Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
May 8, 2009
Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai) said: If three have eaten at the same table and have not spoken words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten of offerings to the dead idols (Zivchei Masim)…but if three have eaten at the same table and have spoken words of Torah there, it is as if they have eaten from the table of Hashem, as it says (Yecheskel) …’This is the table that is before Hashem’ (3:4)
What does ‘Zivchei Masim’ mean, and where does the term come from?  It comes from Psalm 106, where David mentions the times that the Jews, while leaving Mitzrayim and in the Midbar, were not cooperative, and still Hashem forgave them.  In the Psalm David recounts that the Jews were afraid to go into the Red Sea, they worshipped the golden calf, and the Meraglim didn’t want to enter Eretz Yisoel - and each time Hashem forgave the Jews.  Then it mentions the sin of Baal Peor.  The daughters of Midian made themselves available to the Jewish men, under the condition that they worship the Midianite idol of Baal Peor – which involved strange rites like defecating and eating what it calls here Zivchei Masim, which means either dead offerings or offerings to the dead.  The Jewish men didn’t believe in the idols, but they were willing to do Avodah Zara in order to get the women.  When people have desires that they are intent on satisfying, they are often willing to do things that they know are wrong and don’t make sense.
This is what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is referring to.  If we are focused on our physical pleasures, our Taivahs, then it is as though we are worshipping the idol of Baal Peor.  Our kitchen table can be where we merely satisfy our appetites, or it can be like a Mizbeach in the Bais Hamikdosh. What was the significance of the Mizbeach?  It was the place where the physical, such as animal offerings, became spiritual. 
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived at a time when the Bais Hamikdosh had recently been destroyed.  The Romans first thought they could control the Jews by destroying the Bais Hamikdosh.  But that only made the Jews stronger and more resolute.  Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai resisted and fought back, and wanted to bring back the presence of the Schenah that had been in the Bais Hamkdosh.  When the Schenah is among us, we’re protected. 
This was a time of Hester Panim, and many Jewish leaders responded by trying to bring back the Schenah.  As we mentioned while discussing previous Mishnahs, Rabbi Chaninah tried to do this by connecting with Malchus – as the Arizal says, Malchus is Schenah, and Schenah is Malchus.  Rabbi Chaninah Ben Tradyon focused on learning in public with the Torah at his chest to bring the Schenah.  And Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai  focuses here on a third approach – to make our tables into a Mizbeach, by transforming the ordinary act of eating into an act of Kedushah – bringing the Schenah by transforming the physical into the spiritual as was done on the Mizbeach. 
The Posuck quoted at the end of the Mishnah - ’This is the table that is before Hashem’ - is from Yecheskel.  After the first Churban, Yecheskel is asking Hashem, how can we restore your Kedusah without the Bais Hamikdosh.  Hashem answers him, turn your tables into a Mocom of Kedushah, into a Mizbeach.  Transform the place of eating and pleasure into a place of holiness.  In his Nevuah, Yecheskel refers to this being done by three groups - the Kohanim, the Chochomim, and the Neviim.  The Meforshim say that these are the three people that Shimon Bar Yochai mentions in our Mishnah, the three sitting at a table.
I remember in Yeshiva we had a discussion as to why we eat. One person said we eat to enable us to learn.  Another person said, we eat to give us the strength to do Mitzvas. Then a person next to me, who was a bit of a laitz, said, I eat Lishma – for it’s own sake.  That is the danger that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is referring to here – eating for pleasure, instead of making our kitchen tables like a Mizbeach, where the physical can become spiritual.  If we eat for pleasure, we’re like the Jews that went after their desires for the Midianite women, and our tables become a place of Zivchei Masim.  And we become like those whose motto is “Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.
Different groups in Klal Yisroel focus on each of these three approaches – Mizbeach, Torah, and Malchus.  The Chasidim at the Rebbe’s tish transform a table of eating into a Mizbeach.  The Litvish focus on learning.  Rabbi Kook writes about having the Malchus on earth awakening the Malchus in Shemayim.  We need and can benefit from all three approaches. 
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s approach is demonstrated by the famous Gemorah in Messechet Shabbos.  He and his son had fled from the Romans, and hid in a cave for 12 years, where a carob tree miraculously supplied them with food.  After 12 years they emerged from the cave, and they saw people planting.  Rabbi Shimon’s reaction was, how can you be involved with the mundane, physical world?  Everywhere he looked he created fire – physically or metaphorically – and a Bas Kol told him to return to the cave for another 12 months. When he came out this time, it was erev Shabbos and he saw a man rushing home with two branches of Hadasim, myrtle.  He asked what they were for, and the man answered, it’s for my wife on Shabbos – one for Shamor, the other for Zachor.  Rabbi Shimon exclaimed that this is the key, using the physical for the spiritual, just as was done on the Mizbeach.
Another Gemorah tells of a time when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his Talmidim were learning and struggling to survive in Meron. One of his Talmidim went to Ashur, and came back with a lot of money.  This caused a stir, so Rabbi Shimon stood on a mountain overlooking a valley, and said to Shemayim, may this valley be filled with gold coins, and the valley was miraculously filled with gold coins.  As his Talmidim went to get the coins, he told them, “Know that for every coin you take for yourself, you are taking away from your Olam Habah.”
