Lag Ba’Omer is a day of immense rejoicing in honor of the holy Tanna, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and this custom can be found in the words of the Poskim. It is customary to increase one’s happiness on this and Tachanun (confessional prayers) is omitted. This year (5779), Lag Ba’Omer will fall out tomorrow, Thursday, actually beginning from tonight. Let us therefore take this opportunity to recount an incident illustrating the greatness of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
The Tannaim (sages in the era of the Mishnah) were truly like angels and we have no conception of their lofty spiritual levels. Nevertheless, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was uniqueness was evident in the miracles he brought about and as being the unequivocal master of Kabbalistic knowledge. Indeed, it was he who authored the holy Zohar, serves as the cornerstone for knowledge of the hidden Torah.
The Gemara (Me’ilah 17a) recounts the following story: Once, the Roman Empire decreed that the Jews in Israel would no longer be permitted to keep Shabbat or circumcise their children. Rabbi Reuven ben Istrobeli then took a forelock haircut (a popular haircut among the Romans at the time) and went to sit among the highest echelons of the Roman government. He asked them, “If one has an enemy, is it better for one’s enemy to be rich or poor?” They replied, “It is certainly better for him to be poor!” He told them, “If so, it would be better for the Jews not to work on Shabbat.” They agreed and abolished the decree against keeping Shabbat.
Rabbi Reuven asked, “If one has an enemy, is it better for the enemy to be healthy and strong or weak?” They answered, “It is certainly better for him to be weak!” He told them, “If so, let the Jews circumcise their newborn boys on the eighth day and they will be weak.” They agreed and abolished the decree against circumcising their children.
Sometime later, they became aware that he was actually a Jew and the Romans reinstated all of their decrees. The Sages of Israel wondered who should go to annul these decrees and finally the decided, “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai should go as he is accustomed to experiencing miracles!” Rabbi Elazar bar Rabbi Yose accompanied Rabbi Shimon.
On their way, a certain demon by the name of Ben Temalyon approached them. The demon asked Rabbi Shimon, “Would you like me to go with you?” Rabbi Shimon cried and said, “Our forefather’s maidservant (i.e. Hagar, maidservant of Avraham Avinu) merited that an angel should come to her three times and I did not merit this even once, as I am only approached by a demon! In any event, let the miracle come, even if only through a demon.” The demon then accompanied the sages. Rabbi Shimon then asked the demon, “What should we do?” The demon replied, “I will enter the Caesar’s daughter to fall ill and you will then be able to nullify the decree.”
Ben Temalyon quickly caused the Caeser’s daughter to become insane. When Rabbi Shimon arrived, he told the Caesar, “I can heal your daughter.” He entered the room and whispered in her ear, “Ben Temalyon, get out! Ben Temalyon, get out!” The demon exited the girl’s body and she was immediately healed. The Caesar said, “Now, request whatever you wish. Enter my vaults and take anything you want.” They then entered the Caesar’s vaults and found the scroll upon which the decrees against the Jewish nation were written. They took it, tore it up, and thus annulled these decrees from upon the Jewish nation.
The lesson we derive from this story is that we can never know where salvation will arrive from. When the State of Israel was established approximately seventy years ago and the heads of the government were not Torah-observant people (and some were actually quite distant from leading a Torah-lifestyle), Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l exclaimed, “In any event, let the miracle come. To Rabbi Shimon, Hashem sent Ben Temalyon, and to us, Hashem sent Ben Gurion!”