What Lurks Within?

[Edited to add: sorry, Jewschool ate my HTML. Hopefully fixed now.]

The Story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the Cave.

You probably know this one, but you’ve never heard me tell it. It’s Shabbat 33b, if you want to read the original, but I find a certain degree of paraphrasing makes for more vivid retelling. And if your eyes are glazing over with “ugh, not another homily on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Cave,” unglaze them, it’s okay, this post isn’t sappy.

Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were sitting, and Yehudah ben Gerim was with them.

Rabbi Yehudah said, Aren’t the Romans great? They’ve done all this good stuff for us! Super markets, lovely bathhouses, and absolutely ripping bridges.

Rabbi Yose said nothing.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, Huh, they made markets so’s they could find whores, bathhouses for pleasuring themselves, and toll-bridges for ripping people off.

Yehudah ben Gerim spread this around (Careless Talk Costs Lives) and the Romans weren’t best pleased. They praised Rabbi Yehudah, exiled Rabbi Yose, and decreed that Rabbi Shimon should die.

Interlude on Yehudah ben Gerim, added in response to comments. Yes, this means “son of converts,” and the reader is cautioned against dismissing this with a “ugh, disgusting attitudes about converts, rotten Talmud.”

Remember “gerim” also means “strangers,” and that the Jews are in a particularly insular mindset at the moment. We’ve just had the Bar Kochba revolt; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva, who supported the revolt and ended up being tortured to death. R’ Shimon bar Yochai and his chums aren’t so inclined to trust those on the outskirts of the community. Read it as dissing on converts if you will, but don’t get too invested in that. We continue:

Rabbi Shimon went and hid in the beit midrash. (This was kind of silly, I mean where else would you look for Jews?) Then he decided that wasn’t a good place and went and hid in a cave. (Caves are good places to go if you want to be terribly ascetic.) He and his son buried themselves up to the neck in sand (so they were totally disembodied and thus very intellectual), and studied all day, sustained by a miraculous carob tree.

Twelve years pass, and one day Elijah the prophet drops by saying hey guys, the Romans have calmed down, you can come out now. When they came out of the cave, they saw people doing agriculture, and Rabbi Shimon was jolly miffed that people would be doing such mundane and materialistic things as producing food, when they ought to be focused on spiritual things and learning Torah. He was so miffed that everything he looked at went up in flames.

A voice came from heaven and said HEY, don’t do that! get back in your cave! so they went back into the cave, and they stayed there for twelve months, that being the amount of time the wicked spend in Hell. Then they came out again.

Rabbi Shimon’s son was still somewhat overzealous and went around igniting people, but Rabbi Shimon healed them because he’d learned his lesson.

What a lovely story. Are you sick yet?

This is apparently a nice story about balancing learning and real life, often used that way by well-meaning teachers to stimulate discussion about which is greater out of study and action; famously, the answer is study-because-it-leads-to-action.

(I think this is a rather silly question, it’s like asking which is greater out of chickens and eggs. I really hope that the rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of this, and hoped that their audience would be also, but I have never seen anyone else say so.)

Observe that the entire impetus of the story is this incident where the three rabbis are talking about the Romans. Without that, there would be no story, no lesson, nothing. What is the incident? Three rabbis sitting around gossiping.

They aren’t doing any of that stuff where you bring prophetic verses and compare the Romans to evil Babylon or Assyria or Amalek. They’re just sitting around chatting. This is not study, and it is not action. It is idle time-wasting.

Rabbi Shimon is cross with the farmers because they are not philosophising, yet surely sitting around gossiping is much worse than farming? Even if farming isn’t study, it is at least action, so what gives?

What gives?

At some point, Rabbi Shimon went to a (Roman) bathhouse, and a chum of his bewailed the horrible state his body was in after spending twelve years in a sandpit (remember that, we’ll come back to it). On the whole, he was pretty mellow, and decided to give thanks for the miracles which had befallen him by doing some good in the world. “What needs fixing?” he asked, and he went to the (Roman) city of Tiberias, where there was some issue with ritual impurity which meant the city’s priests had to take the (Roman) long way round and it was annoying. And he sorted it out so the priests didn’t have to go the long way round any more.

