When new inventions made widespread sinning the norm, ancient rabbis adapted. The Talmud’s God approved.
The tale seems to communicate a certain resigned wisdom about piety and the common Jew. To expect everyone to be as holy as Shimon is a grave mistake: God himself does not want or expect so much holiness from the average Jew, and he deplores the rage and arrogance that would punish such a Jew for being average. In the end, after another year in their cave, Shimon and his son emerge chastened: “My son,” Shimon says, “the world has enough total devotees of Torah study in you and me alone.” There must be, the Talmud suggests, a hierarchy of piety and observance. Shimon may be on top, but it’s not necessary, or possible, for everyone to join him there.
Finally, Shimon’s story also offers an interesting sidelight on the way the rabbis measure Torah knowledge. Before he entered the cave, the Gemara explains, Shimon would pose a legal question and Rabbi Pinchas would respond with 12 possible solutions. But after his years of isolated study, Shimon was able to provide 24 possible answers to every question of Pinchas’.
This is deeply counter-intuitive, for our usual expectation is that every question has one correct answer. Shimon, we might think, ought to be able to find out what that answer is, just as a good judge delivers the one correct verdict and a good scientist comes up with the one correct result. But in the Talmud, on the contrary, it is the power to multiply possibilities, to see more facets of every question, which demonstrates real Torah knowledge. This is what comes from seeing Torah study not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself—an activity that can fill not just 12 years in a cave, but an entire lifetime, and the whole World to Come.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.