Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 Students

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A scholarly, mystical look at the Omer mourning period by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The days between Passover and Shavuot are known as the days of the Omer. These 49 days are counted as we anxiously await the 50th day – Shavuot – when we commemorate the giving of the Torah.

It is interesting to note that the Torah itself does not explicitly state that Shavuot is the day on which the Torah was given. Rather, the counting is directed towards a date of agricultural significance — new fruits would bebrought to Jerusalem on Shavuot. On the other hand, the understanding that this day is indeed the day of Revelation is based on simple mathematics, implicit in the narrative.1

The Torah successfully merges pedestrian, mundane activity with deep theological constructs.

The Torah successfully merges pedestrian, mundane activity with deep theological constructs. While from man’s perspective the harvest may be the impetus for joy, the Torah stresses that these first fruits must be brought within a religious context. Thus, the counting in Temple times between Passover and Shavuot had a dual component, sacred and mundane, each independently a reason to rejoice.

Be that as it may, in the contemporary religious collective experience, these are seen as days of mourning. No weddings or other public expressions of joy are celebrated.

DEATH OF RABBI AKIVA’S STUDENTS

The accepted explanation for this transformation of a joyful period into a time of mourning is the demise of the students of Rabbi Akiva:

The practice is not to get married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. (Shulchan Aruch section 493:1)

This reference in the “Shulchan Aruch” to a well-established custom makes the link with the tragic story of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died during this time of the year:

It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, 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 Hama ben Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin said: “All of them died a cruel death.” What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: “Croup.” (Yevamot 62b)2

The Talmud speaks of 12,000 “pairs” of students and not of 24,000, ostensibly in order to stress the lack of unity of which they were guilty. The Talmud does not mention that their deaths are commemorated with the yearly mourning period of the Omer. And so, while the authority of switching a biblically happy time into a time of mourning is said to be based on a passage in the Talmud, the Talmud tells a sad tale but does not draw this all-important conclusion.

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