Some guy said Rabbi Shimon had been out of line, and Rabbi Shimon wasn’t impressed, and killed him with his scary fiery eyes.

Then Rabbi Shimon went out to the (Roman) market and ran into Yehudah ben Gerim. Fancy meeting you here, he said, and turned him into a heap of bones.

Aha, obviously he hadn’t learned his lesson properly, and we can leave this story knowing that it’s jolly hard to overcome zeal and maintain a sensible study-action balance, etc. A message as sweet as it is utterly trite.

Naturally, I find triviality as irritating as saccharinity, so when people leave off at this point, as they do all too often, it makes me Sad.

Down with triviality! The Messianic arc

So let’s ask what Elijah was doing there.

Elijah pops up (amongst other things) when Messianic figures are around. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is one of the figures in his generation who had the potential to usher in the Messianic era, and in part, this is a story about how his Messianic potential trickles away. He starts off with unlimited zeal, terrific scholarship, super fiery eyes…and as twelve years pass in the cave, his scholarship becomes more concentrated (note, by the way, the suffering-of-the-messiah trope; twelve years in a wilderness, buried in sand, horrible physical affliction…), but his connection to the real world wanes. Messiahs need to be concentrated spirituality, but embodied – part of the real world. And he loses that side of himself while he does nothing but study.

Nonetheless, he emerged, and he could still have retrieved the situation, except that he was so out of touch that instead of having Messianic mercy on the world he burned it up. And when he came out of the cave a second time, he’d mellowed so much that he was pretty much just an ordinary person, and all the Messianic potential had trickled away. Instead of doing the Messiah’s job of large-scale tikkun olam, fixing the world, he potters about fiddling with cemeteries and arguing with his colleagues. He even had to ask what needed fixing, so far removed from the people was he. A Messianic arc which fizzles out into obscurity.

This is one of the narratives in the story as it stands. Looking at the story as part of a redactional unit gives another picture.

The story beneath: tragedy and nostalgia *

The Babylonian Talmud contains many of these failed-Messiah stories. One might be excused for thinking that the Babylonian Talmud, redacted centuries after the messianic fervour of the first century had died down, after generations of Jews had lived and died never knowing the Holy Land, after all hope of a restored Temple had gone – that it might be a bit cynical as regards messiahs.

Indeed, that messianic stories such as these might appear to preserve good messianic values on the surface, but underlying them might be a current of tragedy, of nostalgia for the days when Elijah roamed the land and the salvation of the world seemed imminent. The Talmudic redactor is living at the end of the period of great sages, in an age of decline, when the great yeshivot are a fading memory and the Jews are so comfortable in Persia that they will never return to Jerusalem. This is the voice telling the story. He has to hold out messianic hope, but he’s been waiting a long time.

Grotesquerie and cynicism **

Recall that, amongst other things, this story appears to be assessing the relative merits of study and action. In that case, why on earth does it frame the story with two scenes having to do with neither? It starts with gossip, and it ends with petty venegance. If not precisely comedy, this can definitely be described as grotesquerie, in my book.

More wry humour: observe that Rabbi Shimon disses the Romans’ markets, bathhouses, and civil infrastructure. When he emerges from his cave because the Romans don’t want to kill him any more, he goes to the bathhouse, he goes to the market, he trots around on the infrastructure.

The Talmud isn’t stupid. It uses grotesque humour to make points.

What’s the point here? Think like the redactor again. He’s distilling the learning of the past half-dozen centuries into narrative form, because there are no longer enough scholars to know all the learning. A vast mass of ancient traditions, creative exegesis, brilliant logic, communal history, laws, and customs, is all being cut and pasted into the form we know today, lest it be lost entirely as its teachers die out. If you’d said to the redactor “Judaism is in its worst-ever crisis and in imminent danger of total extinction,” he would have given you an award for understatement. When you’d explained what you meant, obviously.

