Rabbi Shimon’s Favorite Tree
On Lag Ba’omer, Jews around the world honor the memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva who delved into the esoteric meaning of the Torah. He taught what is today called “Kabbalah” (Jewish mysticism) to his fellow Jews, and his teachings were written in a book called the Zohar, which means “shining light” or “splendor.”
Like most of the rabbis who lived under Roman rule, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was considered a criminal for studying and teaching Torah. Along with his son, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai went into hiding, and, according to tradition, they sustained themselves for 13 years by eating the fruit of a carob tree that God miraculously caused to grow in their cave (Talmud Shabbat 33b), hence the custom to eat carob (also known by the Yiddish name, bokser) on Lag Ba’omer.
Is it realistic to believe that grown men could survive on a diet of carob beans and water for 13 years? Perhaps. After all, the carob tree is actually part of the pea family, and the carob beans are packed with protein. In fact, the carob has a less well-known name, “Saint John’s Bread,” which reflects carob’s properties of sustenance. In fact, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar are not the only people mentioned in the Talmud as having lived off the fruit of the carob tree. “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Every day a Heavenly voice is heard declaring, The whole world draws its sustenance because [of the merit] of Hanina my son, and Hanina my son suffices himself with a kab (measurement) carobs from one Sabbath eve to another” (Taanit 24b). This statement, which seems to be in praise of Hanina’s austerity, confirms that the carob can be considered a valuable food source. (As an interesting side note, the word carat, the weight in which we measure gems and precious metals, is actually derived from the word carob.)