[sorry it's been a while since I've continued this series. still have a ways to go]
Withdrawing from the World
He and his son went and hid themselves in the Beth Hamidrash, [and] his wife brought him bread and a mug of water and they dined. [But] when the decree became more severe he said to his son, Women are of unstable temperament: she may be put to the torture and expose us.
So they went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their garments again, so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave.
The story now focuses exclusively upon R’ Shimon b. Yochai. We can identify with R’ Yehuda’s role and R’ Yose’s role; they are making positive contributions to the contemporary Jewish community. Regarding R’ Shimon, though, it remains doubtful that he has any outlet for his Torah, that he can find an audience with whom to share his knowledge.
His first response it to withdraw into the ivory tower relate only to the elite of the Beit Midrash. He brings his son with him, hoping that his audience will consist of one member, at the very least. Perhaps in the Beit Midrash, R’ Shimon will find young minds eager to move beyond the constraints of contemporary culture and connect with R’ Shimon’s Torah of yesteryear.
He begins to withdraw from all social and cultural convention, gradually minimizing everything that connects him to the world of men. He has his daily visit from his wife – not much more than a modicum of family structure – he eats bread, the quintessential human food (see the opinion of R’ Yehuda in Brachot 40a, and the words of R’ Hamnuna in Brachot 58a) in that there are eleven human processes in the preparation of bread. He drinks from a pitcher of earthenware – not very fancy, but still man-made. In fact, earthenware often represents, both in Rabbinic literature and archaeology, the presence of some primitive civilization, but a civilization nonetheless.
However, withdrawing from human contact has actually magnified R’ Shimon’s opposition to the dominant culture, to the point that even the Beit Midrash becomes an untenable location for him to pursue his goals. He has withdrawn from the society of humans and become so absorbed in purely intellectual pursuits that he no longer trusts anything less. It’s somewhat ironic that he fears that only a woman would crack under torment because ‘Nashim da’atan kalot aleihen’. Not many people can withstand torture, men or women. R’ Shimon has come to regard any vulnerability, and intrusion of real life or real emotion into the Torah-world that he alone inhabits as ‘feminine weakness’, and he must withdraw even further, to the cave.