The Curious Case of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai

13 04 2010

As promised, here is the literary analysis of bShab 33b-34a. This narrative concerns Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, and I include it both in its original Aramaic and in English (my translation). After a brief discussion that is precipitated by a quote from Rabbi Yehuda, “the first of the speakers on all occasions”, the Talmud asks a question and delivers a story by way of an answer. For those who are interested in such things, I have placed the Hebrew sections of this passage in bold, and left the Aramaic portions in a regular font:

Why is he called “the first of the speakers on all occasions“?

Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shim’on were sitting, and Yehuda ben Gerim [“the son of converts”, acc. to Rashi] was sitting by them. Rabbi Yehuda spoke up and said, “How glorious are the deeds of this nation! They built marketplaces, they built bathhouses, they built bridges…”

Rabbi Yosi said nothing, but Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai stirred and said, “Everything that they built, they built for their own gratification. They built marketplaces in order to place prostitutes in them, bathhouses in order to pleasure themselves, and bridges in order to exact tolls.”

Yehuda ben Gerim went and repeated their discussion, and the Romans [“the kingdom”] heard. They said, “Yehuda, who exalted, shall be exalted. Yosi, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris. Shim’on, who censured, shall be killed.”

He and his son went and hid in the academy. Every day, their wives [lit. “those of their house”] brought them bread and a pitcher of water, and they ate. When the decree was strengthened, he said to his son, “The minds of women are weak. Perhaps, by torturing her, she will give [us] away?

They went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred for them: a carob tree and a spring of water were created. They sat up to their necks in sand. During the day, they sat and learned, and would cast off [their clothes]. At the time of prayer, they got up and dressed, and covered themselves, and left, and prayed. Then they cast off [their clothes] again, lest they wear them out. They dwelt in the cave for thirteen years.

Elijah came to the entrance to the cave. He said, “Who will tell Bar Yochai that the Caesar is dead and his decree annulled?”

They went out and saw people reaping and sowing. He said, “They discard eternal life and labour in the life of the moment!” Everywhere they cast their eyes immediately burned.

A heavenly voice came out and said to them, “Is it to destroy my world that you came out? Return to your cave!

They dwelt there twelve months, saying “The judgment of the wicked in Gehennom is twelve months.

A heavenly voice came out and said, “Leave your cave.

They went out. Every place that Rabbi Elazar struck, Rabbi Shim’on cured. He said to him, “My son, you and I are enough for the world.”

They saw an old man who was holding two bundles of myrtle, and who was running at twilight. They said to him, “What are these for?

He said to them, “To honour Shabbat.

They said to him, “Is not one enough for you?”

He said to them, “One corresponds to “Remember [Shabbat]” (Exodus 20:8) and one corresponds to “Observe [Shabbat]” (Deuteronomy 5:12).”

He said to him, “Look at how the [divine] commandment is precious to Israel!” They were appeased.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, his son-in-law, heard and went out to greet him. He took him to the bathhouse. He was massaging his flesh. He saw that there were creases in his flesh and was crying, and as the tears fell they were hurting him. He said, “Woe to me that I should see you like this!

He replied, “Blessed are you that you should see me like this! Were you not to see me like this, I would not find such within me!” (Previously, Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai would ask a single question and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair would solve it with twelve solutions. After [his experience in the cave,] Rabbi Pinchas would ask one question and Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai would solve it with twenty-four solutions.)

He said, “Since a miracle occured, I shall fix (אתקין) something! For it says, “Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18a). (Rav said, “Whole in his body, whole in his wealth, whole in his Torah.) “And he encamped before the city” (Genesis 33:18b; understood here as “And he looked favourably upon the city). (Rav said, “He established [ie: “minted”; תקן] coins for them.” Shmuel said, “He established (תקן) marketplaces for them.” Rabbi Yochanan said, “He established (תקן) bathhouses for them.”).”

He said, “Is there something I can fix (דלתקוני)?”

They said to him, “There is a place of doubtful impurity and it is difficult for priests to go around it.”

He said, “Is there somebody who knows whether there was a presumption of purity here?”

An old man said, “Here and there, Ben Azzai cut down lupines [acc. to Jastrow] for ritual use.”

He did likewise: everywhere that was solid was clean; everywhere that was soft, he marked.

The old man said, “Ben Yochai has purified a cemetary!”

He said to him, “Had you not been with us, or had you been with us and not voted with us, you would have spoken well. Now, since you were with us, should people say ‘Prostitutes paint each other [ie: make each other look favourable in public]; should not the disciples of sages even moreso?’” He looked upon him, and his soul departed.

He went out to the marketplace and saw Yehuda ben Gerim. “Is someone like this still in the world!?” He looked upon him and turned him into a heap of bones.

To recount:

The Talmud is, initially, concerned with the reason behind Rabbi Yehuda being labelled “the first of the speakers on all occasions”. It would appear, on the basis of this story’s introduction, that this is not only because he spoke first on one particular occasion, but that he was subsequently extolled by the Romans, and possibly promoted to a position of influence that necessitated his opinion being heard before the opinions of other people. This conclusion is based solely upon the passage under consideration.

In any case, the Talmud goes on to relate the after-effects of this discussion having reached the ears of the Romans. The three opinions given (it is reasonable, I think, to construe Rabbi Yosi’s silence as representing an opinion midway between those of his colleagues) are mirrored by the three decrees that the Romans enact. Yehuda ben Gerim’s role is ambiguous here. Rather than display an opinion of his own, his function within the narrative is to expedite the events leading to Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai (henceforth, RSBY) living in isolation from society. He is not a villain, although he may be viewed as the unwary catalyst of dire events.

Once the Roman decree against RSBY is given, we are told that he has a son (Rabbi Elazar) and that the two go into hiding together. It becomes apparant later in the story that he also has a daughter (Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair is introduced as his son-in-law), and we shortly discover that both he and his son have wives. Their wives provide them with food but, when the decree intensifies, RSBY fears the fickleness of women and flees again. It would appear that he suspects the Romans of being prepared to torture his wife, and she is not mentioned in the ensuing narrative. The possibility of her being tortured is only troublesome to RSBY insofar as it may lead to his discovery, and he settles instead in a cave.

While RSBY and his son were previously dependant upon their wives for food, a miracle occurs in the cave and both a carob tree and a spring of water are called into existence. So as not to wear out their clothes, RSBY and his son learn naked – covered only with sand. In Tractate Berachot (bBer 25b), a discussion ensues as regards the permissability of reciting the “Shema” in a situation when one can see (or when one’s heel is touching) one’s penis. It may be that RSBY and Rabbi Elazar covered themselves with sand in order that they might pronounce the name of God in their studies without actually wearing clothes. Nonetheless, when it is time to pray, they both “get up, get dressed, cover themselves, go out and pray”.

In my translation of this clause, I have conveyed נפקו variously as “got up” and “went out”. It would appear to me that the first instance of the verb refers to themselves leaving the sand in which they had been sitting, while the second instance refers to them leaving the cave. I do not know which manuscripts were employed in the publication of my personal version of the Talmud (Jerusalem: Torah LaAm, 1957), but it lacks the second instance of this verb, which makes more sense to me. The implication that they might have left their hiding place daily in order to do something so visible as pray strikes me as bizarre, given their previous reticence to remain within the academy.

After thirteen years (twelve years, in my version), Elijah the prophet appears at the entrance to the cave and declares, in a roundabout fashion, that the Caesar is dead and that the decree is void. More likely, the word “Caesar” here is a reference to the local governor, rather than to the emperor in Rome, who (we would assume) was not particularly interested in the fate of an individual rabbi, responsible for privately criticising his administration. The appearance of Elijah is a familiar trope, found throughout the rabbinic literature, and serves as a means of providing protagonists with information otherwise unobtainable by them. Elijah’s single line of dialogue is, until this point, the first line of dialogue spoken in Aramaic.

RSBY and his son leave their cave and immediately see people engaged in agriculture. After twelve/thirteen years devoted solely to learning, this infuriates them. Presumably, RSBY is under the impression that all Israel can behave likewise and expect, in return for their piety and devotion, miraculous sustenance of the nature that he and his son received. Their tilling of the earth, in the expectation that such activity is the sole means of obtaining food, may be an implied dimension to RSBY’s ire. Whatever the case, he makes the presumption that they are not suitably engaged in Torah study and, with the powers gained during his sojourn in the cave, his son and he set fire to every place they look.

The ability of RSBY and his son to burn the world with their eyes must be, in context, the result of their having achieved a higher stature through asceticism, learning and prayer. While the rabbinic literature often strongly disparages separation from the community, it nonetheless appears to be treating RSBY and his son with favour. What is more, the post-Talmudic tradition came to adopt the notion that, while in the cave, RSBY (though not his son) was revealed the mystical elements of Torah, which he wrote down in the form of several manuscripts, later collected together as the Zohar. While there is much academic debate concerning the origins of this work (the entirety of which appears on linguistic, stylistic and theological grounds to be medieval), there is uniformity in at least one issue: none of it dates to the Tannaitic period (c.1 BCE/CE to c.200 CE; cf: H.L. Strack & G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (trans. M. Bockmuehl; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 76; see also G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 163-168 for a linguistic analysis, 168-172 for a literary analysis).

Elsewhere in the Talmud (bBBat 134a), a baraitha (a text of Tannaitic provenance, not included in the Mishna) is produced, which lauds the disciples of Hillel the Elder. One of his disciples (the greatest of those who are described as being “of intermediate stature”), named Yonatan ben Uzziel, is said to have set fire to the birds that flew over his head, simply by sitting and engaging with Torah. The fire motif appears also in the Palestinian Talmud’s account of Elisha ben Abuya’s apostasy (pHag 77b; likewise in the Mishna to Ruth: RutR 6:4). In that instance, it is after being impressed by the manner in which two rabbis were consumed with fire while studying that Elisha’s father sought to dedicate his infant son to the academy. In both places, the notion of calling down fire is directly related to one’s lofty learning, but the situation in our passage is a little more nuanced. Here, while RSBY and his son are both able to immolate on command, the true elevation of RSBY’s status comes about through his learning to control the new skill, and this is only achieved through an additional year of isolation.

We are told at this point in the story that twelve months is the allotted time for sinners in Gehennom, and it is possible that the cave is here serving as a representation of death/rebirth. Such might accord with the decree against RSBY’s life at the start of the narrative, and certainly accords with his reference to Gehennom at this stage in the story. His statement, to the effect that his punishment is akin to the postmortem torment that the rabbis envisaged for those who sinned, is the starkest example in this text of language shift from Aramaic to Hebrew. The preceding clause, which narrates RSBY’s subsequent seclusion as being twelve months, uses the Aramaic ירחי (“months”), while the following clause uses the Hebrew חדש (“month”). In addition to the lexical shift, there is the concomitant morphological shift: Aramaic numeral + plural noun vs. Hebrew numeral + singular noun. The emphasis thus far (to the exclusion of Elijah) on characters specifically speaking Hebrew is shortly lost, when RSBY addresses his second question to an old man in Aramaic.

