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There once was a man who had twenty-four thousand disciples. He taught them to love, but their love was too absolute, too true, to be loving. They died, and their death spawned a period of mourning that darkens our calendar to this very day.

This man had one disciple who devoted his entire life—literally his every minute—to the pursuit of truth. Yet his truth was true enough to love. He, too, passed from this world, and the anniversary of his passing is celebrated as a day of joy and festivity to this very day.

This, in a word, is the story of Lag BaOmer—the story of Rabbi Akiva and his greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

A Celebrated Death

The 18th of Iyar is Lag BaOmer—the 33rd day of the Omer count, which spans the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. Two joyous occasions are associated with this day. During the Omer period we mourn the deaths of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because, as the Talmud informs us, “they did not conduct themselves with respect for each other”; Lag BaOmer is the day on which the plague ended and the dying ceased. Lag BaOmer is also the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Before his death (many years later, without connection to the plague), Rabbi Shimon referred to the day of his passing as “the day of my happiness” and instructed his disciples that it be observed each year as a day of joyous celebration.

Why is the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s other disciples mourned as a national tragedy, while the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is remembered with celebration and joy? Indeed, the very same day that celebrates the end of the dying of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples celebrates the death of his greatest disciple! To unravel the paradox of Lag BaOmer, we must first examine the root of the disrespect that caused the plague amongst Rabbi Akiva’s disciples.

Rabbi Akiva taught that “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ is a cardinal principle in the Torah”; indeed, this is the most famous of his teachings. One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle. How was it that they, of all people, were deficient in this area?

But their very diligence in fulfilling the precept “Love your fellow as yourself” was their undoing. Our sages have said that “just as every person’s face differs from the faces of his fellows, so too every person’s mind differs from the minds of his fellows.” When the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva studied their master’s teachings, the result was 24,000 nuances of understanding, as the same concepts were assimilated by 24,000 minds—each unique and distinct from its 23,999 fellows. Had Rabbi Akiva’s students loved each other less, this would have been a matter of minor concern; but because each disciple loved his fellows as he loved himself, he felt compelled to correct their erroneous thinking and behavior, and to enlighten them as to the true meaning of their master’s words. For the same reason, they found themselves incapable of expressing a hypocritical respect for each other’s views when they sincerely believed that the others’ understanding was lacking, even in the slightest degree.

The greater a person is, the higher are the standards by which he is judged; in the words of our sages, “With the righteous, G‑d is exacting to a hairsbreadth.” Thus, what for people of our caliber would be considered a minor failing had such a devastating effect upon the disciples of Rabbi Akiva.

The Thirteenth Year

But there was one disciple of Rabbi Akiva who learned to overcome the pitfalls of uncompromising love and uncompromising truth, as exemplified by the following incident in the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

The Talmud relates that when the Roman rulers of the Holy Land placed a price on the heads of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar, they hid in a cave for twelve years. During this time, they spent every minute of their day studying Torah. When they emerged from the cave, they were shocked to discover people plowing and sowing: how could people set aside the eternal life that is Torah, and occupy their days with the transitory life of the material? So intense was their wrath at such folly that whatever met with their burning glance went up in flames. Proclaimed a voice from heaven: “Have you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave!” Rabbi Shimon’s thirteenth year of study, while increasing his knowledge and appreciation of the truth of Torah, also taught him the value of endeavors other than his own. Now, wherever he went, his look would heal rather than destroy.

The 4,000-year history of Jewish learning has known many great and diligent students of Torah; yet none epitomized the absolute devotion to the pursuit of the divine truth to the extent exemplified by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Throughout the writings of our sages, his example is cited as the ultimate case of torato umnato, “one whose study of Torah is his sole vocation.”

Certainly, then, Rabbi Shimon’s commitment to truth was no less absolute than that of Rabbi Akiva’s other disciples. Yet his truth was true enough to love. In his thirteenth year in the cave, he attained a dimension of the divine truth that tolerates, indeed embraces, the many and diverse avenues of connection to G‑d which the Creator has provided to a humanity whose minds, characters and temperaments are as diverse as their number. In his thirteenth year in the cave, Rabbi Shimon attained a level of truth in which he could utterly devote himself to the eternal life that is Torah, and advocate such devotion for everyone else, and at the same time appreciate and respect the path of those who serve G‑d via the temporal life of material endeavors.

