Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai
In the 2nd century CE, a single man was granted the spiritual knowledge that Kabbalists had accumulated for 3,000 years before his time. Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai (Rashbi) put it all on paper and then hid it, as humanity was not ready for it. Today, we are ready for the revelation of The Book of Zohar.
Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai (Rashbi), author of The Book of Zohar (radiance) was a Tana—a great sage in the early Common Era centuries. He was also Rabbi Akiva’s direct student. Rashbi’s name is tied to numerous legends, and he is mentioned constantly in the Talmud and in the Midrash, the sacred Hebrew texts of his time. He lived in Sidon and in Meron, and he established a seminary in the Western Galilee.
Rashbi was born and raised in the Galilee (a mountainous region in today’s north of Israel). Even as a child, he was not like other children his age. Questions such as, “What is the purpose of my life?” “Who am I?” and “How is the world built?” plagued him, demanding an answer.
In those days, life in Galilee was very harsh: the Romans persecuted Jews and continually invented new laws to make their lives miserable. Among these laws was a decree that prohibited Jews from studying the Torah (then synonymous with Kabbalah).
Despite the Romans’ prohibition, however, Rashbi immersed himself in the Kabbalah and tried to understand its subtle teachings. He felt that beneath the Biblical stories lay a profound and hidden meaning, which held the answers to his persistent questions.
Gradually, Rabbi Shimon came to realize that he had to find a teacher who had already been through the spiritual path, gained experience, and could guide others up the spiritual ladder. He decided to join the group of the greatest Kabbalist of the time—Rabbi Akiva—a decision that turned out to be the turning point in Rashbi’s life.
Studying with Rabbi Akiva
Rabbi Shimon was an avid, devoted student, burning with desire to discover the Upper Force. Before long, he was one of Rabbi Akiva’s top students. He studied with Rabbi Akiva for thirteen years, and reached the highest degrees on the spiritual ladder.
The Bar-Kokheva revolt abruptly ended the great days of Rabbi Akiva’s seminary. Almost all of his 24,000 students died in plagues, and in fierce battles against the Romans. Of the 24,000 students, only five survived, and Rashbi was among them.
Rashbi was among the leaders of the Bar-Kokheva revolt against the Roman rule in the land of Israel. His resistance became even more fierce and unyielding when he’d learned how his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, had been ruthlessly executed.
The Talmud writes that once, when Rashbi spoke against the Roman rule, another Jew heard him and alerted the Roman authorities. In consequence, Rashbi was tried in his absence and was sentenced to death. The Roman emperor sent men to search for him, but to their disappointment, Rashbi seemed to have vanished into thin air.
The Cave at Piqiin
Legends have it that Rashbi and his son fled to the Galilee, hid in a cave at Piqiin, a village in the north of Israel, and remained there for thirteen years. During that time, they delved in the secrets of the wisdom of the hidden. Their efforts succeeded, and they discovered the entire system of creation.
After thirteen years in a cave, Rashbi heard that the Roman emperor had died. He could finally heave a sigh of relief. After leaving the cave, Rashbi gathered nine students and went with them to a small cave in Meron, known as The Idra Rabba (Great Assembly). With their help, he wrote The Book of Zohar, the most important book of Kabbalah.
Baal HaSulam described Rashbi and his students as the only beings who achieved perfection, the 125 spiritual degrees that complete the correction of one’s soul. When he finished his commentary on The Book of Zohar, Baal HaSulam held a festive meal to celebrate its completion. At that celebration, he stated that “…prior to the days of the Messiah, it is impossible to be awarded all 125 degrees… except the Rashbi and his contemporaries, meaning the authors of The Book of Zohar. They were awarded all 125 degrees in completeness, even though they lived prior to the days of the Messiah. Hence, we often find in the Zohar that there will not be a generation such as the Rashbi’s until the generation of the Messiah King. This is why his composition made such a strong impression in the world, since the secrets of the Torah in it occupy the level of all 125 degrees. This is also why it is said in the Zohar that The Book of Zohar will not be revealed except at the end of days, meaning in the days of the Messiah.”
The Idra Rabba (Great Assembly) and The Book of Zohar
Idra Rabba is a cave located in the northern part of Israel, between Meron and Zephath. Rashbi took his students to this cave, and there he wrote The Book of Zohar. We ordinary people find it impossible to understand how great Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai really was. He belongs, as Baal HaSulam puts it, to the highest Inner Light. This is why he had to use Rabbi Abba to put his words into writing. In The Book of Zohar, the Rashbi tells his students: “I am arranging you as follows: Rabbi Abba will write, Rabbi Elazar, my son, will study orally, and the rest of the friends will converse in their hearts” (Zohar, Haazinu).
The Book of Zohar was written in the 2nd century CE, not long after the ruin of the Second Temple and the beginning of the last exile of the people of Israel from its land. But even prior to the exile, Rashbi predicted that The Book of Zohar would only be revealed at the end of the exile. He stated that its appearance to the masses would symbolize the end of the spiritual exile: “…in it, they will come out of the exile with mercy” (Zohar, Naso).
It is also written in The Book of Zohar that its wisdom would be revealed to all toward the end of the six thousand years, the period allotted to the correction of humanity: “And when it is near the days of the Messiah, even infants in the world are destined to find the secrets of the wisdom, and know in them the ends and the calculations of redemption, and at that time it will be revealed to all” (Zohar, VaYera).
The Secret of Reincarnation
Rashbi is an incarnation of a unique soul, which coordinates and connects the Upper Force to every creation. This soul comes down into our world and incarnates in the patriarchs of Kabbalah. This is the order of its appearance: Abraham, Moses, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria), and Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam). Each incarnation of this soul promotes humanity to a new spiritual degree and leaves its mark in Kabbalah books, which serve the generations that follow.
An example of this process can be found in special sections of The Zohar called Raia MeHeimna (The Loyal Shepherd). In these parts, Rashbi speaks from a state of clothing in Moses’ soul. Another example of this is the book, Shaar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnations), where Rashbi speaks from a state of clothing in the soul of the Ari.
The Book of Zohar is undoubtedly unique and one of the world’s most renowned compositions. Since its writing, thousands of stories have been linked to The Zohar, and the book is still shrouded in mystery today. The fascination around it is so great that even though the book is completely incomprehensible to our generation without proper interpretation, millions of people diligently read it.
According to tradition, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai passed away in the presence of his friends on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer count, which starts on the first day of Passover) of the year 160 CE, and was buried in Meron. With his death, the soul of a giant Kabbalist completed its task in our world.
Rashbi fulfilled his destination. Hundreds of thousands visit his gravesite yearly, trying to sense some of the Light that he had brought to the world. The greatest Kabbalists praise his composition and repeatedly claim that The Book of Zohar is destined to bring redemption to the world.
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes about the Zohar (Ohr Yakar): “This composition, called The Book of Zohar, is like Noah’s Ark, where there were many kinds, but those kinds and families could not exist unless by entering the ark. …Thus the righteous will enter the secret of the Light of this composition to persist, and thus is the virtue of the composition, that immediately when engaging, with his desire for the love of God, it will draw him as a magnet draws the iron. And he will enter it to save his soul and spirit and his correction. And even if he is wicked, there is no fear should he enter.”
We are living in a historic time. The soul of Rashbi is completing its mission in our generation, and thanks to this spiritual giant, who lived nearly 2,000 years ago, the wisdom of Kabbalah is emerging so we may all ascend to a life of eternity and wholeness.