The mitzvah to count the Omer (namely, to count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot) was in last week’s portion, Emor. These seven weeks of preparation lead us to the great day of Shavuot when we will receive the Torah.

Thirty three of these 49 days are observed as days of semi-mourning. No marriages take place, men do not take haircuts or shave, and we abstain from listening to music. The custom of mourning, which is not connected with the Biblical law to count the Omer, was instituted by the Rabbis many years after the Torah was given, out of respect for Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students all of whom died during the first 33 days of the Omer. Even today, we show our sorrow over the tragic loss of so many great Torah scholars by fulfilling the laws of mourning.

 This coming week (on Sunday), we will count the 33rd day of the Omer, the day on which the last of Rabbi Akiva’s students died. It is hard to imagine what it was like to attend about 725 funerals a day. This was obviously a very harsh decree from Heaven. What could they possibly have done to deserve such a harsh punishment? What was their crime?

            The Talmud tells us (Yevamot 62b):

אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר”מ, ור’ יהודה, ור’ יוסי, ורבי שמעון, ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה. תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת 

  Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Antifras to Givat (two cities far from each other) and all of them died in a short time, because they did not treat each other with respect. After they died, the world was desolate of Torah, until Rabbi Akiva went to the Sages in the south of Israel, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, who restored the Torah to its glory. We learned: They [the 24,000] all died between Pesach and Shavuot.

 Upon reading this passage we are confronted with a few difficult questions. (1) Where does the Torah prescribe the death penalty for disrespecting one’s friend? Of course, the Torah is very demanding that we treat each other with respect and that we do not insult or embarrass a fellow Jew, but where does it say that one who does so is punishable by death? Why, here, did they have to die? (2)  And if, indeed, they were so bad that they needed to die, why are we mourning for them? They obviously received what they deserved. (3) And what about their teacher, Rabbi Akiva: Didn’t he see the problem? Why didn’t he stop them?

Let’s answer the last question first. The Talmud (Avoda Zarah 18a) says:

כל מי שיש בידו למחות ואינו מוחה נענש עליו

Whoever has the ability to protest against an evil deed and does not, is punished for it.

This statement is directed at the community leaders. If they see the members of their community doing something wrong, they have the responsibility to correct them and set them straight. If they fail to do so, Hashem doesn’t fault the people; they were never told! He faults the leaders for not having corrected them. Therefore, the leader will be punished first.

Rabbi Akiva survived his students, so we must ask: Why was he not punished? Based on the teaching above, we must conclude that, as their leader, he was not punished because, indeed, he rebuked them! He was well aware of his students’ problem and did everything within his power to correct their attitudes and behavior; but the students were not receptive to his efforts. For if Rabbi Akiva was lax in his responsibility to criticize his students, he would have had to perished as well.

Rabbi Akiva is famous for the saying:

מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה כד פסקה ז:

ר”ע אומר (ויקרא יט) “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” זה כלל גדול

(Leviticus 19:18) “Love thy fellow as yourself; this is the most important rule in the Torah.”

It is reasonable to conclude that Rabbi Akiva realized the importance of “love your fellow as yourself” during the time that his students were dying.  This is what he had been continuously preaching to his students. “If you love your fellow as yourself, just as you do not wish to be disrespected, so, too, do not disrespect him.” But he made no headway because they were bent on disrespecting one another, and in the end they all perished. But why did they perish for a lack of respect?

To answer this question, we need to appreciate Rabbi Akiva’s special role in Jewish History.

The passage from the Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Akiva’s students were from Antifras to Givat. Rashi explains that these cities, and R. Akiva’s teaching, spanned the entire country. It is clear that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of the Jewish people. He was the master, and all Torah students flocked to him.

The Midrash tells us that indeed, from the time of creation, Rabbi Akiva was destined for this greatness.

The Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara (5a) relates:

 אמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב ‘זה ספר תולדות אדם וגו” וכי ספר היה לו לאדם הראשון? מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאדם הראשון דור דור ודורשיו דור דור וחכמיו דור דור ופרנסיו. כיון שהגיע לדורו של רבי עקיבא, שמח בתורתו ונתעצב במיתתו

Reish Lakish said: The verse in Genesis 5:1 says: “This is the account book of the descendants of Adam…” Did Adam actually have a book to look at? Its meaning is that Hashem showed Adam each future generation and its teachers, its Sages, and its leaders. When Hashem reached the generation of Rabbi Akiva, Adam rejoiced about Rabbi Akiva’s Torah and was saddened by his death.

