Sefirat Haomer ll
The שולחן ערוך – Code of Jewish Law, teaches us of a custom not to get married from Pesach until the 33rd day of the Omer, for during these 33 days Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died. We thus, even today, show our sorrow over the tragic loss of so many great Torah scholars by not marrying, like someone in mourning. A second law of mourning that we observe is the practice of not cutting one’s hair (for men) and not shaving during these 33 days.
These customs present many questions. Why did all of Rabbi Akiva’s students die? What crime did they commit that they were they punished so severely? And if they died as a result of having committed a crime, why exactly are we mourning for them? They obviously deserved it.
The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot (62b) reveals the reason behind the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סב/ב
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 period 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.
So now we know what crime caused their death. But this creates an even bigger problem: Where does it say that disrespecting another is deserving of death? True, the Torah is very meticulous about how we treat each other, and it forbids us from speaking Lashon Hara, evil, about another person, or embarrassing another, but no death penalty is mentioned. This sounds extreme!
A 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,” – In the end, Rabbi Akiva found seven (different than the Talmud) new students, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Nechemia Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, … – 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.
The character flaw of “narrow eyes” is that one cannot tolerate another having what he has. He wants to be the only one to have it, to receive all the attention and notoriety. When someone else has it, he feels as if that person took it from him.
This seems to present an entirely different reason for the students’ tragic demise. How does the Midrash fit with what the Talmud which offers as the reason––a lack of respect for one another?
The Midrash actually provides the insight to understand the source of their lack of respect for one another, most importantly, why, in this context, it was fatal.
While the 24,000 students may have been very knowledgeable in Torah and deeply involved in understanding every nuance of what Rabbi Akiva taught them, their motivation was improper. Their interested was in displaying what great scholars they were and how erudite they were, and not in the Torah’s truth. This is the problem with aצר עין (narrow eyes) one who is upset, for example, when his friend says a good dvar Torah, feeling that he has stolen the thunder from him. One who is interested in the truth is excited to learn it no matter who said it. This is why they had no respect for one another: Each of these 24,000 students saw the others as threats to him, to the extent that the better the other person was, the more diminished the first one felt, and the greater reason to hate him. Moshe Rabbeinu is identified as aטוב עין – someone who wanted everyone to have everything that he had. This was the right person to teach Hashem’s Torah to the Jewish people! He was prepared to teach them everything he knew!
Rabbi Akiva was a crucial and essential component in the transmission of the Torah from Sinai, having been destined for this role from Creation.
The Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara (5a) says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ה/א
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 of the descendants of Adam…” Did Adam actually have a book to look at? The meaning of this 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.
The Talmud in Tractate Menachot (29b) tells an even more interesting story about Rabbi Akiva.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף כט/ב
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 went into heaven to receive the Torah, he found Hashem placing crowns on some letters. (in the font of the Sefer Torah, seven letters receive crowns – like the fine lines on top of this letter Zayin.)
Moshe asked Hashem, “What are they 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 said to 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 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 being unable to understand what Rabbi Akiva was saying. 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 the any future question a student will ask his Rebbi in the classroom was told to Moshe, so how could he not understand what Rabbi Akiva was saying? The short answer is that Moshe Rabbeinu gave us the written Torah. Hashem also taught Moshe the Oral Torah, the details and explanations of the mitzvot, the commandments, that Moshe relayed to the Jewish people as he taught them the Torah. Moshe, however, who received the Torah straight from Hashem, knew the Oral Torah in the context of the Written Torah.
Rabbi Akiva, who was many generations later, had developed methods of teaching the Oral Torah that were suitable and necessary for his and future generations. 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 the form of the written Torah. Now, however, the concepts were being presented in a way that was foreign even to Moshe!
But this was Rabbi Akiva’s greatness, which represented his critical and essential contribution to the Torah. He was uniquely endowed with the ability to translate the Written Torah into the Oral Torah in a way that was accessible to the future generations. And this is what he taught his students. He was the Moshe Rabbeinu of the Oral Torah.
Indeed, the Oral Torah that we have today comes from the five students that Rabbi Akiva taught after the demise of his 24,000 students.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף פו/א
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 Rabi Nechemiah, the Sifra is Rabi Yehuda, and the Sifri is Rabi 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 study the holy Torah for all generations.
One would think that, to play such a vital role in the transmission of the Torah, Rabbi Akiva would have been born into the most righteous and pious of families and would have been a child prodigy in his study of Torah. He was not. Rabbi Akiva has a truly remarkable story as related in Avos D’Rabbi Nosson Chapter 6.