Prior to this occurring, RSBY and his son are again addressed by a heavenly voice and they again leave their cave. This time, while Rabbi Elazar appears to still be on the same spiritual level as before, RSBY is now capable of healing all that his son destroys. His enigmatic statement (“My son, you and I are enough for the world”) most probably refers to the fact that their Torah learning is now sufficient for all of humanity, and RSBY is no longer disturbed by the fact that it is apparantly neglected by others. No sooner are we told this, then we are also informed of their witnessing an elderly man, rushing to get home before the onset of Shabbat (“running at twilight”), but with two bundles of myrtle in his hands. He informs them that they are supposed to correspond to the two different injunctions that concern the observation of Shabbat, as recorded in the two different versions of the decalogue (Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:12). While RSBY is presumably still contemptuous of the ignorance of his fellow Jews, the manner in which the old man goes beyond the letter of the law in order to beautify its observance is impressive for him and, even though we had previously been told that he was at peace with their ignorance, he is now thoroughly appeased.

It would appear that this line concludes the second division of the story. The first division concerned the elevation of Rabbi Yehuda and the decree against the life of RSBY, while the second concerned RSBY’s subsequent attainment of a status loftier than all of his peers. A key word that surfaces throughout the first two sections is the Aramaic verb יתב, which means “sit” (the rabbis in the beginning, RSBY and his son in sand), “dwell” (RSBY and his son in the cave) and “appeased” (the minds of both RSBY and his son, on hearing the old man’s answer). It characterises the first two sections as being more or less sedentary: while RSBY undergoes a change of some description, there is not much activity to characterise it. On the contrary, the first two sections of this story are more focused on inner developments, speech and study. Even the violence of RSBY’s anger is characterised by speech, the movement of his eyes (and the consequences that brings) and his passive return to the cave. The only person who exhibits haste within the story is the old man, whose running to perform a commandment marks the conclusion of the second section.

The third section of the story is characterised by action. RSBY has his skin massaged by his son-in-law, we receive exposition on a biblical verse related to the construction and establishment of various civic realia, and RSBY performs active services for the local population. It is more ambiguous than the previous two sections – an ambiguity that is indicated straight away by RSBY visiting a place that he had previously disparaged for its debauchery. The recording of this activity is indicative of the fact that the narrative has taken a turn and that RSBY is not the same person that he had been at the story’s beginning. It is doubtful that he has come to perceive the Romans in a more positive light, but it is entirely possible that he has now come to view their institutions from a utilitarian perspective. That is, while Rabbi Yehuda praised Roman institutions (presumably on the basis of their function), RSBY censured them on the basis of their abuse. Incapable of appreciating the world for what it could be, and mired in the perception of things as they are, RSBY dismissed the advances of the Roman empire absolutely. After his experience in isolation and his second encounter with the outside world, RSBY now has an appreciation for the good in things. While bathhouses might be places of debauchery for many, they serve a utilitarian purpose that he is happy to exploit.

It is in the bathhouse, while having his sandworn skin massaged by his son-in-law, that we are given another indication of the extent to which he had been transformed. Previously none too bright (if we are to presume that being corrected at length by one’s youngers is an indicator of this), RSBY has actually increased his knowledge despite having been away from the academy. There is a connection between his intellectual status and the frailty of his physical body: Rabbi Pinchas laments the latter, but RSBY corrects him by suggesting that, were it not for him being in so poor a state, he would not be possessed of the inner achievements that he has gained. While previously Rabbi Pinchas could provide twelve different answers for each of RSBY’s questions, RSBY can now provide twenty-four different answers for each of the questions of his son-in-law.

So great is this “miracle”, as it is phrased, that RSBY now feels that he should give something back to the world. RSBY’s desire to do something practical – through activity, rather than the passivity that earlier characterised him – is relayed to us by means of a scriptural analysis. The passage, taken from Genesis 33, describes the situation after Jacob’s encounter with his estranged brother. While originally fearful for his life, Jacob is relieved at the manner in which events turn out, and arrives at Shechem “whole”. RSBY was likewise in fear of his life, so the passage is an apt one. What follows is an analysis on the word “whole”, which is given by Rav. The section is an interpolation, brought for its concluding sentiment, which concerns what Jacob did after arriving. The verse states that he “encamped towards the city”, but the lexical similarity between the verb חנה (“encamp”) and חננ (“show mercy”) allows the rabbis to conceive of Jacob as having shown mercy to the residents of Shechem. His mercy was precipitated by his life being saved and, according to Rav, Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan, was characterised by his having established various things.

