May 9, 2012
Immediately after the holiday of Pessah, starts the annual semi-mourning period which coincides with the period of the 'Omer,' which was traditionally a happy agricultural period. A Talmudic legend has it that a Jewish sage (Rabbi Akiba) and his students were murdered during this period, and ever since, it has evolved into a period of semi-mourning.
The custom of mourning during the Omer itself is an interesting one. Mourning is not in the Talmud and both Alfassi (HaRIF) and later Maimonides (HaRaMBaM) make no mention whatsoever of the custom of mourning, thus, it can be conjectured that this custom came to Spain from Germany or France with the arrival of Rabbi Asher (HaRosh) in the 14th century.
The period of semi-mourning lasts for 33 days, which is said to coincide with the day in which Rabbi Akiba's students were no longer being murdered by the Romans. Thus, every year on the 33rd day of the period of the counting of the Omer, Jews no longer avoid music, avoid parties or hold back from celebrations. This joyful day also is associated with the anniversary of the death of one of the Tannaim (teachers), of the Mishnah period sage known as Shim'on bar Yohai (c.220 CE)-the supposed author of the kabbalistic work, the Sefer Zohar. This kabbalistic work, as well as Shim'on bar Yohai, have long been associated with the concept and paradigm of 'goodness' and 'light.' In modern times, the idea of light, has since evolved into one of fire. And in Israel, where Shim'on bar Yohai is said to be buried, they celebrate on Lag La'Omer with tremendous music, fanfare and fire.
"Bon Fires" & the Erroneous Connection Linking Lag La'Omer & Shim'on bar Yohai
On Lag La'Omer, the custom in Israel and across the world, is to make huge bonfires and to celebrate in proximity to them (which is not unlike what Zoroastrian fire-worshipers do). In Israel, slaughtered sheep will have gasoline or other flammable liquids poured on them, they will be set on fire, and tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jews will dance around the pyres all night "in honor of Shim'on bar Yohai."
This begs the question, why do these Jews do this? We have no national memory or history as to when this rabbi even died, let alone a source for celebrating the anniversary of his death-or any one else's death-in this manner. The sages of the Talmud, nor any of the Rishonim (early rabbinical leaders), ever mention Shim'on bar Yohai dying on Lag La'Omer; and, as a general rule, Jews do not make a Yom Tov on a day that is not mentioned by the sages.
Rabbi Eliezer Brodt, a contemporary Judaic scholar of Jerusalem, writes that "the Ari," Rabbi Yishak ben Shelomo Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), a Spanish speaking rabbi of Jerusalem, does not mention the death of Shim'on bar Yohai in his writings, nor anything connecting Shim'on bar Yohai's death and Lag La'Omer. He says that what does exist however, is a printing mistake-one that can be found in the first edition of Luria's Peri Ess Hayyim (1785). The error is found where it says, "Instead of saying 'she-meit' (that he died) it has a very similar, but entirely different word, samach (was joyous). The letter chet was apparently confused for a tav in the later version, causing the whole mistake!"
He goes on to explain that the "Hida," Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (1724 Jerusalem - 1806 Livorno) in his work Ma'aret Ayin (1805), writes that the Peri Ess Hayyim is "full of mistakes," including the relation between that of Shim'on bar Yohai's death and Lag La'Omer. In regard to mistakes in this book, other rabbis have agreed that the Peri Ess Hayyim contains errors, including the late Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who wrote in a letter that there is a printing mistake in the Peri Ess Hayyim. Brodt says Rabbi Yaakov Hillel of Jerusalem has confirmed, "based on many early manuscripts" of Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1543 Damascus -1620 Safed), nothing shows Shim'on bar Yohai died on Lag La'Omer.
Erroneous Attribution of the Zohar
While popular culture among religious Jews is to attribute the writing of the Zohar to Shim'on bar Yohai, both secular and religious scholars of ancient Biblical studies have proven beyond a doubt that the Zohar was not of ancient Mishnaic origin, but was actually written near Barcelona in the 14th century by Moshe ben Shem-Tov DeLeon (1250-1305) of Guadalajara, Spain. He was a philosopher, and practitioner of kabbalah, who had ascribed his work to Shim'on bar Yohai, most likely for pecuniary interests.
