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 Temples and/or the Exiles of the nation from its land. It would thus, further, seem that this period of mourning connected to the omer is a powerful exception. That is the essence of this question. Why was this event singled out to be marked by public mourning although it is not, seemingly, connected to exile? Or is it?

            T.B. Yevamot 62b explains that the students3 of Rabbi Akiva were punished mipnei shelo nahagu kavod zeh l’zeh, 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 V’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha4 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 Second Temple, it was a weakness in their relations to their fellows that they demonstrated. T.B. Yoma 9b specifically states that the Second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinum, free hatred.6 How could students of a rabbi who asserted the value in proper treatment of one’s fellows, living in the shadow of the Temple’s destruction, be so weak in this very relationship with their fellow students? Of further interest, though, may be that this specific weakness would seem to tie their punishment to the destruction of the Temple.

            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 B’Omer is, in fact, seen by many as a day that marks the Bar Kochba rebellion. Otzer Dinim U’Minhagim, Lag B’Omer writes that the custom of children to play with bows and arrows on Lag B’Omer 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 Second Temple and the long exile that we presently are suffering.   

            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 Akiva’s 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 Akiva’s students, a churban, a destruction, almost on par with the Churban HaBayit, the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Akiva fought, though, to maintain the chain of Torah, eventually giving his life for this necessary ideal; but, in the end, he met with success. The chain of Torah continued. Still Rabbi Akiva’s first 24,000 students died in the process. For this we mourn. This was a further part of the destructive reality of Exile.

            Exile is more than removal from the land. It is a separation from the fruition of our soul. The sinat chinum that destroyed the Temple was not only a reflection of a weakness in our social structure but in our Torah expression. To be a Torah nation, we must care for each other. Ahava, love, is not the only key to the survival of Torah. When we love someone we can actually overpower them in fear that they will make incorrect decisions. Ultimate love recognizes that those for whom we care must also be allowed to exercise their own wills. With love there can be a fear to allow the other to be an independent being. Success in our relationships, though, also demands that we respect the other and allow him/her to have an independence from us. This is also the way of Torah. Torah demands each individual to apply themselves uniquely in the process of Torah study and investigation. To truly continue the chain of Torah we must not only love our fellow but must also respect our fellow. Rabbi Akiva’s students heeded their teacher’s call to love but they missed the associated necessity of mutual respect. The tragedy of the causes of exile that led to the Churban thus continued to strengthen as the soul of Torah study itself became challenged. Bar Kochba’s rebellion could not turn the tide. We mourn in the omer for the exile of the spirit of Torah study.

            Rabbi Akiva, though, did also lay down the basis that allowed for it to turn. This is what we truly mark on Lag B’Omer - 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    

Rabbi 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 Ta’anit 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 Akiva’s 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 Akiva’s 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 B’Omer.

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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