And for what? Action? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is living in the period immediately following the Bar Kochba revolt, when the Jews tried to take action and failed miserably. The redactor is living in exile in immoral Babylon, the Temple has not been rebuilt, the Messiah has not come, the Jews are assimilating like nobody’s business, and the poor old redactor doesn’t see any action happening to make life any better. No, the merit of study has not redeemed the Jews, it has not led to action, neither study nor action has proved of any use – we might just as well have spent all our time sitting around gossiping, because we’ve turned into a heap of bones.

What gives, really?

We’ve redeemed this story from being sweetly inspirational, but in so doing it’s become rather bleakly cynical. Merits of study and action? Messianic hope? Failed messiahs, idle talk, and heaps of bones.

Of course, you don’t have to read the story all the time on every layer. Maybe just seeing that layer of pain is enough, and then you can read the story on its own terms and draw what lessons you like from it. Maybe bleak cynicism is more palatable than pious homily. Maybe just as one needs to maintain a study-action balance, and remember that they have a chicken-egg relationship, one needs to maintain a cynicism-piety balance, and remember that they too have a chicken-egg relationship.

* Cribbed from Limmud sessions with Daniel Landes
** Cribbed from Limmud sessions with Daniel Boyarin

Originally posted at Hatam Soferet.

Filed under Ancient, History, Torah

7 Responses to “What Lurks Within?”

  1. I don’t think the redactor of the Bavli thought Judaism was in crisis.


    Amit · June 30th, 2009 at 8:46 am
  2. I do think this is part of a trend in the bavli to pointedly criticize and mock the sages. But not because “Judaism is in crisis”. I don’t think it was even a concept for the Talmudic rabbis.


    Amit · June 30th, 2009 at 8:53 am
  3. Amit, I think you’re dead wrong on this. The whole point of redacting the Talmud was to direct the development of (rabbinic) Judaism. If the destruction of the Temple, the exiling of (most of) the people, and the decision to move forward in a new direction (rather than attempt to rebuild a third temple or reestablish localized shrines) doesn’t mark a crisis point in Judaism, I don’t know what would.


    dlevy · June 30th, 2009 at 9:05 am
  4. dlevy, the temple was destroyed in 70. The Babylonian Talmud was redacted, at the earliest, in 500.
    (Also, check your facts: the majority of Jews left Palestine during and after the crusades. The Geniza points to a live and kicking Jewish presence in Palestine up to the 9th c., a community which produced Midrash, Piyyut, Halakha and was obliterated not by the Romans but by crusade and famine. Mostly famine).


    Amit · June 30th, 2009 at 9:56 am
  5. I had a really hard time following this post, and there were some sentences that seem to have been abandoned in the middle of writing them…I really like what you’re doing here, but I wonder if it could be edited or laid out in a more helpful way.


    Tamar · June 30th, 2009 at 11:05 am
  6. Amit, I know full well when the BT was redacted and I also know redaction isn’t an instantaneous occurrence. The shift from the Temple cult to rabbinic/exilic Judaism was a major crisis and one that didn’t resolve itself overnight. The BT weds together texts from several generations, some more in crisis mode than others, but all trying to figure out how to deal with this major shift. The redactors couldn’t even make one clear decision on how to talk about sacrifice and the Temple — is it something from the past or something going on or something we hope to restore? We see a bit of all those perspectives.

    The Jews left in Palestine aren’t relevant to the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud – that’s a text coming from the point of view of those who left.


    dlevy · June 30th, 2009 at 11:48 am
  7. that’s a text coming from the point of view of those who left.
    Framing the history of the Talmud in stark terms of exile/temple is simplistic. Do you really think the temple has anything to do with this story?
    The babylonians, by the way, would tell you they left because God told them to, after the first destruction, and that their Babylon was holier than anything.


    Amit · June 30th, 2009 at 1:11 pm

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