Shabbat 33b - 34a: Part V - The Cave

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.

In the cave, R’ Shimon and his son lose all contact with humanity. Their subsistence consists of only two elements: carob and spring water. The carob fruit and tree appears elsewhere in Rabbinic literature. For R’ Shimon’s immediate purpose, it’s sufficient as a nutritious food that is not processed in any way by human hands. Spring water, as well, is characterized by being uncontained, never touched by human hands or gathered into man-made vessels. Even his diet is untouched by hands other than his own!

R’ Shimon withdraws beyond all commonality with fellow humans, all cultural and linguistic trappings, when he removes his ‘clothing’. If Israel lies beyond the contingencies of history, as Ramban and Yehuda Halevi, and in their wake Krochmal and Rosenzweig have articulated, and only the relation to God Himself remains stable and central to Jewish being, then R’ Shimon here represents that ‘pure Jew’. By implication, a total removal of any cultural or historical conditioning would mean that R’ Shimon has entered into a state of pure relation, pure communion with God. Thus, he studies Torah.

But R’ Shimon’s Torah-study is almost without parallel. It is communion with God’s mind without the ‘vessels’ of culture – words and sentences, oxen and donkeys, laws and exceptions. The ultimate in Talmud Torah merges the mind of man with the mind of God, and and consumes man’s entire being. The further that man can penetrate beyond the details, to experience the Whole, the pure Will of God, in its pristine expression, before becoming 'earth-bound' by the contingencies of the mundane, the stronger the communion and the purer the Torah. R’ Shimon’s Torah, devoid of cultural trappings and linguistic constraints, becomes an ineffable modality of Torah. To put it into words is to limit it, to make it something of this world. Not coincidentally, Jewish tradition marks R’ Shimon’s study in the cave as the birth of the Jewish mystical tradition, that branch of Torah which is characterized, more than anything else, by the inability of language to contain its concepts.

In contrast to Torah study, prayer does not merge man and God. Whereas Torah tolerates and welcomes contributions from both God and man in its unfolding, the act of prayer tolerates no such blurring of the lines between the Divine and the human. The difference between temporal and Eternal, subject and King, creature and Creator, or slave and Master is central to the face-to-face encounter of prayer. When R’ Shimon interrupts his learning to pray, he must first distance himself from God and become creature once more. Thus, he puts on his clothing.

A final observation about the time in the cave relates to the carob tree which fed R’ Shimon. In addition to representing a wholly ‘natural’ and unprocessed nutrition, the carob tree had another outstanding property in the Rabbinic worldview, namely, it is the slowest-growing tree. The Gemara in Ta’anit (23a-b) relates that it takes the figurative 70 years – a man’s lifespan – for a carob to bear fruit. When a man plants a carob, he cannot expect to see it bear fruit in his lifetime; he plants for posterity and posterity alone. Perhaps the carob symbolizes the condition of R’ Shimon himself; whatever contribution he makes will not come to fruition until he is long gone. The most that a ‘cultureless’ man can hope for is that somehow, something he says or teaches will resonate with someone, somewhere, who will translate it into a form that is comprehensible to the contemporary generation. In order to contribute to a host culture, time must allow for the host to learn the idiosyncrasies of the guest. Perhaps, going a bit further, in this instance the carob, startlingly, reaches maturity instantly to tell us that there may be a shortcut, that what should take a lifetime can miraculously be completed in an instant! How is it possible for the resistor to make himself heard in his lifetime? How does this miracle happen? The full answer is contained in the unfolding of this narrative, but already R’ Shimon has undergone a transformation, from a resistance out of rejection and denial, to resisting out of transcendence.

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