Rashbi’s Cave in Pekiin

[EDITORS NOTE- Pekiin is an ancient city that has been occupied since the times of the Beit Hamikdash. Jewish residency in the town was uninterrupted from ancient days until just very recently.]

The History and Mystery of Pekiin – From Hamodia

Join us on a tour of Pekiin, the possible location of the cave where Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar hid from the Romans

By Yitzchok Cohen

In honor of the upcoming celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag BaOmer, we contacted veteran tour guide Reb Asher Chazan, who has been showing Jewish tourists the holy sites of Eretz Yisrael for many years. Among the numerous fascinating places to which he takes tourists is the remote northern village of Pekiin.

Pekiin is a quaint village tucked into a corner of the Galilee Mountains in northern Israel. According to many sources, the cave where Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar stayed for thirteen years while hiding from the Romans is located there. In fact, tourists are shown an ancient, half-collapsed cave that has a carob tree next to its entrance. This spot is widely accepted as the Rashbi’s hideout, where a carob tree miraculously sprouted overnight and sustained the holy tanna and his son for thirteen years. A stream of water is located nearby that correlates with our Sages’ account of the miraculous stream from which they quenched their thirst.

Join us for a walk along the paths of Pekiin’s history and let’s hear the various opinions concerning Rashbi’s cave. This compilation is based on a conversation with Reb Asher Chazan and several historical sources.

The Cave of Fame

The Midrash tells us that during Bar Kochba’s uprising, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar fled from the Romans and hid for thirteen years in a cave. There they delved into the mystical depths of Torah and reached awesome heights of holiness. Where, we wanted to know, is that cave?

The exact words of the Midrash refer to the cave as me’arasa d’peka – a cave in Peka, which possibly refers to Pekiin. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Fishman, author of the sefer Hanosen Bayam Derech, writes about the cave in Pekiin: “There is an old cave into which just about two individuals can fit. In front of the cave there are a few old carob trees, and a short distance away there is a stream of fresh spring water.”

According to Harav Elyakim Karmoli, however, me’arasa d’peka is simply describing the cave, and the Midrash does not inform us where it was actually located. The sefer Agudas Hatanna’im posits that the real name cited is Bekiin, an entirely different city from Pekiin.

Yet there is a psak din signed by the Gaon Harav Yom Tov ben Rav Moshe Tzachlon, which mentions “the village of Bukeia in the Upper Galilee,” most likely referring to the Pekiin we know today. This would mean that Pekiin and Bekiin are one and the same.

Professor Shmuel Klein, a prominent historian, writes that the name of the town was originally Bokea, but it was mistakenly changed to Pekiin. The Arab version, Buqei’a, remains most similar to the original.

In an encyclopedic volume entitled Eretz Yisrael and Its Environs, published in 1923 by Harav Avraham Horowitz and Harav Aharon (son of Harav Yaakov Yitzchok) Teitelbaum, the authors write: “Beka or Peka, this is the place where Rabi Shimon bar Yochai hid for thirteen years in a cave. A later aggadah ties this location with the town named Pekiin, where the gravesites of Rabi Yehoshua ben Chananya and Rabi Yosi of Pekiin are located.”

Memoir of a Pekiin Resident

A diary given to Harav Hillel Posek, a Rav living in Eretz Yisrael during the first half of the twentieth century, contains a firsthand account of Pekiin that mentions the cave of Rashbi with matter-of-fact certainty. In this book, residents of Pekiin relate: “In the town of Pekiin, in the lap of the Galilee Mountains, there is a narrow cave surrounded by carob trees which has traditionally been thought to be the place where Rabi Shimon bar Yochai hid to save his life. It is from [one of those] carob trees that he sustained himself, and he drank the waters of the flowing stream nearby. During the time he spent in the cave, he wrote the Zohar, the holy kabbalistic work that illuminates the eyes of those who can understand the mystical secrets of the creation.

“Rabi Shimon bar Yochai sat and learned Torah incessantly. But sometimes he would leave the cave and wander through the area on his donkey. As he rode, he would sing praises to the Creator. This was a very auspicious time in Heaven, when the angels would gather together to hear the singing of the author of the holy Zohar.

“His writings were named Zohar, for zohar means radiance, and this sefer illuminated the universe. Just as it says that the Torah that Hashem gave the Jewish nation was emblazoned with fire, so too the hidden Torah that was revealed within that cave was written with fire and it is impossible to falsify it, for the sefer Zohar contains the signature of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.”

Testimony From Travel Logs

In the sefer Otzar Masa’os, published in 1926, Harav Simcha bar Yehoshua writes: “On the seventh day of the month of Iyar, I returned from Tzefas to Acco. Not far from there is the town of Pekiin, where about fifty Jewish farmers reside. Pekiin is a plentiful town, with streams of water running through the valleys and mountains, and one can also see the carob tree of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. The tree, which is old and no longer yields fruit, is consecrated by many residents, and they do not use branches from this tree to feed their furnaces.”

The author adds, “Reb Shimon of Satnov told me that the tree is so big that he sat in [it] with a few other men and they learned Zohar together…”

In the sefer Mesa Meron, written over a century ago by Harav Menachem Mendel Rabin, the author relates, “I was warmly welcomed in Pekiin. The residents showed me the cave where Rabi Shimon and his son, Rabi Elazar, hid. Although I did not enter the cave, I davened with a minyan outside in the shade of the carob tree, and afterwards we learned Zohar. We took along some leaves from the carob tree, but the shamash warned us not to take from the fruits because it’s dangerous to eat them. He showed me some cut-off branches that an Arab family once used to build their roof and they subsequently suffered various calamities. They brought back the branches and replanted them next to the tree.

“We then went to the stream from which Rabi Shimon and his son drank while hiding in the cave. We were also shown a shul that has two stones from the Beis Hamikdash built into its walls!”

As an interesting postscript to this account, it is reported that when the Skverer Rebbe, zy”a, once visited Eretz Yisrael during a shemittah year, he asked the Vadkater Dayan, Harav Shimon Yechezkel Yakabovitz, zt”l, if one is allowed to cut leaves from the tree outside Rashbi’s cave during shemittah.