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Why the Big Deal About the Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Students?

Why the Big Deal About the Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Students?

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Question:

I read on your site about the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva who, due to their lack of respect for each other, died between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. I read that as a result of this there are special laws of mourning during this period, such as not getting haircuts or holding weddings. One thing, however, I don’t get. Yes, 24,000 students dying is indeed a tragedy, but unfortunately we Jews have had much greater tragedies throughout our history, and we don’t have unique mourning periods for them. So why do we make such a big deal about this tragedy in particular?

Reply

Unfortunately, you’re right. We’ve had many tragedies throughout our long and torrid history. Some of these tragedies even took place during the very same mourning period between Passover and Shavuot.

Before getting to the crux of the issue, it is worth noting some of the additional reasons given for the Omer mourning period, if only to further strengthen the question.

  • According to one opinion in the Mishnah, the judgment of the wicked in Gehinnom (often translated as Hell) takes place between Passover and Shavuot.1
  • It is a time of severity and judgment pertaining to crops (which is one reason why the Omer offering is brought at that time).2
  • From the First Crusade to the pogroms and blood libels, the period between Passover and Shavuot was especially brutal for the Jews, with entire communities of tens of thousands of Jews killed.3
  • The mystics teach that these days are days of judgment and severity.4

Yet none of these are given as the classic reason for this mourning period. This leads us back to your question: What was so unique about those 24,000 students dying?

Tradition Almost Wiped Out

The answer to this can be found by examining a key phrase in the Talmud’s account of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples:

It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; all of them died at the same time, because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate [of Torah] until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught them Torah. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot. Rabbi Chama bar Abba, or some say Rabbi Chiya bar Avin, said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? Rabbi Nachman replied: Croup.5

Rabbi Akiva was a master teacher, and a key link in the oral tradition stretching back all the way to Moses—so much so that the Talmud relates that whenever we encounter an anonymous statement in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Sifra or Sifri, it is one of Rabbi Akiva’s (new) students recounting a teaching that he heard from Rabbi Akiva.6

Rabbi Akiva (c. 20–c. 137 CE) lived through the destruction of the second Holy Temple, and his students passed away sometime after the destruction. While the destruction and subsequent exile was a major blow to the Jewish nation, there was always the Torah that kept us strong, giving us vital energy to survive as a nation throughout this long and bitter exile. And yet, because of the lack of respect between Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, the world was left barren and almost completely bereft of this key to our very survival as a nation.

This is the reason why we still mourn their passing. It’s not so much the number of people who died. After all, as you point out, while any single person dying is a tragedy, unfortunately this is far from a unique occurrence. Rather, it is the blow to our very essence and vitality as a nation that we mourn.

And yet, from tragedy springs hope. After this incident, not only did Rabbi Akiva not give up teaching Torah, but some of our greatest rabbis, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Meir, are listed among his new disciples, thus ensuring the continuity of our Torah traditions.

Footnotes
1.
See Chok Yaakov to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493:3.
2.
See Mishnah, Eduyot 2:10; see also Chok Yaakov ibid.
3.
Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 493:1.
4.
Pri Eitz Chaim, Shaar Sefirat ha-Omer 7; Shaar ha-Kavanot, Sefirat ha-Omer 12.
5.
Talmud, Yevamot 62b.
6.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 86a.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Shoshana Jerusalem June 19, 2016

to Y.G., Thailand June 16 No eyin haraw is going to fall on the Jews, G-d forbid! Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem June 19, 2016

Drs. G. Goldsteen Thank you for your reply. I found it easily enough. I'll show it to my husband and he'll look it up. Meanwhile, I'm sure you saw Yehuda Shurpin's answer in the blue box. Reply

Drs. Gershon Goldsteen Launceston, Tasmania, Australia June 17, 2016

Flat Earth claim continued You have finally posted my response to Shoshana of Jerusalem, more than a month after I submitted it. You have posted it chronologically so it is possible she will not see it as she is not likely now to look back to see if I responded to her request.
I should be grateful if you also responded to my main claim about the rising and setting of the sun as per Talmud in my posting of 9 May, which started the conversation.
I should also appreciate it if you informed Shoshana of my reply to her question and where it is. Reply

Yankeleh Gilead Thailand June 16, 2016

Chabad and helping others There are indeed a few more Chabad Houses in Thailand now. and, I'm so proud to say that during the great flood, (although not as far back as the biblical one), in 2010, Reb Kantor and all the other Chabad rabbis here and Chabad members, did pitch in to help those flood victims with food, water, used clothing, and it was really a mitzveh to see. Although I'm far from, any Chabad House in the boonies, I did collect clothes from everyone I knew and sent it to a local army base where the military were also actively collecting everything to help the flood victims. Now, it only remains to be seen if one day, should the ayin rah fall upon Jews here, if anyone will pitch in to help us. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin, Author June 16, 2016