So the very same day that celebrates the end of the plague amongst Rabbi Akiva’s disciples also celebrates the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The chassidic masters explain that the passing of a righteous person marks the point at which “all his deeds, teachings and works” attain the pinnacle of fulfillment and realization, and the point of their most powerful influence upon our lives. And the deeds, teaching and works of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are the ultimate rectification of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples’ tragic failure to achieve the proper synthesis of love and truth that would make their love true and their truth loving.

As Yourself

As noted above, it is only among people of the caliber of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples that such a failing could bode such devastating results. But our sages chose to record this story for posterity and fix it in our lives with a series of laws that govern our behavior in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot each year. Obviously, we, too, have something to learn from what happened to Rabbi Akiva’s disciples.

The lesson is twofold: we must learn from their virtues as well as from their mistakes. We must learn to care enough for our fellowman to not indulge his errors and accommodate his failings. This might be the easiest and most socially comfortable way to behave, but rather than tolerance, it bespeaks an indifference toward his or her welfare. On the other hand, we must never allow our commitment to his betterment to lessen in the slightest our respect and esteem toward him, no matter how misguided and unresponsive he might be.

If this seems paradoxical, it is. But the ability to embrace this paradox is at the very heart of the Torah’s commandment to “love your fellow as yourself.” For in regard to ourselves, it is a paradox with which we are quite comfortable—every psychologically healthy person loves himself unconditionally and, at the same time, incessantly strives to improve himself. This paradox we must also cultivate in our relationship with others: on the one hand, we must never compromise our efforts to improve our fellowman out of respect for his views and feelings; on the other hand, we must never allow these efforts to compromise our love and respect for him.

For to succumb to either compromise is to fail to love him as we love ourselves—a principle which Rabbi Akiva considered fundamental to G‑d’s blueprint for life, and of which Hillel said: “This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.”

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Ephraim Zas Johannesburg via chabadsouthafrica.org May 24, 2016

Great in-depth article, thank you. Now, i understand the "G-d is exacting to a hairsbreadth with the righteous" idea, but i wish i could swallow the idea that 24,000 yidden had to die for their "grave" sin. We say it so easily.. 24,000.. it's a holocaust of people. think of their wives and familes. And they were still righteous! Perhaps you'll remind me of the story of Nadav and Avihu. But still, this is difficult, do you agree?

i wish i could believe, and tolerate this piece of history easier. Reply

RG UK May 22, 2016

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai thank you very beautiful Reply

mark gersten Great Neck, NY May 7, 2015

The potential and pain of the omer Counting Omer brings us to
The highest level for a Jew
In Egypt sinning brought us shame
At Sinai it was not the same
It took us almost fifty days
But then perfected were our ways
A holy nation we became
Through Torah we brought G-d’s name fame
In later days this time of year
Brought death and sorrow many tears
Akiva’s student’s tragic fate
Brought on by pride and baseless hate
The dying stopped for just one day
On Lag B’omer, it's today
We celebrate this day each year
When smiles can push away a tear
The sadness came from senseless hate
We must strive to eliminate
And substitute with senseless love
To merit blessings from above
(c)markgerstenmay2015 Reply

Ray Manchester May 6, 2015

'The dying ceased' Is that really a 'joyous occasion'?
The dying ceased because there weren't any disciples left to die! Reply

Ezequiel Colòn Naples April 30, 2015

Awesome read Reply

Chany Vaknin April 29, 2015

Beautifully written and explained! Amazing sicha! Thank you! Reply

Curious Doug Canada April 29, 2015

Vespasian.? Is this the same Rabbi that began our Yeshiva tradition by being granted that wish by Vespasian, the newly crowned Caesar after conversing with him after being smuggled out of a besieged Jerusalem in a coffin? Reply

shiana May 22, 2011

thanks thank you for a welll rounded view of lag beomer! Reply

Sandra L. Johnson highland, indiana May 22, 2011

Torah truth love and understanding Torah teaches us truth not tolerance for tolerance will not confront evil .
Understanding , perception ,and wisdom are Torah gifts which communicate to the world the compassionate love of G-d the one true G-d.We bring Glory to G-d when we
are not forced by bridle or bit to walk the study of Torah but by a yearning to be near our beloved G-d. Reply