RSBY, therefore, his life having been spared, is also keen to “establish” something, although the usage of the verb תקן in this context has the implication of “fixing”. Given his new mental strength and his new spiritual transformation, RSBY wishes to repair something, the reparation of which is presumably beyond his contemporaries. Again, it is an old man that brings about the import of this task – in this instance, one who appears after RSBY is informed of a place that is suspected of having dead bodies beneath the soil. On being asked whether or not there was a precedent for suspecting any of it as being pure, the old man informs RSBY that another rabbi of the Tannaitic era, Ben Azzai, once gathered lupines that grew from the soil and consecrated them for ritual use. The story is problematic, given the possibility of bodies being interred subsequent to Ben Azzai’s horticultural activity, but RSBY takes it on face value and, on the presupposition that solid ground indicates the absence of a corpse and soft ground (perhaps by virtue of it having been moved and repacked) indicates the presence of a corpse, RSBY signposts the impure areas and renders a valuable service to the local priests, prohibited from entering a cemetary by Levitical law.

Had the story concluded here, we would have a clear development of RSBY’s character and a conclusion that demonstrates an application of his new abilities. On the contrary, the story now provides us with a troubling indictment of his fiery temper. The same old man who previously assisted him by indicating the fact that some of the ground might be pure, now slights him by declaring that he has permitted a cemetary. RSBY, who views this as a disparagement of his ruling, accuses the old man of having been present when the sages voted on RSBY’s decision and of therefore lacking the right to voice any complaint. The expression used is a striking one: lowly prostitutes take the time to beautify one another; how much moreso should disciples of the sages make one another look pleasing to the public eye? By having insulted RSBY, the old man has apparantly brought the edifice of Torah learning into disrepute and must be punished. His punishment? RSBY looks upon him and the old man dies.

Our story has now been brought full circle. In addition to featuring a bathhouse and making reference to prostitutes (who, as RSBY stated at the outset, were put in marketplaces by the Romans), the story now concludes with RSBY’s visit to a marketplace as well. The fact that he encounters Yehuda ben Gerim there only serves to indicate that we are now back to the beginning and, in an effort to redress the wrong that was originally done to him, RSBY incinerates him on the spot. How one is supposed to understand this action – especially given the fact that Yehuda ben Gerim’s “crime” was one of thoughtlessness only – is unclear. All that seems certain is that RSBY’s transformation is not one that has affected his inmost character after all, but merely his attitude towards the world around him. As we noted earlier, RSBY commenced by disparaging civic institutions and proceeded, even after a lengthy process of meditation and prayer, to disparage active, worldly behaviour. Then, in addition to having a newfound respect for bathhouses and, one presumes, marketplaces, RSBY feels compelled to do something active and productive for the community.

Jeffrey Rubenstein (Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 120) presumes that, after exiting his cave for the first time, RSBY was responsible for murdering a farmer with his gaze. Although the text does not specify a human casualty, Rubenstein’s subsequent observation is acute: if his first victim was somebody engaging in temporal life, his second victim is somebody who objects to RSBY’s engagement in the same. This, if nothing else, indicates the transformation taken place, although it is worth noting that a fundamental transformation (eg: from somebody who kills to somebody who does not) is lacking. If anything, perhaps, the final murder serves to reinforce that point. As Rubenstein observes, the tension between Torah and the outside world remains, even at the conclusion of the narrative.

There is much within RSBY’s character that contemporary readers may find objectionable. In addition to those elements that may have been so viewed by the text’s intended audience, we might also add RSBY’s attitude towards women and his willingness to leave his wife behind, despite already having suggested that the Romans were liable to torture her. The extent to which such opinions reflect on the authors and the extent to which they are employed in order to develop a character remains impossible to determine with certainty. Likewise difficult to determine is what the text is actually trying to tell us, although it seems certain that the issues with which the passage is concerned involve the relationship between Torah study and worldly existence, and the elevation of one’s intellect as a result of diligence. It is perhaps unsurprising that the tradition should have developed that RSBY was a mystic, as the relationship between study and action has been fraught for mystics throughout the ages.

