their eyes, as if nothing had happened.
“Did you notice anything else?” (other than his having disappeared) he asked them. They had to admit that they hadn’t. “That’s because you aren’t worthy of seeing the face of The Ancient of Days!” he said. He went on to report that he’d been “sent for from Above” when he’d been missing, and had been “shown the place that the righteous occupy in The World to Come” and that he’d been addressed by Adam and hundreds of other souls. But he was told to return to earth because the time wasn’t right (Zohar Chadash 18-19).
The time did come for him to die though, later on. All his greatest disciples had gathered about him. R’ Shimon opened his eyes, “saw what he saw”, as the Zohar puts it — whatever or whomever he saw we can only imagine — when “fire suddenly enveloped the house”. And at a certain point R’ Shimon said the following.
“This is an auspicious moment and I want to enter The World to Come without shame. For, there are certain holy things I want to reveal this day … that I hadn’t revealed until now — so that it won’t be said that I left this world without completing my task here”.
He went on to discuss a number of esoteric things when he suddenly turned around and saw something. He tried to draw the attention of the others there to certain souls who where then in the room “each of whom was reflecting light from the shining countenance of the Holy Ancient One, The Most Mysterious of Mysterious”, but his disciples just couldn’t see them (Zohar 3, 287b-288a).
There came a time though when a great fire and light shone throughout the house until it suddenly stopped short. It became clear that “the holy light, the Holy of Holies”, R’ Shimon, had died just then “lying on his right side, covered over by his cloak, with a smile on his face”. A certain unearthly “perfume filled the air”.
Arrangements were quickly made for R’ Shimon’s funeral. His bier was brought outside when it “arose in the air (on its own) with a flame in front of it, and a voice was heard to say, ‘Come and assemble for the Hillulah (Feast) of R’ Shimon!’”. R’ Shimon’s body was then brought to the cave he was to be buried in, and another voice called out, “’Here is the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms’ (Isaiah 57:2)….. How Blessed is his portion above and below!” (Zohar 3, 296b).
And how blessed is our portion too, who have so many teachings of R’ Shimon’s to draw upon and learn from!
(c) 2010 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).