Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair and more secrets of reincarnation
Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was an exceptional sage who appears many times in the Talmud. He’s known for his incredible piety in dealing with other people. One well known incident is brought in the Talmud in which two people deposited some wheat with him, and then disappeared. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair planted the wheat and harvested it many times for seven years until they returned and got all the produce back.
It’s remarkable how one of his teachings, a Baraita, formed the basis for one of the greatest Mussar (self-discipline) books ever written, Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just). The Baraita reveals a little of his greatness and foresight, and teaches:
1. Diligence (or alacrity) leads to cleanliness
2. Cleanliness leads to purity
3. Purity leads to restraint
4. Restraint leads to holiness
5. Holiness leads to humility
6. Humility leads to the fear of sin
7. Fear of sin leads to piety
8. Piety leads to Ruach Hakodesh
9. Ruach Hakodesh leads to the ability of resurrecting the dead
10. The resurrection of the dead will come about through Eliyahu the prophet
Having lived in the generation of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, there’s a discussion whether he’s his father-in-law (as brought by the Zohar), or if he’s his son in law. It could be there were two men named Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, however the Ben Ish Chai brings a novel insight. It’s written in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) that when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai left the cave after 13 years, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair saw him and cried at the sight. He then bathed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who was full of wounds and cracks in his skin. This, the Ben Ish Chai attests, is proof enough that Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was his father-in-law, since a son in law is forbidden to bathe his father and father in law in order to safeguard their honor.
The importance of the food that you eat
We often fail to appreciate how Hashem is good to us. The whole system of reincarnations, as brought by the writings of the Arizal, the writings of the Rama MiPano and Maggid Meisharim give us a little glimpse of how many chances Hashem gives us to rectify ourselves to the fullest. It is nothing less than the ultimate act of compassion towards us his children.
Eating food is not merely a method of sustaining the body, but also a way of rectifying the souls that are reincarnated in it. Souls that had certain character flaws that were not rectified can reincarnate in one of the four kingdoms of Creation: inanimate, vegetable, animal and human. Having that in mind, many mystical intentions are brought in the writings of the Arizal, the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rav Shabtai of Rashkov, the Ben Ish Chai in order to not only rectify the souls but increase the flow of abundance into Creation.
There’s an incredible story brought by Rav Yehuda Ftaya in his book Minchat Yehuda. The book is a fascinating commentary full of novel insights on the Torah (primarily) but also brings many stories that happened to him or that he heard. In one of them, a certain woman recounted how she once ate a date and an old man came to her in a dream to thank her. Even though she didn’t do the precise blessing for the date “who brings forth the fruit of the trees”, but rather “who brings forth the fruit of the earth” (which is still valid), this simple blessing had a tremendous effect in rectifying him and he was able to ascend in Heaven.
The wise donkey
Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair had a donkey who was incredibly wise and righteous. The donkey was once stolen and refused to eat for 3 days, until the thieves let it go. When it came back to its original owner, the donkey was offered food but again refused to eat. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair suspected his servants had given him Demai (food that’s uncertain whether it’s been tithed properly), and found out it was indeed so. When given proper food, the donkey ate!
The Arizal in Sha’ar HaGilgulim explains that this donkey was actually Yishmael, son of Avraham Avinu, who was reincarnated there in order to rectify himself. Though Yishmael was a brigand, he did partial Teshuva in his later years, and Hashem gave him the opportunity to fix what he had broken. This was a tremendous act of kindness on His part.
We find a clue to this in the verse when Avraham tells his “servants” (Yishmael and Eliezer) to “sit here with the donkey”. The Hebrew word “to sit” (shev) can also mean to “return”, and this was also alluded to in the blessing the angel gave to Hagar that her son would be “pere adam” (a violent man, but also denoting a donkey).
We see how much Hashem values not only the work of the pious like Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair but also of the simple people who strive to serve Him. We often don’t understand why we do certain things, but the story of the woman tells us books on how great our service can be, even when we don’t feel it!
Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair is buried next to the entrance of the old cemetery of Tzfar.