Elizabeth Flower May 22, 2009

the 23,999 fellows are religions in the world. Everybody wants to be right in what they believe. God revealed himself to the world and everybody took his/her own interpretation. That is why we don't respect each other.
We must come out of the cave and realize that tolerance for others is not real love. We must learn to truly love one another. Reply

Anonymous May 10, 2009

Love and Respect I am grateful to have read this article today. In my marriage I have continually felt that though my husband says he loves me, he does not respect my right to serve G-d as I see fit - with happiness! It's reassuring to read that true love allows room for the other person to be different. Reply

Traci boca raton, fl May 7, 2009

Do you suppose that the date of his passing may he rest in peace speaks not only of love but of a precursor to let the love one has emanate , that would be humility. It has been an example when one described Moses, humility. Rabbi Shimon was born I believe and passed away on hod sheba hod humility of humility. It is not saying that we do not have the capacity to love another as ourselves. I believe that G-d gave us this because we are a spark of G-d. How do we uncover this so that it can radiate to others and the world . Perhaps the clue is on the very day of Rabbi Shimon's passing may he rest in peace. To be able to be humble takes Torah study and daily work not from a place we have decided to perceive from but rather the place that G-d has told us is Truth., Torah. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY May 6, 2009

Reply to Adiv The term "derech eretz" can variously mean "way of the world" or "good manners." G-d wants even Torah scholars, and especially Torah scholars, to remember that "derech eretz goes before Torah." This is not intolerance but a basic lesson in understanding human nature: those who are strict with themselves must still be compassionate toward others. The Rebbe and his predecessors were kindly toward simple Jewish people who worked hard to earn a living, and they spent much time patiently explaining their ideology to Jews who were hostile and far removed from Chabad teachings. Also, this is a reminder that G-d is the Ultimate Judge. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had no right to judge G-d's creations and find them lacking; only G-d has that right. It's not "lethal intolerance" but a deep sincere belief in the utter righteousness of G-d. Despite our lack of understanding, particularly when good people die, we repeat that Gd's ways are perfect; He is the True Judge. Reply

Eric Sander Kingston North Hollywood, CA May 18, 2008

Intention I needed to read this today. It is hard to balance truth & love, but at some point they must be the same, but our purpose should be to "communicate with people, not control them." Reply

HaSefaradi Spain May 16, 2006

Expand Very fine essay. But, for further study could anyone cite authority regarding
"car[ing] enough for our fellow man not to indulge his errors and accommodate his failings." I am struggling with this on a familial level and need guidance. Reply

Adiv Abramson May 14, 2006

Lag BaOmer A wonderful and thought provoking essay!

I am bothered by the incident in which R' Shimon and his son emerged from their hiding in a cave and became incensed at people for engaging in plowing and sowing (which, by the way is the means to producing the 'flour' that ultimately sustains the lomdei Torah), to such an extent anything or anyone upon whom they gazed with displeasure was immolated. Whereupon Hashem accused them of attempting to destroy His world and remanded them to their cave for another year. Yet did not Hashem display a similar level of lethal intolerance to the talmidei R''Akiva be exterminating them because of their lack of mutual respect? Reply

Emmanuel May 14, 2006

Thanks Thank you for your insightful article. Reply

y'hoshua halevi Sylmar, CA USA August 16, 2005

Please expand Thank you for this piece. Please expand in more detail exactly what was lacking in the relationship between Rabbi Akiva's talmidim.

If we, today, could see more clearly, perhaps with actual examples what was lacking back then, we could more directly focus our efforts to improve.

Rabbi Akiva was so great, how could so many of his students "miss" such an essential point? You mentioned that they were on such a high level and were thus judged more strictly, but these weren't just anyone's students. These were mi'rabi akiva, mamash!

More information, references etc. would be so helpful. thank you for all your great work!!! Yasher koach! Reply

Anonymous S. Louis Park, MN March 10, 2005

Article Thank you for the article - it's very deep and useful! Reply