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Fathers and Sons

Just in time for Lag BaOmer, our daf adventure brings us to the story of Rabbi Elazar. He was the son of the famous Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai whose life and death are commemorated on Lag BaOmer with bonfires and pilgrimages to his grave in Meron. While Rabbi Shimon (Rashbi) is well known, his son鈥檚 story is often only mentioned as a footnote. But here we have almost three pages devoted to Rabbi Elazar鈥檚 strange life (Bava Metzia 83-85). The stories are rather fantastic and have been subjected to much literary analysis. Today we will look at the historical context of Rabbi Elazar鈥檚 life and see how he connects to but is also in opposition to his famous father.

Rabbi Elazar was from the fifth generation of Tannaim, the final generation when the Mishnah is redacted. He was a contemporary and a rival of Rabbi Judah the Prince and he grew up in a charged environment, in the world after the Bar Kokhba Revolt had decimated Jewish life in the Land of Israel. His father, Rashbi, was strongly opposed to Roman rule and his outspokenness led him to have to flee from the Romans:

鈥淩abbi Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the actions of this nation, [the Romans] as they established marketplaces, established bridges, and established bathhouses. Rabbi Yosei was silent. Rabbi Shimon ben Yo岣i responded and said: Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from them.鈥 (Shabbat 33b)

A Roman marketplace in Bet Shean

Mark10:43, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

As a consequence of Rashbi鈥檚 attack on the Roman government, he was sentenced to death and he fled and lived in a cave for thirteen years. In the Babylonian Talmud鈥檚 version of the story, his son Elazar joined him and they studied Torah together while being miraculously fed and watered by a spring and a carob tree outside the cave (the Jerusalem Talmud鈥檚 version is much shorter and does not mention Rabbi Elazar or even the fact that Rashbi is in the cave because he was a wanted man). Rabbi Elazar and Rashbi live like the angels, with almost no physical needs. They remove their clothes and bury themselves in sand, eat only enough to stay alive, and immerse themselves in Torah all the time. When they finally emerge from the cave they are shocked at everyday life. They inadvertently destroy everything they see and are sent back to the cave by a divine voice, until they are able to be in the world without destroying it.

The traditional site of Rashbi’s cave in Pekiin

Ovedc, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Rabbi Elazar and his father are very much a pair. They are in the cave together and eventually they are buried together, in a cave in Meron. Rashbi himself emphasizes the bond between them, saying that they are the two people who can keep the world going:

鈥淎nd 岣zkiya said that Rabbi Yirmeya said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yo岣i: I have seen people who are elite [truly righteous], and they are few. If they number one thousand, I and my son are among them. If they number one hundred, I and my son are among them; and if they number two, I and my son are they鈥 (Sukkah 45b)

Outside observers also connect the two, whether for praise or insult. When Rabbi Judah the Prince worries that Rabbi Elazar is greater than he is, Rabbi Judah鈥檚 father comforts him by saying that Rabbi Elazar is a lion son of a lion, while you, Judah, are only a lion son of a fox (Bava Metzia 84b). Rabbi Elazar鈥檚 greatness is partly attributed to his father. And when Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha wants to insult Rabbi Elazar, he compares him unfavorably to his father: vinegar son of wine! (Bava Metzia 83b).

Father and son, shaped by a shared experience, with a common goal and a common enemy, would seem to be the same. But as our stories here in Bava Metzia show, they are actually very different people. The most obvious difference is their attitude to the Romans. Where Rashbi detested the Romans and fought against them, asserting Jewish pride and Jewish destiny, his son actually collaborated with them in catching thieves (Bava Metzia 83b).

Another difference emerges when we read the impossible descriptions of Rabbi Elazar鈥檚 size and appetite. He is hugely fat and requires much food to survive the torments he imposes on himself (Bava Metzia 84). As opposed to the ethereal life he shared with his father in the cave, without women and almost without food, here and in other sources he is portrayed as having enormous appetites and even his halachic decisions are about blood, sexual relations and family purity. Even the description of him in death is very alive, filled with blood and worms. All this seems to contrast with the earlier life he shared with his father.

We can see a difference already on their emergence from the cave. They balance each other in that Rabbi Elazar destroys and Rabbi Shimon fixes:

鈥淎 Divine Voice emerged and said: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.鈥 (Shabbat 33b)

Rabbi Elazar is separated from his father when he dies, as he does not want to be buried, fearing that the rabbis will not treat him properly. Eventually he is brought to burial. According to our Gemara, his body was being held in Akhbara and it was brought to burial in Biri, i.e., Biriya. In a midrash from the Land of Israel (Kohelet Rabba 11:2) his body is being held in Gush Halav and he is buried in Meron. All these places are in the Upper Galilee, not far from each other, and near Tzfat. Today the accepted belief is that Rabbi Elazar is buried with his father in Meron:

Meron 1939

Hans Pinn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Centuries later, when the Zohar is written down, Rabbi Elazar will play an important role, alongside his father, as one of the main speakers in the book. He becomes a major character in the Kabbalah and the tales about him become part of his mystique. But who was the real Rabbi Elazar? Was his early experience opposing the Romans and living an ascetic lifestyle something that he turned against in later life? Was he a lion son of a lion or a fox son of a lion? Something to think about this Lag BaOmer.

Flikr: Kevin Pluck


Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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