Re: Faulty Flat earth claim I'm not sure what it has to do with the article itself, but I'll try to reply in brief... The Talmud often speaks in metaphors and analogies and it isn’t always clear whether a particular piece is meant to be understood similar to a Midrash or subjective reality. Be as it may be, there are indeed a couple of passages which some claim can be understood to indicate that the Rabbis of the Talmud were of the opinion that the earth was flat. However, even if that is indeed the meaning of those passage (which is itself debatable), all that it would show is that there were “some” who thought that way, but not that this is what the Talmud categorically held. Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) who lived way before columbus notes that there was only a “minority” of Rabbis who held the opinion that the world was flat.

Besides for the passages in Pesachim and Chagigah which are cited as possibly indicating that the Rabbis held that the world is flat, there are many other passages of the Rabbis which state the opposite, that the world is round.

The Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3:1 describes the world as a ball. As does the Midrash in a number of places, see for example Midrash Bamidbar Rabah 13:17 as well as Breishis Rabah 63:14 and Esther Rabah 1:7. Similarly we find that the Zohar vol. 3 10a states "...all the world rolls in a circle like a ball... There are places in the world that when it is light for those on one side of the sphere it is dark for those on the other." The Talmud Nazir 7a seems to imply the same idea as the Zohar.

So while itself debatable, at most what you have is a minority opinion which held that it was flat, with the majority holding it is round. Reply

Anonymous June 16, 2016

Excellent and well said! Thanks for posting! Reply

Yitzchak-Jerusalem Jerusalem May 15, 2016

24,000 studenta Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem has about five thousand students, bli eyin horah. Rabbi Akiva's students were in many different yeshivas and he went from yeshiva to yeshiva to teach them.

The question is asked, if they were so great, then why did they have this sin? The answer is that they were judged on a very high level. This idea is discussed in Rabbi Akiva Tatz's book on free will, in chapter 7, "Sins of the Great", as well as in many other places. Reply

Drs. Gershon Goldsteen Launceston, Tasmania, Australia May 14, 2016

Jews in Thailand Several years ago there were one or more Chabad Houses in Thailand. At least one was mentioned in the press for the fantastic assistance they provided to victims of the great Tsunami tragedy. Reply

Drs. Gershon Goldsteen May 14, 2016

Faulty Flat earth & Sun's motion claims My assertions about the Talmud's claims about the Earth's shape and the Sun's motion can be found in two books:"Rabbinical Mathematics and Astronomy" by W.M. Feldman, 3rd edition, 1978, Hermon Press and "Torah and Science by Dr. Judah Landa, 1991, KTAV Publishing House.
Landa's book on pages 55 to 68 will provide you with the various incorrect claims in the Talmud, which appear in Pesachim 94A, Hagigah 12b & 15a, Bava Batra 25b & Yoma 20b.
The book by Feldman may be out of print. On pages 64, 71-72 & 102 he quotes from Pesachim 91b and Hagiga 12b.
Given that the Greeks already had the right idea a few centuries prior to the writing of the Talmud it is a mystery to me that the Rabbis rejected it. Admittedly most peoples rejected it and the flat earth and other misconceptions prevailed for centuries. In 1492 CE Columbus was warned that his ships would fall off the earth if he sailed Westward to find the Indies! Reply

Yankeleh Gilead Thailand May 12, 2016

Dear Shoshana in Jerusalem, thank you for your kind comments which I do appreciate. Yes, there are lots of Jews in Thailand. Reb Kantor is our chief rabbi so to speak. We have a few shuls, and, even a Sephardic shul. There is even a Jewish cemetery. We celebrate most yomtovim in quite grand style. We have a few kosher restaurants and a few kosher shops. If you ever come to Thailand, please, without hesitation, get in touch with Reb Kantor at the shul and you will receive the most pleasant welcome and be surprised with the size of the Jewish community. Of course, at times it is not always possible to raise a minyon, but, there are days, and there are days. As for your thoughts about the drought ending soon, I hope your wishes go directly to God's ears. Ohmain, and Shabat Shalom. Reply

Shoshana-Jerusalem Jerusalem May 12, 2016

re: Drought I sincerely hope that your drought will end and that G-d will provide food and parnasah for all of you. Am sure that you are praying very hard for rain but you shouldn't give up, just keep praying.

P.S. Didn't know that there are Jews in Thailand! Last year I saw of group of very nice women and their children at the Kotel and struck up a conversation with one of them, who told me that they are Christians from Thailand who come here every year to pray, because they know that all bracha (blessing) comes from here.