We know the Zohar was written in 14th century Western Europe and not in ancient Palestine, as it contains numerous inaccuracies in language, personalities, place names, topography of Palestine, and the inclusion of Spanish colloquial and familiar Iberian Arabic phrases have been translated into a pseudo-Aramaic. Further, it includes vowel-points and cantillation marks which did not even exist during the period of the Mishnah, and those cantillation marks which were used, were written according to the Spanish Sephardic custom, not Yemenite or other earlier tradition which would have been the norm-considering the 'Sephardic people' hadn't even been in existence during the period of the Mishnah. Judaic philosopher Ephraim Rubin says:
The Zohar even mentions the saying of the Kol Nidrei prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement. We know that the first to say Kol Nidrei with that timing were the 9th century Babylonians [700 years after the life of Shim'on bar Yohai], and even then many Jewish leaders fervently opposed the practice. The Talmud mentions a specific text for the abolishing of the next years' vows, to be said on Rosh haShana. Therefore, Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai did not write this…
Almost immediately from the time it was released, rabbis of the period questioned the authenticity of the Zohar, this includes the famous Rabbi Isaac of Acre, a man in which circumstances had taken him to flee Palestine to Spain where he met DeLeon. Questioning DeLeon's authorship, DeLeon took an oath that he had a copy of the Zohar written by Shim'on bar Yohai in his house at Ávila. However, DeLeon died before he could return to Ávila and obtain it. Rabbi Isaac then spoke with a man who had advised him DeLeon's wife and daughter had revealed to the wife of a certain Rabbi Yosef, the fact that Moses DeLeon had written the book himself in an effort to earn money for his family.
Over the centuries several prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Elijah DelMedigo (1458-1493), of Crete, later director of the Yeshiva of Padua, Italy; Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Mi-Modena (1571-1648), of Venice; and the prominent German rabbi, Jacob Emden (1697-1776), all wrote extensively on the erroneous attribution of the Zohar as the work of Shim'on bar Yohai.
The Ever Increasing Trend to Make Shim'on 'ben' Yohai a Saint
Over the centuries, while many have called the Zohar what it is-a book of Medieval Spanish origin, others have attempted (and continue to attempt) to essentially canonize it. The printed works by rabbis and scholars who have questioned or shown that the Zohar had been invented in Spain, have had their works censored. Whether in a 17th century yeshiva in Europe, or a Jewish bookstore in an Orthodox section of Brooklyn in 2012, their names are often tarnished, belittled or marginalized. This is done by those who feel it is more important to go along with the "popular idea" that the Zohar is from the period of the Mishnah, when it has been proven otherwise, several times over.
The truth is, the Zohar is a post-Mishnaic work, that was published during a period which ushered in the beginning of the Renaissance period in Europe-and not during ancient Temple-period Jerusalem. Therefore, the Zohar (then as now), should have little authority in a halakhic (Jewish legal) sense when compared to the Talmud. Yet, those who have blinders on and continue to perpetuate the myth that the Zohar was written by Shim'on bar Yohai, also frequently ascribe great authority to it. These people are blindly following a tradition which is based upon one of the longest running false 'urban rumors' in the history of post-Biblical Jewish history.
Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa states how most of those who perpetuate the Zohar origins as being from the Mishnah period see the issue: "If the Zohar represents the work of Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai…then the teachings of the Zohar must be seen as part of the body of normative rabbinic Judaism, carrying at least as much authority as other Midrashic compilations such as the Mishnah and the Talmud…" Yet, he goes on to explain the truth-which is that the Zohar has no authority over that which is in either the Mishnah or Gemara (the Talmud): "If the Zohar, on the other hand, is the brilliant work of the Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon…then the ideas and values embodied in [it] have much less normative import for subsequent Judaism."
It completely goes against the corpus of Judaism and halakhah that the Mishnah nor the Gemara (the Oral Law, the Torah shebbe'al peh) would ever be superseded by the Zohar--but sadly, it is done more frequently than people think, just like the custom of dancing around a large fire in the street.
Note: All the websites which talk about bonfires and show men dancing around--all the websites which state as fact that Shim'on 'ben' Yohai died on a certain date--all the websites which people turn to and see organizations such as the OU, AISH, the Star-K and others repeating that Shim'on 'ben' Yohai died on a certain date--they are all wrong.
That is not a personal opinion, that is truth. Their large emotional investment and parroting of the same message, does not make the message true. Judaism is from Torah and Torah is law, and legal examination is required when analyzing a purported historic truth related to the law--Torah--the Oral Torah in this case. Sadly, the old time process of seeking and raising funds from the public (donations toward a community or yeshiva), are often linked with a "holiday" or other "special day." This custom was very very popular in the Holy Land in the 19th century. Today, if in fact no one is seeking to raise funds on certain occasions--this does not change the fact that most of the worshiping of men such as Shim'on 'ben' Yohai and Baal Ha Ness, originated with such process and for such reason.