Roman pursuit of R. Shimon bar Yohai and his son, R. Elazar, began following a meeting between R. Shimon, R. Yehudah bar Ilai and R. Yosei at the house of study. The Bablyonian Talmud relates that after concluding speaking about holy matters, they turned to current events. R. Yehudah began praising the Romans for their public works in the Land. R. Shimon bar Yohai countered: “All that they made they made only for themselves; they built market-places to set brothels in them; baths, for their pleasure; bridges, to levy tolls for them.” (BT Shabbat  33b). R. Yosei remained silent.

When word of this conversation reached the Romans by way of an informant, and R. Shimon was sentenced to death and forced to go underground. Pursued by the Roman authorities, he fled together with his son, Elazar. The two hid in various places, including in the house of study of R. Yehoshua b. Hananya, which according to tradition is the site where Peqi’in’s ancient synagogue stands today.

After a period in the house of study, R. Shimon and his son were forced to flee again, moving to the concealed cave in Peqi’in, obscured by a giant carob that to this day decorates its entrance. They hid there for 13 years.

During this period, father and son were nourished by the fruit of the carob and drank from the spring (scientists explain an ancient earthquake  created the crevice and the abundant spring within it) until the threat was lifted and they were able to emerge from the cave without fear. According to tradition, R. Shimon wrote the holy Zohar during these years here. The site is also considered sacred by the non-Jewish residents of Peqi’in, who would not even allow people to pick leaves from the tree.

There is a local tradition that the ancient community of Peqi’in was originally on a different hilltop to the north, Ras ‘Abd. Only after the current locale was discovered and made famous on account of this same holy Tana and the abundant spring, did the residents of Peqi’in  move to the present location, where their lot was greatly improved due to the rich soil and other virtues of the place. At that time, and for about 1000 years, Peqi’in was a totally Jewish settlement.

One of the main proofs of the ancient history of Peqi’in’s Jews, according to the scholarship of President Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, is the old age of the carob tree located at the entrance of R. Shimon bar Yohai’s cave. In 1844, R. Haim ben Dov Horowitz wrote in his book Hibbat Yerushalayim: “It is written in Midrash Talpiot that R. Yaakov Prago heard from R. Yonatan Galanti, who heard from the holy Medaber, one from another all the way back to R. Shimon bar Yohai, that every Sabbath eve, the carob tree would turn into a date tree, as it is written, “the righteous bloom like a date palm” (Ps. 92:13). The carob is the property of the Jewish community, but, together with the cave, it also sacred in the eyes of the Christian and Druze village residents, who call the cave “Bani Ya’aqub” [sons of Jacob], thereby specifying that it belongs to the Jews. Jews and Arabs alike deposit containers of oil, candles, and coins at the cave’s entrance.

Between 1764-1765, R. Simcha Ben R. Yehoshua of Zalazitz journeyed through Palestine, and wrote:“There are Jews in Peqi’in, 50 homeowners who cultivate fields and vineyards….Peki’in is full of wonderful things, a land that lacks for nothing, where springs flow forth in the valley and on the mountain. It is also the location of R. Shimon bar Yohai’s carob tree. It is old and no longer bears fruit, and the non-Jews treat it as sacred. If a branch falls, they do not take it for any purpose… R. Rueven of Satnov told me that it is so large that he sat with some people and studied the Zohar in a group, while sitting in the treetop.”

When R. Menahem Mendel of Ravin Vitebsk set out approximately one hundred and twenty years ago on his journey to prostrate himself and pray at holy sites, he and his entourage arrived at the cave of R. Shimon. He writes:

“We set out hastily for the morning prayers at the mouth of the cave, where the Tana R. Shimon bar Yohai and Elazar his son hid for thirteen years. The carob still stands there at the entrance to the cave. We prayed there together under the shade of the carob, and recited from the Zohar at the cave’s entrance, but we did not enter. We also took some of the carob leaves in our pouches, as many as we could carry, since it is widely known for its wonderful remedial powers and value, even for keeping in one’s home.

However, the custodian commanded us not to touch the fruit of the carob, since one who partakes of it will be punished for it, risking his life. He showed us a number of sticks there from branches of this carob, cut down by non-Jews and planted on their roofs, causing everyone who came to their homes to suffer a bitterness like death, until they destroyed [the trees] to their foundation and returned them to the opening of the cave, where they remain.”

Among the wealth of documents preserved from the Acre community was a letter from the community of Peqi’in to the Jewish mukhtar (community leader) of Acre, Moshe Darwish Tsuri, from 1893. The letter was sent via a messenger named Avraham Zeituni on behalf of “the young Avraham David Cohen, pure Sephardi,” head of the community (‘young’ is a term of humulity often used by leaders; ‘pure  Sephardi’ attests to keeping a pedigreed and ethnic lineage). In this letter, the residents of Peqi’in request the financial assistance of the Acre community to outbid  a  Christian plan to purchase the cave of R. Shimon bar Yohai and establish a house of prayer. As it is near the village spring and sacred to most residents of the village, including non-Jews, the Christians were prepared to pay 200 liras in exchange for the place.  “We come in the name of the entire holy Sephardic community, may God sustain and protect it. We have been farmers and men of faith from our youth and to this day. Our forefathers here in the holy city of Peqi’in, may it be built and fortified, are appealing for funds so that the land will not be purchased where under the carob and the holy tree R. Shimon bar Yohai, may his merit protect us, built his nest with his holy band.”

At the end of this document is a round stamp. In its center is a tree, and around it the inscription: “Drawing of the carob and the spring of the divine Tana R. Shimon bar Yohai, may his merit protect us.” An outer circle is formed by the inscription, “Seal of the holy community of farmers in the village of Peqi’in near the holy city of Safed, may it be built and fortified.”

הצג את מערת רבי שמעון בר יוחאי, פקיעין במפה גדולה יותר