We see from the Midrash that there was something special about Rabbi Akiva’s Torah that caused Adam to rejoice. What was that?

The answer can be found in the following story related in the Talmud (Menachot 29b).

 אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב”ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות. אמר לפניו, רבש”ע מי מעכב על ידך? אמר לו, אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות. אמר לפניו, רבש”ע הראהו לי! אמר לו, חזור לאחורך. הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים. תשש כחו. כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד, אמרו לו תלמידיו, רבי מנין לך? אמר להן, הלכה למשה מסיני. נתיישבה דעתו. 

Rabbi Yehuda quoted Rav: When Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, he found Hashem tying crowns on some letters. (In the font of the Sefer Torah, seven letters receive three-line “crowns” – such as on this letter Zayin.): 

Moshe asked Hashem, “What are those for?” Hashem told Moshe; “There will be a man after many generations – Akiva ben Yosef – who is destined to derive piles and piles of laws from each of the little lines of these crowns!” Moshe requested from Hashem. “Show him to me!” Hashem showed Moshe Rabbi Akiva’s classroom and told him to observe from the back of the room. Moshe went down and sat behind the eighth row. Moshe could not understand what they were saying and became nonplussed. Then, a student asked Rabbi Akiva, “What is the source of that law?” When Rabbi Akiva answered, “This is the law as Hashem gave it to Moshe on Sinai,” Moshe became consoled.

The Sages wonder about Moshe’s inability to understand Rabbi Akiva’s Torah. How is it possible? Our entire Torah is from Moshe, and if it didn’t come from Moshe, it isn’t Torah! Our Sages tell us that even the answer to any future question that a student will ask his Rebbi in the classroom was told to Moshe, so how could he not understand what Rabbi Akiva was saying?

Our Sages answer that Moshe Rabbeinu received the written Torah straight from Hashem. At that time, Hashem also taught Moshe the Oral Torah – the details and explanations of each mitzvah. Moshe relayed the explanations to the Jewish people as he taught them the Torah. Moshe, however, knew the Oral Torah only in the context of the Written Torah.

Rabbi Akiva lived almost 1,500 years after the Written and Oral Torahs were given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai. Yet to preserve the integrity of the Oral Torah, it had taken on different modalities. Rabbi Akiva was the only one who knew the clear connections between the Written and Oral Torahs, and he had developed methods of teaching the Oral Torah to his generation. This is why Moshe could not understand what he was saying. Of course, Moshe knew all the concepts and ideas that Rabbi Akiva was teaching, but he knew them in their original form as they had been given from Sinai. Now, however, those concepts were being presented in a way suited to Rabbi Akiva’s students but were, nevertheless, foreign to Moshe.

This was Rabbi Akiva’s greatness, which represented his essential role as a critical link in the transmission of the Torah. He deeply understood the connections between the Oral Torah and the Written Torah and was endowed with the ability to transmit it to the future generations. And this is what he taught his students. He was like the “Moshe Rabbeinu” of the Oral Torah.

Indeed, the Oral Torah that we have today comes from the five new students that Rabbi Akiva taught after the 24,000 died. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) teaches us:

דאמר רבי יוחנן, סתם מתניתין רבי מאיר, סתם תוספתא רבי נחמיה, סתם ספרא רבי יהודה, סתם ספרי רבי שמעון, וכולהו אליבא דרבי עקיבא

Rabi Yochanan said: The unattributed opinions in the Mishna are Rabbi Meir. The Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemiah, the Sifra is Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifri is Rabbi Shimon, all according to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva.(These four books comprise the core of the Oral Torah. The Talmud comes to explain them.)

This is why Adam rejoiced when he saw the Torah of Rabbi Akiva. He saw that Rabbi Akiva’s teachings would secure the understanding of the holy Torah for all generations.

We need one more component to understand why Rabbi Akiva’s students had to die due to their lack of respect for each other.

The Midrash provides a deeper understanding of the disrespect that went on between the students.

מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה סא פסקה ג

י”ב אלף זוגי תלמידים היו לר”ע מעכו ועד אנטיפרס וכולם בפרק אחד מתו למה שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו באלו ובסוף העמיד שבעה רבי מאיר ורבי יהודה רבי יוסי ור’ שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע ורבי יוחנן הסנדלר ור’ אליעזר בן יעקב ואית דאמרי ר’ יהודה ור’ נחמיה ורבי מאיר רבי יוסי ורשב”י ור’ חנינא בן חכינאי ורבי יוחנן הסנדלר א”ל בניי הראשונים לא מתו אלא שהיתה עיניהם צרה אלו לאלו תנו דעתכם שלא תעשו כמעשיהם עמדו ומלאו כל ארץ ישראל תורה

 Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Aku until Antifras and they all died during a short period because of צרות עין  – tzarut ayin [which translates as “narrow eyes.See below.]–  In the end, Rabbi Akiva found seven (not five, as appears in  the Talmud’s version) new students, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, , Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabbi Yochanan Hasandler, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov…  – Rabbi Akiva said to them, “My sons, the first ones died because they had narrow eyes, be sure not to follow in their ways.” Those new students restored Torah to the whole land of Israel.

 A note of interest. Both sources tell us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students. It doesn’t say, 24,000 students, rather 12,000 pairs. The lesson seems to be that the students were groups of two who saw eye to eye with each other but not with the other 11,999 pairs of students.

 Rabbi Akiva defined the reason that his students died. They were “narrow eyed.” The character flaw of “narrow eyes” is when one cannot tolerate that someone else has what he has. He wants to be the only one to have it, and when someone else has it, he feels as if that person has taken it from him.

This Midrash seems to present an entirely different reason for the students’ tragic demise. How does this Midrash, which defines their flaw as “narrow eyes,” fit with what the passage in the Talmud which offers as the reason – “a lack of respect for one another”?

Putting the two sources together, we come to the complete picture of what was going on between Rabbi Akiva’s pairs of students. Because they each wanted to be the best and felt hurt when someone else presented a good explanation of an idea, they couldn’t truly show respect to one another. They were adversaries. Each pair of students saw the others as threats, to the extent that the better the other pair was, the more diminished the first one felt, and the greater the reason to hate them. 

Moshe Rabbeinu, who gave us the Torah, is identified as being aטוב עין   (tov ayin – having  a good eye). This is the opposite of a “narrow eye.” A tov ayin is someone who wishes everyone could have what he has. He does not want to be the only person with the treasure; he wishes everyone could have his treasure. This is why Moshe Rabbeinu was the right person to teach Hashem’s Torah to the Jewish people! He wanted them to know everything that he knew and was happy to teach it to them.

Now we can understand why Rabbi Akiva’s students could not be the next link in the transmission of the Torah. Each one wanted to be the only one to have the Torah. He wanted to have the whole Torah to himself and wasn’t interested that others should know what he knew. On the contrary. Having it his way, he would be the only one to know the teachings of his great teacher Rabbi Akiva. Had this generation of scholars survived, the transmission of the Torah would have ended with them. The next generation would never have received the Torah from Rabbi Akiva. This is why they had to perish and a new crop of students was needed to take their places.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:6) teaches us a deeper level to this:  

(ו) גְּדוֹלָה תּוֹרָה יוֹתֵר מִן הַכְּהוּנָּה וּמִן הַמַּלְכוּת, שֶׁהַמַּלְכוּת נִקְנֵית בִּשְׁלֹשִׁים מַעֲלוֹת, וְהַכְּהֻנָּה בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבַּע, וְהַתּוֹרָה נִקְנֵית בְּאַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁמוֹנֶה דְבָרִים, וְאֵלוּ הֵן, בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתָיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, בְּפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בְּמִקְרָא, בְּמִשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, בְּקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוֹרִין, הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ, וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, וְהָעוֹשֶׂה סְיָג לִדְבָרָיו, וְאֵינוֹ מַחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמוֹ, אָהוּב, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַצְּדָקוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמֵּישָׁרִים, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַתּוֹכָחוֹת, וּמִתְרַחֵק מִן הַכָּבוֹד, וְלֹא מֵגִיס לִבּוֹ בְּתַלְמוּדוֹ, וְאֵינוֹ שָׂמֵחַ בְּהוֹרָאָה, נוֹשֵׂא בְעֹל עִם חֲבֵרוֹ, וּמַכְרִיעוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת, וּמַעֲמִידוֹ עַל הָאֱמֶת, וּמַעֲמִידוֹ עַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, וּמִתְיַשֵּׁב לִבּוֹ בְּתַלְמוּדוֹ, שׁוֹאֵל וּמֵשִׁיב שׁוֹמֵעַ וּמוֹסִיף, הַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לְלַמֵּד וְהַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לַעֲשׂוֹת, הַמַּחְכִּים אֶת רַבּוֹ, וְהַמְכַוֵּן אֶת שְׁמוּעָתוֹ, וְהָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ, הָא לָמַדְתָּ כָּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְאֻלָּה לָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּשֵׁם מָרְדְּכָי