On Lag BaOmer, thousands of Jews visit RSBY’s tomb on Mount Meron. Considered the anniversary of his death, and based on the tradition that his life brought the mystical secrets of Torah into the world, it offsets the preceding period of mourning – itself in commemoration of the thousands slain after the failed Bar Kochba revolt (c.132 CE). But that’s another story.

[It needs to be noted that the foregoing analysis is based solely upon the passage under consideration, and has not taken into view other information about RSBY, gleaned from elsewhere in the rabbinic literature. Those who are interested in reading more material that relates to him might consider A. Kolatch, Masters of the Talmud: Their Lives and Views (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2003), 347-349; G. Bader, The Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages (trans. S. Katz; New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1993), 352-361. Both texts provide an overview, although the second is without enumerated sources.]

The following is the text in its original language, acc. to manuscript Munich 95, and as reproduced in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 289-290. Some differences exist between this and my printed copy of the Talmud (Jerusalem: Torah LaAm, 1957), although I have relied solely upon the manuscript version as reproduced here:

ואמאי קרו ליה ראש המדברים בכל מקום

הוה יתיב רבי יהודה ורבי יוסי ורבי שמעון הוה יתיב יהודה בן גרים גבייהו פתח ר’ יהודה ואמר כמה נאים מעשיהם של אומה זו תקנו שווקים תקנו מרחצאות תקנו גשרים ר’ יוסי שתק נענה ר’ שמעון ואמ’ כל מה שתקנו לצרכם תקנו תקנו שווקים להושיב בהן זונות מרחצאות לעדן בהן גשרים ליטול מהם מכס הלך יהודה בן גרים וספר דבריהם ונשמעו למלכות אמרו יהודה שעלה יעלה יוסי ששתק יגלה לצפורי שמעון שגינה יהרג

אזל איהו ובריה טשו בי מדרשא כל יומא הוה מייתי להו דביתייהו רפתא וכוזא דמיא וכרכי כי תקיף גזירתא א”ל לבריה נשים דעתן קלות עליהן קמצערי לה ומגליא אזל טשו במערתא אתרחיש להו ניסא ואיברו להו חרובא ועינא דמיא הוו יתבי עד צוורא בחליה ביומא יתבי וגרסי והוו משלחין מנייהו לעידן צלויי נפקי ולבשי ומכסי ונפקי ומצלו והדר שלוחי מנייהו כי היכי דלא ליבלו אותיבי במערתא תליסר שני אתא אליהו אפיתחא דמערתא אמ’ מאן מודעיה לבר יוחי דאמית קיסר ובטל גזירתא

נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי זרעי אמרין מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנתנו עיניהם מיד נשרף יצתה בת קול ואמרה להחריב עולמי יצאתם חזרו למערתכם אותיביה תריסר ירחי שתא אמרו משפט רשעים בגהינם שנים עשר חדש יצתה בת קול צאו ממערתכם

נפקו כל היכא דהוה מחי ר’ אלעזר הוה מסי ר’ שמעון אמ’ לו בני דיי לעולם אני ואתה חזו ההוא סבא דהוה נקיט תרי מדני דאס’ וקרהיט ואזיל לבין השמשות אמרו ליה הני למה לך אמ’ ליה לכבוד שבת א”ל ותיסגי ליה בחד א”ל חד כנגד זכור וחד כנגד שמור א”ל חזי כמה מצוה חביבה עליהם דישראל יתיב דעתייהו

שמע ר’ פנחס בן יאיר חתני’ נפיק לאפיה עיילי לבי בני הוו קא אריך ליה לבשריה חזיא דהוה ליה פילי בבישריה והוה קא בכי וקא נתרו דמעיה ומצערו ליה א”ל אוי לי שראיתיך בכך אמ’ לו אשריך שראיתני בכך שאלמלא לא ראיתני בכך לא מצאתי בי כך דמעיקרא כי הוה מקשי רבי שמעון בן יוחי חד קושיא הוה מפרק ליה ר’ פנחס בן יאיר תריסר פירוקי ולבסוף כי הוה מקשי ר’ פנחס קושיא הוה מפרק ליה ר’ שמעון בן יוחי עשרים וארבעה פירוקי

אמ’ הואיל ואיתרחיש ניסא אתקין מילתא דכתי’ ויבא יעקב שלם עיר שכם ואמ’ רב שלם בגופו שלם בממונו שלם בתורתו ויחן את פני העיר ואמ’ רב מטבע תקן להם ושמואל אמ’ שווקים תקן להם ר’ יוחנן אמר מרחצאות תקן להם אמ’ איכא מילתא דלתקוני אמרו ליה איכא דוכתא דאית ביה ספק טומאה ואיכא לכהני צערה לאקופי אמ’ איכ’ דידע דאיתחזיק טהרה הכא א”ל ההוא סבא כאן וכאן קצץ בן עזאי תרמוסי תרומה עבד איהו נמי כל היכא דהוה קשי טהריה כל היכא דהוה רפי צייניה אמ’ ההוא סבא טהר בן יוחי בית הקברות א”ל אלמלי לא הייתה עמנו ואי נמי הייתה עמנו ולא נמנית עמנו יפה אתה או’ עכשיו שהייתה עמנו יאמרו זונות מפרכסות זו את זו תלמידי חכמים לא כל שכן יהב ביה עינא נח נפשיה נפק לשוקא חזייה ליהודה בן גרים עדיין ישנו לזה בעולם נתן עיניו בו ועשאו גל של עצמות



3 responses

17 04 2010
John Hobbins

Thanks, Simon, for a fine introduction to a difficult but obviously very important text.

12 01 2011
Galus Australis » The Silent Mind: A Jew’s Views on Meditation

[…] to the authorship of a second-century Palestinian rabbi named Shimon ben Yohai. Ben Yohai’s transformation is recorded in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, and served Jews of the sixteenth century […]

24 07 2014

Very good! It’s interesting to compare and contrast the curious case of Rashbi with Plato’s cave allegory:

“The Rashbi narrative [is] an inversion of Plato’s elitism of the philosopher-king” (p.291). Both narratives, that of Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b and Plato’s allegory of the cave in the Republic (514a–517d) “articulate the fraught relationship of the philosopher or sage with civic life and the polis” (p.279). “Absolute study is represented as almost disembodied, an idea that is further underscored by the pampering of the body in the bathhouse as part of Rashbi’s reentry into civic life” (p.287). “Both sage and philosopher escape, move away from the political world, but whereas one withdraws into a space of confinement, a protected space, the other leaves all spatial boundaries behind, it seems” (p.289). “Plato’s philosopher suffers the consequences, in his continuous effort not to submit to the powers of the this-worldly reality of the polis and transform reality in light of what he has seen in the quasi-metaphysical realm, this very act is rabbinically represented as destructive, indeed as countering the divine plan. For God sends him back into the cave: ‘A heavenly voice went out and said to them: Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!’ Rashbi has to readjust his powers of seeing… The Talmud refuses to represent the sage (or even the community of sages and their disciples) as the sole arbitrator of knowledge, as Plato does…” (p.291). “Rashbi and his son do not return to rule, nor to subject the world to their grasp of theoretical Torah. If anything, they return as enablers” (p.292). Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Plato in Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai’s Cave (B. Shabbat 33b–34a): The Talmudic Inversion of Plato’s Politics of Philosophy, AJS Review (2007), 31: 277-296.

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