All the best. Reply

Yankeleh Gilead Thailand May 11, 2016

Rabbi Akiva's students Relevance to anything lies only in the point that we can relate to it. If a Jew was raised without relevance to the High Holy Days for example, it dopes not matter to him/her. Many things are generational as well. What makes a difference to grandparents might not be as important to their children, and of less relevance to grandchildren. what happens here and now is more important to me than the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students. I don't relate to the issue, so in my personal view, I don't really care. The drought in Thailand is severe, no water for my fruit trees. This is my parnoseh. This is relevant to me, and this I relate to, but others outside Thailand do not. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem May 10, 2016

re: flat earth Could please quote for me where the Talmud says the world was flat?
The Zohar says it's round, with people on one side standing head up, while on the other side they are upside down. Also, please tell me where it says that the sun was never below the horizon? Thank you. Reply

Drs. Gershon Goldsteen Launceston, Tasmania, Australia May 9, 2016

To Shoshana re: R' Akiva & 24,000 students If R' Akiva taught 24,000 over 24 years it means at least 1,000 students per year, which is still far too many. If they were all Torah giants then surely they would have behaved accordingly and not have died in a plague.
I have great admiration for the Rabbis, who put together the Talmud. Some of the things they knew have only recently been rediscovered by scientists/medical doctors. However this does not mean that everything they wrote is true like you claim. One main error is that they claimed the Sun would rise in the East and set in the West (correct so far)and disappeared through an opening in the sky to rise above the opaque sky and move from West to East (and we could not see it and hence it was night) from West to East and reappeared the next morning in an opening in that opaque sky on the East side. So it was never below the horizon. This is of course completely wrong. Most of them claimed the Earth was flat.
I am an observant orthodox Jew, but also think for myself. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem May 9, 2016

Moshiach It could be that the Moshiach is already here and cannot yet reveal himself until the time comes that G-d tells him to do so. He could be one of our well-known rabbanim or maybe a hidden tzadik. There was a story some years ago that Rav Kadori had met (or seen) him. Another great rabbi said that he is already walking in the streets of Jerusalem. We won't know until he comes and may it be speedily in our days. And may we all be properly prepared with Torah and Mitzvos, otherwise we will be left out. The time is very close. Reply

Jo uk May 8, 2016

Moshiach Where do the prophets say he'll come from? Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem May 8, 2016

to Gershon Goldsteen, May 5, 2016 and Hudel Manya and Jo in uk Rabbi Akiva didn't teach all the students at one time or in one place. These were students that were raised up over a period of 24 years.

Also, if says in the Talmud that he had 24,000 students, then he had 24,000 students.

Rabbi Akiva's talmidim did not die in the Bar Kochba rebellion. If it says in the Talmud that they died of a plague, then they died of a plague. And this is a fact that was know throughout Jewish history. Furthermore it is inconceivable that these 24,000 Torah giants, each one greater than we can even imagine, would have left their studies and gone to fight in a rebellion. Google in on this Webcite and you will find the reasons for the bow and arrow on Lag B'omer.

The Third Temple will be built, please G-d, speedily in our days, when the Moshiach will come and may we all merit to see it!



Reply

Jo Uk May 8, 2016

In answer to the 24,000 students question, I think that in those days a person was a 'follower' of a certain' teacher' s thoughts ' nationally and was said to be their student
Much like the Greeks had Aristotle etc Reply

Hudel Manya detroit May 5, 2016

Akiva's students I have a few problems with this mourning period which we are observing.
First, if HaShem caused the students of Akiva to die because they lacked respect for each other, then how can we mourn? It was HaShem's punishment of them.
Second, we are taught not to mourn excessively. It seems to me, we should mourn the destruction of the temple longer than the death of these scholars.
Third, there are records of plagues from that time period. There seems to be no record of any plague.

We know Rabbi Akiva considered Bar Kochba to be Moshiach. It would not be inconceivable for them to join his rebellion. Going out with bow & arrows on Lag B'Omer would be consistent with that. Reply

Gershon Goldsteen Launceston, Tasmania, Australia May 5, 2016

24,000 students ? My problem is not so much the mourning but accepting R' Akiva had 24,000 students. You cannot suggest they studied according to the Chavrusah method because there were no books and at best a few handwritten copies of the Tanach or Mishna. In other words R' Akiva could only teach orally. At best he could teach 50 students in a session. Let's say he was able to teach 8 hours a day for 6 days each week. To teach 24,000 students in groups of 50 only 1 hour would take 480 hours or 60 days, i.e. 10 weeks. How much could his students learn if they can only listen to him 1 hour per ten weeks? Even if you allow R' Akiva to teach 12 hours a day (which is unlikely) students could listen to him once per 6 weeks, which is still not very helpful for learning. For proper learning I think there could have been no more than 120 students. Reply

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