Scholarship

After Lag: Two Readings on The ‘Self-Praise’ of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai

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Josh Rosenfeld

Lag Ba-omer has passed, and by now the largest gathering of Jews in the world has dispersed from the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Rashbi) in Meron. The celebration, or hilula, at Meron has merited its own texts and liturgy, centered around piyyutim of effusive praise for the mystical hero of the day—so effusive, in fact, that it can leave even the most ardent believers with an uneasy feeling. This discomfort is compounded by statements attributed to Rashbi in rabbinic literature that appear to be self-praise, or hitpa’arut. This is at odds with expectations of how a tzaddik, certainly one of Rashbi’s caliber, should express himself.

Two approaches lie before us. On one hand, we can accept such statements, and their later iterations in songs like Bar Yohai, authored by the 16th century Libyan kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Lavi, at face value. However, the seemingly unthinking acceptance of such hitpa’arut by masses of fellow Jews can amplify our unease. Alternatively, one may opt to take a hermeneutical stance that assumes there is far more than meets the eye when a Tanna like Rashbi appears to indulge in self-aggrandizement. By means of two short texts, I wish to demonstrate the latter approach and show how it yields a more nuanced portrait of Rashbi, thus enabling us to deepen our connection to this tzaddik and the festival that has materialized around him.

Full disclosure is in order: I encountered the two texts in a pocket-sized book entitled Shivhei de-Rashbi (“The Praises of Rashbi”). It is not a book that announces itself with gold-leaf and faux leather, nor is it adorned with various letters of approbation that often occupy the first 30 pages of contemporary seforim. By all appearances, the author wishes to remain anonymous. However, inside is a tidy piece of Torah scholarship, including extensive footnotes and endnotes.

The first section is a compilation of rabbinic writings about or involving Rashbi and his son, Rabbi Elazar. It includes stories, praises, and even halakhic discussion. They are mostly taken from the tenth chapter of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, a 7th century midrashic compilation from the Land of Israel. The first passage reads as follows:[1]

Rabbi Hizkiyah [said] in the name of Rabbi Yirmiyah. This is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai would say: I have seen those of our generation destined for the world to come, and they are few. And if there are thirty of them, I and my son are among them. And if there are ten of them, I and my son are among them. And if there are two of them, I and my son are among them. And if there is only one, it is me.

As mentioned, the central question arising from this text is how to understand what on its face seems like an utterance unbecoming of a tzaddik like Rashbi. It stands to reason that the key to the message of this text lies in how we try to answer this question.

First, we must address an issue with Rashbi’s statement. How could it be that Rashbi has “seen those of our generation destined for the world to come,” yet afterward be unsure of their number? The entire passage is explicitly constructed as a parallel to Avraham’s bargaining on behalf of the people of Sodom, but in that case, Avraham did not know how many righteous people inhabited the city. Here, Rashbi says “I have seen”—yet does not know their number.

Rabbeinu Hananel (commentary on Sukkah 45b) writes that Rashbi’s initial statement indicates he did not know the exact numbers, but was able to conjecture that whomever was “destined for the world to come” was a member of a rarefied group. This is because Rashbi saw their place in the world to come, and it was small. In a similar vein, R. Meir ha-Levi Abulafia (Yad Ramah, Sanhedrin 97b) writes:

It stands to reason that we are not talking about Rashbi actually seeing [these people]; otherwise, why wouldn’t he know who they were and how many. Rather, it means to communicate that Heaven revealed to him through Divine inspiration, or in a dream, or through angelic messenger that there are very few righteous people on this level, yet they did not let him know who or exactly how many they were.

A third approach, which also demystifies the statement, is taken by Rashi (Sukkah, ad loc., s.v. “ra’iti”). Based on an assessment of his generation’s behavior, Rashbi understood that such ‘ascendant individuals’ (“benei aliyah”) are few. Taken together, the commentators understood Rashbi as making a pedagogical statement and not necessarily mere reportage of facts. Rashbi is telling us something about the nature of righteousness and the personal perspective of the tzaddik.