אבות דרבי נתן פרק ו
מה היה תחלתו של ר’ עקיבא. אמרו בן ארבעים שנה היה ולא שנה כלום.
What was Rabbi Akiva’s beginning? He was 40 years old and had never learned a word. He did not even know the Hebrew alphabet.
Rabbi Akiva testified about himself, “Before I became a scholar, if you would have shown me a sage, I would have bitten his foot like a donkey.” They asked him, why are you being so specific as to say “like a donkey?” He answered, “I chose the donkey because when a donkey bites, it breaks the bone. That is how much I hated them.”
What made Rabbi Akiva think he could succeed in Torah at the age of 40 years old?
The Avos D’Rabbi Nosson relates that Akiva was once standing next to a well when he noticed that a stone had a hole worn through it.
He wondered, “What made that hole in the stone?”
They answered him, “Drops of water bore the hole via dripping on it over many years.”
Rabbi Akiva thought to himself: If the water, which is so soft, could make a hole in a rock, which is so hard, certainly the Torah, whose words are as sharp and penetrating as arrows, will make an impression on my heart, which is so soft.”
Upon teaching us this story, my teacher, Harav Chaim Kraisworthזצ”ל , asked us the following question. “Did the first drop of water to fall on the stone make an impression on it?” Initially we thought, of course not! What could one drop do? But upon thinking a little deeper we had to conclude that it must have made some difference to the rock, however small and imperceptible. For if the first drop did nothing, the accumulation of millions of drops would also have accomplished nothing.
This, said my teacher, is what Rabbi Akiva realized. I want to quote Rav Kraisworth’s exact words in Yiddish as they are indelibly etched in my brain: “Nor, iz muz treefen a sach.” “But, it takes a lot of drops.” Even though we don’t see the impression that the individual words of Torah make on our hearts, as they continue to drip consistently, over time, the effect upon our souls becomes clear. Rabbi Akiva was up to the challenge of taking it one step at a time, for the long run, and it certainly payed off.
My teacher added another important lesson from this story. “Do you think that Rabbi Akiva was the only person to notice the hole in the stone? Over the many years, many people must have noticed it and marveled at the ability of the soft water to bore a hole in a hard stone. But Rabbi Akiva was the only one who took it to heart and said to himself, ‘Okay, what’s the lesson? What’s the action item from this phenomenon?’ Everyone else just marveled and went on his merry way without seeking to apply a lesson to themselves. What made Rabbi Akiva so special, was that he took the lesson deeply to heart, and became the Moshe Rabbeinu for the Oral Torah (just as Moshe was the only to stop and take notice of the burning bush. Everyone else saw it, but just kept on walking.).
I shudder to think what Torah would look like today had Rabbi Akiva not made the choice that he did. But we see a remarkable thing: he was created for this mission, as both Adam and Moshe foresaw. Yet he had to make the decision to fulfill that calling. This is the beauty of freedom of choice. Hashem has created each of us with a mission in life and has endowed us with the tools that we need to fulfill that mission. We must, however, make the correct choices to bring us to fulfill that mission, and thus we receive all the credit for having made the proper choices.
Because Rabbi Akiva was to serve as the link, through his students, to the future, it was imperative that the lines of transmission be perfectly clear so as not to distort the Torah. The 24,000 students who were learning the Torah with the improper motivation and were uninterested in the truth for the sake of the truth, could not be the link to the future. They had to perish to make way for new students to take over.
Rabbi Akiva was well aware of the problem with his students, and he tried everything in his power to try to correct their attitudes and behavior, but the students were not receptive to his efforts. Rabbi Akiva is the one who goes down in history as 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.”
This is what he was preaching to his students day in and day out. If Rabbi Akiva had not been admonishing them for their inappropriate behavior, they could not be blamed. It would have been his fault for not admonishing them, and he would have been held responsible, not them. He would have been killed first! But he went on to teach new students, and those who refused to change their ways perished.
This is the reason for the mourning. What a tragedy! All the Torah that the 24,000 students would have brought forward was lost on account of the flaw in their character. We have what we have from just 5 students; could you imagine how much there would have been from 24,000?
The students having all died between Pesach and Shavuot suggests a deep 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 profound lesson is what should have been on their minds during the counting of the Omer, and 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 count the Omer every day. As we observe the laws of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, we are reminded of the lesson of why they died in specifically this time. This will help us with our personal growth during these impactful days.