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Lag BaOmer: Celebrating When Rabbi Shimon Shot An Apple Off His Son’s Head

Oblique metaphoric references to Rashbi’s feat with the apple have found their way into Jewish mystical sources, in which Rabbi Shimon is a seminal figure.

arrowsMeron, May 14 – Hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered this weekend at the traditional site of a legendary figure in the nation’s lore, famed for uncompromising moral resistance to an occupying outside power, as elsewhere in the country his memory and legacy were celebrated with archery, evidently to reenact the famous moment when the revered man, whom the authorities wanted along with his son, shot an arrow off his son’s head.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a prominent disciple of the sainted Rabbi Akiva, refused to pay obeisance to the Roman overlords who had rampaged through the country and imposed their foreign rule and alien values, and was pursued by those authorities for his steadfast denial of the foreigners’ legitimacy. Rashbi, the acronym by which he is commonly known, became a fugitive with his son, and one version of the tale asserts that he later played a leading role in establishing a functioning society once the authorities who sought him were dead.

The annual Lag BaOmer festivities have long featured archery as an activity, a practice that researchers attribute to the famous episode of Rashbi being forced by the foreign occupiers to use a bow and arrow to split an apple in half if he wanted to go free – with the apple resting atop his beloved son’s head. The sage succeeded, but the potentate refused to honor his offer, and attempted to take Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar into custody. The father-son pair hid in the study hall at first, and his wife brought them food. However, Rashbi feared the authorities would interrogate her and induce her to reveal his hiding place, so he and Elazar eluded the Roman authorities and hid in a cave for twelve years.

Oblique metaphoric references to Rashbi’s feat with the apple have found their way into Jewish mystical sources, in which Rabbi Shimon is a seminal figure. The teachings of the Zohar are attributed to him, among which are multiple references to the Almighty as one who tends an apple orchard, for example.

Tell of the deeds of Rashbi has been embellished with time, and in the many generations since, additional details have been added with each recorded Telling. Modern scholars have poked numerous holes in the mainstream narrative, rendering it akin to Swiss cheese, even calling into question the historicity of Rashbi himself, but those developments have failed to cool the enthusiasm of the faithful for his legend, and have only generated animosity toward the researchers. Ironically, the invocation of archery in the context of Lag BaOmer has occurred primarily among secular Israelis seeking to glorify resistance to foreign conquest, and less so among the religious, who might be expected to adopt such a ritual with verve.

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