Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
– Carl Sagan
One of the greatest sages of all time, Shimon bar Yochai (c. 2nd century CE), also known as Rashbi, lived in the era following the destruction of the Second Temple nearly two thousand years ago. He was one of just a handful of new students of the great Rabbi Akiva, whose original 24,000 students all perished, likely at the hands of the Roman Empire. Judaism was literally on the verge of extinction when Rabbi Shimon and a few others began to teach the masses once again. However, a spy informed on bar Yochai, forcing him to hide in a cave with his son for 13 years, where they did nothing but study Torah, living off a nearby carob tree and a spring of water. They attained such a level of greatness that it is said the whole universe was sustained only in their merit. After a change in the Roman government, Shimon and his son emerged from the cave. They established an academy in Tekoa where the top minds of the day studied (including Yehuda haNasi, who would later begin the process of writing down the Oral Torah). Unfortunately, a new Roman government began persecuting Jews once more. Rabbi Shimon headed a delegation to Rome. It just so happened that the Emperor’s daughter was suffering from an incurable ailment that no physician could cure. With his mystical powers, Shimon cured the girl and for his reward, asked that the edict against the Jews be rescinded. He thus saved the community, and returned to Israel spending the rest of his life re-establishing the Jewish nation. It was on the 18th of Iyar, the 33rd day of the Omer period, that Rashbi gathered his students and began revealing the deepest secrets of the Torah. It is said that of all the secrets he revealed, just one out of 22 parts was ultimately preserved. This one volume was later published as the famous Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah. Because of this great revelation of light, Shimon bar Yochai’s extraordinary life is celebrated on Lag B’Omer (“Lag” meaning 33), with the lighting of large bonfires and many other mystical customs.
Words of the Week
There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all. – Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai