From Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (Maimonides), Sefer HaMaspik (“The Guide to Serving God”), translated by Rabbi Yaakov Wincelberg (Feldheim Books), pp. 525-527. Although footnotes have been omitted, we have added explanatory information in parentheses.
RETREAT AS PRACTICED BY THE SAGES
To conclude this topic, we refer to the records of our early Sages, which tell of their retreat in caves. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son isolated themselves in a cave for a number of years. The original cause of their isolation was fear, because [the Romans] were hunting for them, as the Talmud relates (Shabbos 33b). Nonetheless, they realized a total and extended retreat [eventually spanning more than 12 years], which accomplished such a degree of Encounter that a fitting miracle was performed for them, as is related: “A miracle happened for them, and a carob tree and a wellspring were created there."
At the end of the story, it says clearly that at the conclusion of their retreat they nearly attained prophecy: "The prophet Eliyahu came and stood at the entrance of the cave. He said, ‘Who will tell the son of Yochai that Caesar has died, and his decree is terminated?’” When they left the cave, they were so detached from this world that they could not understand how a person could completely devote himself to plowing and planting – “They exited and saw people plowing and planting. They said, ‘Until when will you ignore the eternal life and engage in the fleeting one?’” Their concentrated thought had such a powerful effect that "any place they gazed at was set ablaze.”
They again merited Encounter after they left the cave, as it says, “A Heavenly voice proclaimed, ‘Have you come to destroy My world? Return to your cave!’ 'They returned for another twelve months.” They only left it with God's permission – “A Heavenly voice proclaimed, ‘Leave your cave!’ Then they went out and away from it.” They reached a level of chasidus warranting, “You will decree, and it will stand for you [and upon your path light will shine]” (Iyov 22.28): “Any place Rabbi Elazar would damage, Rabbi Shimon would repair. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar, ‘The world can suffice with the two of us.’” Delve into this and see how their way and their achievement of Encounter (through Divine revelations) were similar to those of the prophets.
Among the Sages were those who plowed in order to isolate themselves in the fields, apart from their need to work for a livelihood. They emulated the Patriarchs, who were shepherds. They were like Shaul, before his reign, and Elisha, who plowed, as is written (Shmuel I, 11-5; Melachim I, 19:19). One Sage who plowed (for the sake of isolation) was Abba Chilkiyah (Ta'anis 23a). Chananiah ben Chizkiyah ben Garon, as well, would retreat in his attic, and the greatest Sages of Israel would occasionally visit him to be blessed through him (Shabbos 13b).