October 23, 2020 |

Rabbi Shmuel HaSatan, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and the Holiday of Lag Baomer

Around ten days ago I received a letter in the mail from my father. It was a Hebrew sheet of paper with a story on it. The paper was part of a publication called, “Bein Hadagim Le-Zemirot” (Between the Fish and the Songs—Stories for the Shabbat Table). When I read this story I nearly fainted.

The story, as it appears on the sheet, tells of a man who himself tells a story about an ancestor of his who carries the name Rabbi Shmuel HaSatan. Yes, you heard correctly. Rabbi Shmuel, The Satan. How could anybody have the name, Rabbi Shmuel HaSatan.

And so the story goes:

In the year 1391 the Jews of Prague were issued a very serious decree from their ruler, King Wenceslaus IV. They were told to either pay an exorbitant and unfair tax or else they needed to leave the kingdom at once.

Since the Jewish community was unable to pay this tax as they were already impoverished they decided to gather for prayer in the synagogue. Under the leadership of the great Rabbi Avigdor Karo, they prayed and fasted to Hashem in order to avert the decree.

But of course, they decided to do more than that in order to try to bring about a favorable resolution. So they decided to send someone to beseech the king for mercy. It was immediately agreed by all that it was too dangerous to send their beloved rabbi to do this task. So instead they sent the president of the community, a man by the name of–and here is where I almost fainted—Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. Yes, you heard right. They decided to send Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld to approach the king.

As it turned out Rabbi Shmuel had once befriended the king’s treasurer with a huge favor. He had never accepted anything in return for this favor. So now he went to the treasurer and asked for him to arrange for a meeting with the king.

The treasurer tried to arrange a meeting for his friend. But he came back to Rabbi Shmuel and told him, “The king will allow you to meet with him only on the condition that you do not speak more than 4 words!”

Rabbi Shmuel gladly agreed to this condition and set out to meet the king. He entered in to the king’s chamber and he said, “Vayomer Hashem el hasatan.” The king said, “What is the meaning of all this?” But Rabbi Shmuel refused to speak, as he had already said four words. So the king ordered him to speak.

Rabbi Shmuel explained that these four words are a verse from the book of Job which mean, “And God said to Satan.” Well, he continued, if God could speak to Satan then He could certainly come down to hear the prayers of the Jewish people.

The king was so impressed by this argument that he asked Rabbi Shmuel to continue to speak and impart the message of the people he represented. And so Rabbi Shmuel convinced the king not to levy this tax and expulsion upon the Jewish people.

The king said, “Not only will I not expel the Jews but I will give you a reward. From now on you can come to my court whenever you desire and you can speak to me. You will be an official member of my court. However, since you spoke so impudently to me I will now officially change your name. You are no longer, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, you are from now on Rabbi Shmuel HaSatan.”

What a story! Imagine how I felt hearing the story for the first time in my life. It couldn’t be just a coincidence. The story must have a deeper meaning. It can’t be a coincidence that I have the exact same name as this man who goes by the name Rabbi Shmuel HaSatan. What does it mean that there was once a man with the name Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld whose name then became Rabbi Shmuel HaSatan?

I will admit that when I read this story all sorts of strange thoughts and ideas started running through my mind. I even wondered if I am actually a gilgul (reincarnation) of the 14th century Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. Then I started wondering if I should change my website from rabbishmuel.com to rabbishmuelhaSatan.com. Should I start referring to myself as Reb Shmuel haSatan?

In the end I decided not to make such a drastic change to my identity.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe haSatan is not such a bad nickname for a rabbi to have.

In Christianity Satan is associated with the devil, but in Judaism it can mean something else. In Hebrew the word lehastin means to serve as an adversary. And that is what the Satan of the book of Job was. He was not the devil, but an adversary, one who argued with God. He played the role of devil’s advocate.

And that is what this Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld was in the 14th century. He was satan (with a lowercase S), in the best sense of the word. He was willing to stand up to the wicked king and speak truth to power. He gave a good name to the word satan.

Having the strength and courage to speak truth to power, even (and especially) when it is the unpopular thing, is one of the great qualities which we should seek for in our spiritual leaders.

It is also one of the defining features of the next Jewish holiday we will be celebrating.

Tonight we will observe the holiday of Lag Baomer, the 33rd day of the Omer. Lag Baomer is the holiday above all that is a holiday of resistance. On Lag Baomer we celebrate a military victory of Bar Kochba over the Romans. For many years, up until the modern state of Israel, the Bar Kochba victory on Lag Baomer was the last significant military victory by the Jewish people.

Another reason we celebrate Lag Baomer is because it is the yahrtzeit of the great sage of the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In Israel, approximately 500,000 people gather around Meron on Lag Baomer to pray near the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and to be inspired by what he stood for and continues to stand for.

Who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? The holiest and most mystical work in our cannon, the Zohar is attributed to him. He is also known for his deep spirituality; so much so that he lived in a cave for twelve years and just studied Torah day and night with his son, Rabbi Eliezer.

When he lived in the cave and cleaved onto Hashem he reached the greatest mystical heights. It is believed that while he was in this cave he wrote the holy Zohar. While he lived in this cave the Talmud tells us, that Hashem made a spring for him to drink from and a carob tree to eat from.

How did he get to this special cave? The Talmud explains:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was once sitting with Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, and Rabbi Yossi. Rabbi Yehudah said, “Kamah naim maaseihen she umah zu, how beautiful are the works of this nation.” Rabbi Yehudah was referring to the Romans, who at the time were persecuting the Jewish people. Rabbi Yossi, the great Rabbi Yossi Hagelili, was quiet when he heard this. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai could not keep quiet.

He said: “Kol mah shetikun lo tiknu elah letzorekh atzman, whatever they have made they have only made for their own benefit. They have built plazas so that their prostitutes can have a place to sit; they have built bathhouses so that they can pleasure themselves; and they have built a bridge only so that they can tax us!”

To speak like this about the Romans, was very brave. It was also treasonous.

When word of this got back to the Romans, they sought to kill him. So Rabbi Shimon and his son fled into hiding. First they hid in the Beit Midrash, but then they went to hide in a cave.

So while his time in the cave brought him to great mystical heights, what brought him to the cave was his ability to speak with truth and clarity even during a dangerous time of persecution and even in the presence of a great adversary.

It is the yahrtzeit of this man that we observe on Lag Ba-Omer. And in commemorating his yahrtzeit, we are really praising this aspect of his personality more than any other.

So in the end, Lag Baomer and Rabbi Shimonbar Yochai represent the spiritual value of resistance of standing up to an enemy.

And perhaps we can call that quality lehastin, meaning to thwart, to play the constructive role of an adversary.

But we must remember that Lag Baomer is not the ultimate holiday. It is a single day of joy amidst all the other days of mourning in the Omer period. It is one day of joy, which is temporary and is immediately followed by a resumption of the mourning. It is not a destination, but a temporary refuge on our path to the ultimate redemption of Sinai. Because to thwart, or to resist, is a necessary spiritual quality, but it is not the end result, which is ultimately standing at Sinai on the holiday of Shavuot.

In the end, the same Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches us this message as well.

The Talmud tells us that eventually Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai left the cave. As he and his son walked around the world they were disgusted. “Kol makom shenotnin eineihen mi-yad nisraf; wherever they put their eyes was immediately burnt.” They were in their thwarting mode. They were destroying, but not yet building.

So a heavenly voice came forth and declared, “Lehachriv olami yatzatem chizru lemaaratchem, are you here to destroy my world? Go back to your cave.” They returned to their cave a second time.

The next time they came out of the cave, it was a different story. Kol heicha de-hava machi rebbi eliezer hava masi rebbi shimon, any place that Rabbi Eliezer would destroy, Rabbi Shimon would heal and rebuild.

In the end, that is the real reason why 500,000 people gather around the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his yahrtzeit. He was able to transform his adversarial nature, which was a force of good, into an even greater and more powerful force for good and healing in the world.

So too, Lag Baomer is the holiday of resistance. But it is a resistance of limited value that is only a step on the path to Sinai.

The challenge of Lag Baomer is to teach us how to move from being a satan—a critic--to being a goel, a redeemer or a healer, and that is no easy task.

This is what the story of the original Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld means to me. The nickname Rabbi Shmuel Hasatan is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a good name; something he and his descendants, and I as well, are proud to be associated with. It is a story that I will treasure in my family for a long time. However, like the holiday of lag baomer, it is also incomplete, a mere step forward on a long journey.

The original Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, aka, Rabbi Shmuel Hasatan—Rabbi Shmuel the adversary of the King of Prague-- has set a good example for us. But he has also left us all some room to complete his work before the holiday of Shavuot arrives.

And so may it be His will!


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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