Rashbi’s uncertainty about the numbers of these special tzaddikim is part of his certainty that he must be one of them. At stake is not only the question of who will merit the world to come, but who justifies the existence of this world by earning a place in the next. And indeed, everyone should believe that the fate of this world rests upon them (see Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:8). If there is only one ben aliyah in the entire world, a tzaddik needs to maintain faith and individual courage that they are the one. This level of personal responsibility is a hallmark of the true ben aliyah.[2] Rather than a statement of fact—“here are those destined for the world to come; I am one of them”—we have a more perplexing statement that combines doubt about others and faith in oneself. Rashbi is expressing the mindset of the tzaddik who recognizes that they cannot depend upon others to justify the world’s existence, that the matter is solely dependent upon them. This is more explicit in Rashbi’s statement to his son after they emerge from their cave the second time: “My son, you and I are sufficient for this world” (Shabbat 33b). Thus, Rashbi’s halting statement above is not meant to be understood as spiritual braggadocio, but rather a reflection of certainty in one’s individuality and spiritual path. Ultimately, one can rely on no one else in their Divine service: “if there is only one, it is me.”

A second, more challenging text appears earlier in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana.[3] Rashbi’s apparent self-praise here also seems to come at the detriment of another rabbi mentioned in the story:

Rabbi Hizkiyah said in the name of Rabbi Yirmiyah: Eliyahu, may he be remembered for good, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi were sitting and reviewing their learning. They arrived at a heavenly teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. At that moment, Rashbi happened to pass by. They said to one another: here comes the author of this halakhah, let us arise and ask [his intent]. They arose and asked. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said [to Eliyahu]: what kind of a man is with you? [Eliyahu] responded: this is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and he is the leader of the generation. [Rashbi] asked [Eliyahu]: and has the rainbow appeared in the clouds during his time? [Eliyahu] answered him: yes. [Rashbi] said to him: if the rainbow has appeared in his time, he is not fit to see my face.

In this short story, not only do we see another instance of apparent self-praise, but is also seems to come at the expense of the Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, the leader of his generation. The story is further striking when the characters involved are considered. Eliyahu, the biblical prophet, is studying Torah with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a third century amora of the Land of Israel. Rashbi, a tanna of the second century, happens to pass by. According to pseudo-Rashi on Bereishit Rabbah (s.v. “havu yatvan”), Rashbi had long since passed. In this fact lies the key to understanding Rashbi’s troubling refusal to reveal himself to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rashbi’s apparent predilection for self-praise in general.

Eliyahu and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi share spiritual affinities. Eliyahu ascended to the heavens in a whirlwind (while alive; see 2 Kings 2:11), and is traditionally understood to weave in and out of this world and the next. The Talmud (Ketubot 77b) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi also entered Gan Eden while alive, attesting to his own unique greatness. How could it be that a figure of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s caliber, to whom Eliyahu casually reveals himself, is somehow not fit to even see the face of Rashbi? Compounding this issue is Eliyahu’s prior revelation to Rashbi himself. After Rashbi and his son had secluded themselves for twelve years, it was none other than Eliyahu who stood at the entrance to the cave to let them know that “Caesar has died and his decrees are annulled.[4] Clearly Rashbi would have well understood the level of an individual who merits a revelation of Eliyahu, and yet he still refuses to speak with Eliyahu’s study partner.

The indirect relationship between Rashbi and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi spurs us to look for a deeper understanding of Rashbi’s statement. First, what does Rashbi intend to find out when he asks if a rainbow appeared in the days of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi? Rashi (Ketubot, ad loc., s.v. “im kein”) explains that the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant that the world will not be destroyed, and a generation that merits a complete tzaddik has no need for such a sign. It is worth pointing out that in the parallel text in Ketubot, Rashbi speaks to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi directly, after Eliyahu has introduced another living person to the heavenly academy. However, the gemara in Ketubot adds that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was not completely forthcoming with Rashbi, because indeed no rainbow had actually appeared in his day. The reason he answered Rashbi in the negative was because he did not wish to take too much credit for himself as a righteous person.

Given this context, it seems that Rashbi is actually reflecting on the nature of his own personal righteousness rather than denigrating that of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. A defining feature of Rashbi’s righteousness is that it flourished in isolation. This is what lies at the root of Rashbi’s opinion in Berakhot (35b) that one should leave behind the mundane concerns of this world to be involved solely with Torah study. The gemara there concludes that this approach was only feasible for extremely rare individuals. This is also why Rashbi cannot tolerate the sight of people engaging in ordinary worldly pursuits when he exits the cave for the first time. For this, Rashbi and his son are severely rebuked by Heaven and banished to the cave once again, for another twelve months. It is none other than Eliyahu who invites them out, helping guide a ‘reformed’ Rashbi and Rabbi Elazar out into the world.

We might surmise that the presence of Eliyahu together with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi serves to remind Rashbi of their previous interaction. In fact, according to a number of commentators on the text as it appears in Bereishit Rabbah, Rashbi doesn’t simply “pass by” them, but rather it is Eliyahu and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who seek out Rashbi at the entrance to his burial cave.[5] Rashbi is perhaps indicating to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that, while alive, he had learned a lesson from Eliyahu and was encouraged to emerge into a mundane world, yet now there is no need to do so. Read this way, Rashbi is criticizing himself rather than engaging in self-praise. Rashbi recognizes what may have been termed the spiritual flaw in his righteousness during his lifetime—his need for seclusion and the enormous, almost unbridgeable chasm between his personal spirituality and that of ordinary people. If not for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s havruta, perhaps Rashbi would never have exited the cave. Rashbi must know that this member of the living has internalized that message well from Eliyahu, as attested by the fact that Eliyahu introduces him to Rashbi as “the leader of the generation.” If so, it is not so much a question of merit but instead a question of propriety for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rashbi to interact at this juncture. They will not directly interact until Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is escorted into heaven by Eliyahu, as related in Ketubot 77b. Even there, Rashbi sits alone upon a pile of golden pillows, yet we also find out that in fact Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was at the level of a rainbow-blocking tzaddik as Rashbi.

While difficulties with these texts remain, it is clear that statements by Rashbi that superficially appear as hitpa’arut yield fascinating depth when considered with an interpretive eye that rejects the possibility that such an individual would utter simple self-praise. I would be remiss if I left out that the impetus to write this emerged from studying one of these texts with a friend, who reacted with an insult to Rashbi’s character. This might be understandable if these statements are taken at face value, but the honor of Torah demands that we adopt a manner of study that minimizes our own personal hitpa’arut as much as possible when encountering them. Rashbi is traditionally seen as the ‘father’ of Jewish mysticism, the esoteric Torah. While it is true that the readings presented here are by no means conclusive, it can be argued that the entirety of our mystical tradition rests upon reading in between the lines, moving beyond the words on the page, and coming within grasp of the ineffable secret reserved for the adept.

How fitting a tribute to Rashbi to attempt to do the same with these texts as well.


[1] Variants appear in Sukkah 45b and Sanhedrin 97b (though without the last line; readers are invited to consider why). Shivhei de-Rashbi cites parallel texts in Hashmatot ha-Zohar, no. 17 and Zohar Chadash, Vayera.

[2] See Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan no. 5: “everyone must say that the world was only created for my sake, which means that if the world was created for my sake, I need to take notice and see constantly to the rectification of this world, and to repair its flaws – to pray for it.” Much has been made of the hitpa’arut of Rabbi Nahman himself, but it should be pointed out that many of the seemingly self-aggrandizing statements attributed to Rabbi Nahman are similar to those of Rashbi. The connection between Rebbe Nahman and Rashbi runs far deeper, however. The introduction to Likkutei Moharan, Rebbe Nahman’s masterwork, is essentially a paean to and an appeal to the teachings of Rashbi.

[3] A parallel text appears in Bereishit Rabbah 35:2.

[4] Shabbat 33b; Maharal (Netzah Yisrael, ch. 29) writes that Eliyahu often visited Rashbi in the cave.

[5] See Rabbi Hanokh Zundel ben Yosef, Etz Yosef, ad loc.