5769 - #28
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493:1,2
informs us that we observe certain elements of aveilut,
mourning, during 33 days of the omer period1
for, during this time, the students of Rabbi Akiva died.
The question still emerges: why, amongst the many
tragedies that have befallen the Jewish People in
history, was this one singled out to be marked by a
period of aveilut? A review of the Jewish calendar
would further uncover that all public connections to
mourning that have been enshrined in the Halacha
and, indeed, all Rabbinically legislated fast days2
are connected to the destruction of the
T.B. Yevamot 62b explains that the students3
of Rabbi Akiva were punished mipnei shelo nahagu kavod
zeh lzeh, they did not treat each other with
respect. The question is asked: how could these students
of Rabbi Akiva, who declared that the verse of Vahavta
lreiacha kmocha4 is a
great principle in Torah,5 not properly relate
to their fellows? One would expect that students of a
great rabbi would be especially focused on a precept of
Torah that was so significant to their teacher. Of
further interest, though, may also be that, in this time
period within one hundred years of the destruction of the
There would seem also to be other connections. Intimately
associated with the being of Rabbi Akiva were the
Hadrianic persecutions and the Bar Kochba rebellion. Lag
BOmer is, in fact, seen by many as a day that marks
the Bar Kochba rebellion. Otzer Dinim UMinhagim,
Lag BOmer writes that the custom of children to
play with bows and arrows on Lag BOmer is in
remembrance of those who went to war against the
destroyers of both the Temple and the students of Rabbi
Akiva who warred against the Romans.7 In many
ways, the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion can be seen
as a further downturn in the decline of the nation into
Exile, in a manner similar to how the assassination of
Gedaliah ben Achikum represented a further degradation
into the Babylonian Exile. If this is so, what occurred
in the time period of Rabbi Akiva clearly was connected
to our overall history with the Romans including the
destruction of the
Rabbi Akiva himself was tortured to death as part of
these persecutions. And what was it that Rabbi Akiva did
to warrant this terrible punishment at the hands of the
Romans? T.B. Berachot 61b explains that Rabbi
Akivas crime was that he taught Torah in public.
Rabbi Akiva was devoted to the continuation of Torah; and
is this not also the essence of the narrative in T.B.
Yevamot 62b? With the death of the students of Rabbi
Akiva, the world was desolate of Torah knowledge until
Rabbi Akiva was able to re-establish the chain of the
Torah tradition through his teachings to five great
pillars of the Mishnah: including Rabbi Shimon Bar
Yochiai.8 The period of mourning during the omer
would thus seem to mark the challenge of maintaining the
Torah tradition. We faced, through the loss of Rabbi
Akivas students, a churban, a destruction,
almost on par with the Churban HaBayit, the
destruction of the
Exile is more than removal from the land. It is a
separation from the fruition of our soul. The sinat
chinum that destroyed the
Rabbi Akiva, though, did also lay down the basis that allowed for it to turn. This is what we truly mark on Lag BOmer - the beginning of the movement out of exile. On this day we celebrate the essence of the fight against our enemies; first in spirit and then in a return to the land.9
Benjamin Hecht e-mail
1 Different customs have developed as to how this 33 day period of mourning, within the 49 days of the omer, is determined.
2 Some may wish to question whether Taanit Esther fits into this general remark. Explaining how it does, though, is beyond the parameters of this Insight.
3 While the Shulchan Aruch does not give the specific number, the gemara specifically states that there were 12,000 pairs (24,000) of Rabbi Akivas students who all died during this time.
4 Vayikra 19:18. The verse is generally and problematically translated as and you should love your neighbour as yourself.
5 Sifra, Kedoshim 45 (on Vayikra 19:18)
6 Further on the concept of sinat chinum and the translation of free hatred, see Insight 5757-22,23: Sinat Chinum, Parts 1 and 2.
7 While the gemara itself states that Rabbi Akivas students died of a plague, there are those who maintain that the gemara is just using a euphemism to avoid directly critiquing the Romans.
8 Specific mention is made of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as his being is also intertwined with the Roman attempt to limit Torah and his yahrzeit is marked on Lag BOmer.
9 Is it not interesting that the omer period today is also a time in which many further mark a return to the land?
© Nishma, 2009
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