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?


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.