Greco-Roman Period
Later Jewish mystical tradition saw the tanna Simeon bar Yohai as a major figure in the development of Jewish mysticism, even identifying him as author of the Zohar, a great medieval compilation of hidden Jewish lore. In this selection, we hear of the years he spent in a cave where he was later said to have acquired his esoteric knowledge. This narrative is typical of a number of stories in Rabbinic literature which cast sages as having extraordinary powers so that those who sin against them are miraculously destroyed.

Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Simeon [bar Yohai] were sitting. And Judah ben
Gerim was sitting near them. Rabbi Judah began and said, “How great are the deeds of
this [Roman] nation! They made markets; they made bathhouses; they made bridges.”
Rabbi Yose was silent. Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai answered and said, “What they made,
they made for themselves. They made markets so they could set prostitutes there,
bathhouses so they could enjoy themselves, bridges to collect a toll.” Judah ben Gerim
went and repeated their words which were heard by authorities.

[The authorities] said, “Judah who elevated will be elevated, Yose who was silent will
be exiled to Sepphoris, and Simeon who disgraced will be killed.” 228

He [Rabbi Simeon] and his son went and hid in the house of study. Every day his wife
brought him bread and a jug of water, and they ate.

When the decree was harshened, he said to his son, “Women have a weak constitution;
perhaps they will torture her and she will reveal us.” They went and hid in a cave. A
miracle occurred and a carob tree and a well of water were created for them. They used to
remove [their clothing] and sit up to their necks in sand. All day they used to commit
traditions to memory, and at the time of prayer they dressed, covered and prayed. And
then they took off their clothes so that they would not wear out.

They lived in the cave for twelve years. Elijah came and stood at the opening of the
cave. He said, “Who will tell the son of Yohai that Caesar is dead and his decree was

They went out. They saw people plowing and planting. He [Rabbi Simeon] said, “They
are forsaking eternal life 229 and occupying themselves with temporal life.” 230 Every place
they cast their eyes was immediately burned.

A heavenly voice came out and said, “Did you come out to destroy my world? Return to
your cave!” They returned and lived in the cave for twelve months. They said, “The
sentence of the wicked in Gehinom is twelve months.” A heavenly voice came forth [and
said,] “Get out of your cave.”

They went out. Everything that Rabbi Eliezer destroyed, Rabbi Simeon repaired.
Rabbi Simeon said, “My son, I and you are enough for the world!” 231

When the Sabbath was about to start they saw an old man carrying two bundles of
myrtle, running at twilight. They said to him, “Why do you need these?”

[He said to them,] “In honor of the Sabbath.”

They said to him, ‘‘And isn’t one enough for you?”

He said to them, “One is for ‘remember’ (Ex. 20-8), and one is for ‘keep’” (Deut. 5-12).
He said [to his son], “See how the commandments are beloved by Israel!” Their minds
were at ease.

His son-in-law, Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair, heard and went out to meet him. He took him
into a bathhouse. When he was treating his flesh, he saw that there were cracks in his
skin. He started crying and his tears flowed and caused him pain. He said to him, “Woe to
me that I saw you thus!”

He said to him, “Blessed are you that you saw me thus, because had you not seen me
thus, you would not have found me thus [learned]. 232 In the beginning, when Rabbi
Simeon bar Yohai asked one question, Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair would give twelve
answers. In the end, when Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair would ask a question, Rabbi Simeon
bar Yohai would give twenty-four answers.

[Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai] said, “Since a miracle occurred, 233 let me go repair
something.” 234 As it says- “…and Jacob arrived whole [to the city of Shechem]” (Gen.
33-18). Rav says, “Whole in his body, whole in his money, and whole in his Torah.”
“…and he found favor in the city.” Rav says, “he established coins for them.” And
Samuel says, “he established markets for them.” Rabbi Yohanan says, “He established
bathhouses for them.”

He said, “Is there something that needs repair?”

They said to him, “There is a plot of land where there is a question of uncleanliness and
it disturbs the priests to go around it.” 235

He said, “Is there a person who knows that there is pure [land] there?”

A certain old man said to him, “Here ben Zakkai pulled out lupines for the priestly
portion.” 236 He also did as he did- 237 wherever [the ground] was hard, he declared it pure,
wherever it was loose, he marked it. 238

The old mansaid, “Bar Yohai [alone] purified the cemetery!” 239

He said to him, “If you had not been with us, or if you had been with us and had not
agreed with us, you spoke well But since you were with us and did agree with us, they
will say, ‘Prostitutes beautify one another, don’t scholars do the same?’” 240 [Rabbi
Simeon bar Yohai] put his eye on him, and [the old man] died.

He went out into the street and saw Judah ben Gerim. He said, “This one is still in the
world?” 241 He put his eyes on him and turned him into a pile of bones.

227. Trans. A. Oded.

228. Here the section written in tannaitic Hebrew ends, and there begins a later Aramaic narrative.

229. The study of Torah.

230. Earning a living.

231. It is sufficient for the world that we have studied the Torah and thus sustained it in the time of

232. Had I not suffered in the cave, I would not have been able to study during the time of the persecution.

233. In gratefulness for my survival.

234. Let me undertake actions to help others.

235. Priests are forbidden from contracting impurity of the dead and had to take an inconvenient, circuitous
route to avoid becoming impure.

236. Yohanan ben Zakkai was a priest, so this proved that part of the field had been pure.

237. Like Yohanan ben Zakkai,he picked lupines, a type of legume.

238. Where the ground was hard, he was sure no grave lay beneath. Where it was soft, it was possible that
there was a grave.

239. Excluding himself; as if he had not participated.

240. Simeon bar Yohai objected that if even prostitutes could cooperate with one another, so could Rabbis!

241. He is alive despite having repeated conversations which should have been private and having thus
caused the persecution of the Jews.