Torah is greater than the Cohen’s realm and greater than royalty; for royalty is acquired with thirty attainments and the cohen’s realm with twenty four, while the Torah is acquired by 48 things. (The Mishna goes on to enumerate the 48 attributes one must have to truly acquire Torah.)

 Based on what we have learned about Rabbi Akiva’s students, here are some of the attributes cited in the Mishna that his students could clearly not have had.

He must have a close association with fellow students, a good heart, he must be a person who recognizes his place, one who is happy with his lot, one who is beloved, who loves mankind, who loves reproofs, who keeps far from honor, does not fill his heart with pride over his learning, who carries the yoke with his fellow, who learns in order to teach, and who quotes a teaching in the name of the one who authored it.

A צר עין  – “narrow eyed person” is one who is all wrapped up in himself and is not interested in his fellow’s welfare. It is also easy to see how the above requirements necessary to be a true Torah Scholar would not apply to a “narrow eyed person.” For example, he would not be happy with reproof and wouldn’t want to share his Torah with others.

When one’s character is deficient, so, too, is his Torah. For one to have pure untainted Torah within himself, he must be a pure, clean vessel. If a person has character flaws, his Torah, by definition, will also be flawed.

This is why the Torah stresses the need to have perfect character. Indeed, all the great Rabbis and leaders of the Jewish people are legendary in their pure and noble characters. Many books have been written about the great Rabbis who served as leaders of their communities, with story after story about their perfect character.

This is not optional; this is par for the course. The Torah in a sullied vessel becomes impure and distorted.

Because Rabbi Akiva was to serve as the link, through his students, to the future of the Oral Torah, it was imperative that each link in the chain of transmission be perfect so as not to distort the Torah’s teachings. But Rabbi Akiva’s students displayed a character flaw that would prevent them from understanding and transmitting the Torah correctly, and, thus, they would carry forward a distorted version of the Torah. Their desire to be the only one to have the Torah would not allow them to teach it to others, and even if they did, it would be distorted and invalid. They were concerned about their own honor, not in determining the truth of what Hashem said. Therefore, the Torah coming forth from them would be garbled and distorted. This is why they could not be the link to the future and had to perish to make way for appropriate students to take over.

We have one question left to answer. If Rabbi Akiva’s students were so bad, why are we mourning them? They did, after all, receive what they deserved.

We are in actuality mourning the Torah that was lost with all these students. All the Torah that the 24,000 students would have brought forward was lost on account of their character flaw. We have what we have from just five (or, per the Midrash, seven) students; could you imagine how much Torah there would have been from 24,000? That is indeed a tragedy!

The students dying between Pesach and Shavuot suggests a connection between their problem and the period in which they died. During the days of the Omer, as the Jewish people journeyed from Egypt to Sinai, they were working on divesting themselves of Egypt’s influence and trying to come closer to Hashem in preparation for the Torah. They were busy purifying themselves of their inappropriate biases and attitudes. They wanted to be the purest receptacle possible so that they could properly receive Hashem’s holy Torah. This is one of the lessons of the Omer.

This profound lesson is what should have been on Rabbi Akiva’s students’ minds during the counting of the Omer, and yet even with the constant teaching of Rabbi Akiva telling them, “Love your fellow as yourself, you must respect one another!” they did not change their ways.                                                                                                                                                                                 

This is a time in our calendar for introspection and correction, something that we need to be thinking about also as we daily count the Omer. As we observe the laws of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s students, we are reminded of the lesson of why they died specifically during this time. Focusing on this will help us with our personal growth during these impactful days.                   

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. sarah Krakauer

    Rabbi Cohen, i want to thank you for a very detailed history of the circumstances of the death of 12000 talmidim of Rabbi Akiva.
    I hope i was able to pass over to my chaveruta the importance of the correction of our character traits, specially during this period, All your Divrei Torah are priceless, and so helpful to teach others

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