BY RABBI ZELL
The vocalist Joanie Sommers was onto something in her 1962 hit, Johnny Get Angry. Little did she realize, that when expressing “I want a brave man, I want a caveman” she might very well have been referring to the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai spent 13 years of his life as a caveman…out of necessity. Because of the disparaging remarks he made about the Romans, he discovered that a price had been placed on his head by the Roman authorities. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was wanted dead or alive. And so, together with his son Eliezer, he sought refuge in a cage to avoid capture. True, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was not the only person to avoid capture by the Romans by hiding in a cave. It is how Bar Yochai, as he is commonly known, managed as a caveman, that lives on in posterity.
Anthropologists tell us that cavemen were exclusively carnivores. Had our heavenly maker intended for cavemen to eat greens, He would have put them on the face of this earth as herbivores. Cavemen would have come into this world as cattle or sheep. The Talmud tells us that such was not the case for rabbinic cavemen. Rabbinic cave men – certainly in the case of Bar Yochai – ate by the grace of G-d, in the most literal sense. Bar Yochai and his son Eliezer subsisted on a strict diet of carob and water, thanks to a carob tree that miraculously appeared outside the door of his cave, and a brook that mysteriously began to flow, mere steps from the opening of the cave. Why any of his many students did not furnish their revered rabbi and his son we do not know, in that Bar Yochai and his son were ancient Israel’s “best-kept secret”, with everyone except for the Romans knowing exactly where to find this rabbinic great and his son. Another thing we know, is that such a meager diet, did not seem to have any ill effects on his physical well-being, as was evident in a conversation we have record of, soon after the Roman authorities eventually dropped all charges against Bar Yochai.
It’s not the size that counts. At least as far as the human brain. The very same anthropologists who provided us with information about the brain size of cavemen were quick to point out that bigger does not necessarily mean better. Those same anthropologists seemed to think that when it came to intelligence, cavemen left much to be desired. I caution those anthropologists to think again. Cavemen realized that the same animals that provided cavemen with their meals were also well suited to provide cavemen with their clothing. Cavemen dressed in animal hides. These hides – especially the heavier hides – provided excellent protection from the cold. Yet, neither Bar Yochai nor his son would have known from animal hides or any other clothing for that matter because the only clothing that they seemed to have worn was the clothing that they had on their bodies when they entered the cave. No different than their food supply, we do not know whether any student was able to bring along any clothing on the daily visits. What we do know, is that with exception of prayer time, father and son sat naked, covered with sand an entire day while they studied and disseminated Torah. As a result, their skin was completely covered with abrasions and sores because of the inordinate amount of time they sat covered in sand.
A fair question to ask would be, how do those who seek asylum in a cave, while away their time? Perhaps it was through the equivalent of playing games of solitaire or bouncing a ball against the wall of a cave or rigorous exercise. Bar Yochai didn’t have time for any of this. He was much too occupied studying with his son; he was busy teaching his students who made their way to the cave to acquire Torah. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) tells us that after Bar Yochai left the cave, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, Bar Yochai’s father-in-law began to spread lotion on Bar Yochai’s body to heal the abrasions and sores. As he did so, he began to cry, with the salt of his tears falling on Bar Yochai’s skin, causing Bar Yochai to wince. “Please don’t cry for me”, implored Bar Yochai of his father-in-law. “Had anyone presented me with a problem before going into the cave, I could have provided 12 answers. After all the time I spent in the cave, I can now provide 24 answers to that very same questions”.
As we commemorate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit this Friday, let us recall, his daily diet, his daily dress, and his daily regimen. Let us take pride in our master and teacher who will always be remembered not only as a caveman but also as a brave man