(This is like the desire that many Israelis have had to go to America to get rich.  A story is told that a group of Israelis in America were going down in an elevator, and the door opened.  A person waiting for the elevator saw the Israelis and asked, “Attah Yordim (is this elevator going down?)”, and they answered, “Rak echad hashanah, only for one year”.)
I’ve mentioned that after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh, there was a major dispute as to what is the best and most appropriate response.  Is it best to have a Golus mentality and keep a low profile?  Or is it best to fight back, as was advocated by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai.  I have not seen in the Rambam or the Shulchan Oruch where they give a Psak regarding this dispute.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s approach is demonstrated by the Gemorah is Messechet Shabbos 33. The Chochomim had a convention, and Rabbi Yehuda got up and praise the Romans: “The Romans have done a great deal of good.  They’ve built markets, baths, and bridges.”.  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai  got up and responded, “They’ve done it only for themselves.  They built the markets only for znus, the baths only for their physical pleasure, and the bridges only to collect tolls.”  The Romans heard of Rabbi Shimon’s response, and he had to flee.
Another Gemorah tells of when Rabbi Akiva was in jail, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai went outside his cell, and said “Teach me Torah”.  Rabbi Akiva refused, saying it would put Rabbi Shimon’s life in danger, even though he wanted to teach him just as a cow wants to nurse its calf.  Rabbi Shimon responded that if Rabbi Akiva didn’t teach him, he would report himself to Yochai. his father – who was either a Roman or a friend of the Romans - so he would end up in just as much danger.  Rabbi Shimon said, “If the cow doesn’t nurse its calf, it’s the calf that dies.”  So Rabbi Akiva agreed, and the Gemorah mentions the five things that he taught at that time to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
In the 1920’s whenever the Jews went to daven at the Kotel, the Arabs made it very difficult for them.  In 1928 this matter came before the British, who wrote a White paper called, “The Problem of the Western Wall”.  The British concluded that the Arabs own the area of the Western Wall, but the Jews have a right to pray there.  However, the British said that the Jews must not blow a Shofar there, because that would antagonize the Arabs. So on Rosh Hashana, the question arose, what should we do?  It was a major dispute among the Gedolim of the time.  Rabbi Sonnenfeld and others said that we should cooperate with the British, and not risk antagonizing the Arabs. But Rabbi Kook at the Kotel on Rosh Hashana in 1928 blew the Shofar.
I wrote a series of pamphlets for the OU called the Pardes project.  In one of them I quote Rabbi Kahane, referring to a time when many of us on Sundays would demonstrate at the Russian embassy to free Soviet Jewry, an activity advocated by Rabbi Kahane and opposed by many Gedolim. In the pamphlet I quote Rabbi Kahane: “Once, when I visited the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn where I had learned for 12 years, the Rosh Yeshiva took my hand, and said to me, ‘Your demonstrations are killing Soviet Jews.’  I responded, ‘Have you ever said Tehilim, or declared a fast day, for Soviet Jews?’ He kept holding my hand and repeated, “You are killing Soviet Jews.”
When I went to High School in Crown Heights, Meir Kahane was our youth group leader.  At that time, Jews were being mugged on Shabbos.  When Jews said to the muggers that they didn’t carry money on Shabbos, they were beaten up.  So a Rabbi in the neighborhood Poskined that Jews should carry a few dollars on Shabbos, so that if they were mugged, they could give the mugger the money and run.  I remember Meir Kahane coming into our youth group saying, “We should carry money?  Rather we should carry knives and nunchucks”.
The Gemorah in Meilah describes a time when the Romans prohibited observance of Shabbos and Bris Milah.  The Romans had finally caught on, and realized that destroying the Bais Hamikdosh hadn’t worked, so they were trying to squelch Judaism.  The Gemorah says that a Jew cut off most of his hair - Rashi says leaving only a pony tail - in order to disguise himself as a Roman. Then he met with the Romans, telling them, “If you let the Jews have a Bris Milah, they’ll be weaker.  If you let them close their stores on Shabbos, they’ll have less money.”  The Romans realized that he was too clever, that he must be a Jew in disguise, so it didn’t work. 
Then some suggested that they send Shimon Bar Yochai to talk to the Romans.  But they were afraid, because they knew Rabbi Shimon would tell the Romans to their face like it is.  Then all of a sudden, in Rome the Kasar’s daughter became possessed of a Dybik.  The Dybik kept repeating, “I’ll only leave on the order of Shimon Bar Yochai”.  They looked for Shimon Bar Yochai who came and ordered the Dybik out of the girl’s body.  The Kasar was so grateful, that he said told Shimon Bar Yochai that he could go into the storehouse and take out anything he liked.  The Gemorah in Yuma describes that when he went in, he saw the Kalim that had been taken from the Bais Hamikdosh, including the Menorah, and the Peroches that still had the blood from Yom Kippur in it.  He could have taken these out, and we would have had the Kalim of the Bais Hamikdosh with us again.  But instead, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai found the document on which was written the Hadrian decrees.  He had been one of the main people whose intransigence had been responsible for the Hadrian decrees.  He took the document out, and tore it up.  So his acts of defiance had contributed to the Hadrian decrees, and now he was able to end the Hadrian decrees.
This machloches has been with us throughout Jewish history. When our enemies have power, should we maintain a low profile – have a Golus mentality - and not fight back directly against them? Or should we stand up and be defiant against our enemies? This was the position advocated by leaders such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai