Why such a big deal about Rabbi Akiva’s students?
A lesson from the Parsha
We are now at the beginning of the days of the Omer. According to Jewish law, one needs to count every night, and if one forgot, he can count during the following day without a blessing and then continue that night with a blessing. However, if one completely forgot to count one day, he still needs to continue counting but without a blessing, because he is lacking the required 50 complete days.
The days of the Omer are also thought of amongst the Jewish nation as days of mourning; we don’t celebrate weddings, cut our hair or play musical instruments during these days. The reason for the mourning? The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students and all of them died between Pesach and Shavuot because they didn’t treat each other with proper respect.
What did Rabbi Akiva’s students do to merit having the whole Jewish nation mourn for them for seven weeks, every year, in every generation? There have been many Jews killed throughout the generations and not even a single day is set aside to mourn for them! In addition to this, even for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, which was a tragedy for the whole nation, we mourn only three weeks, so what is it about Rabbi Akiva’s students that all Jews throughout all generations mourn for seven weeks? Also, what was so terrible about the behavior of Rabbi Akiva’s students that they deserved such a harsh punishment?
Perhaps it’s possible to solve this mystery through a story that is told in the Talmud: It happened once that one of Rabbi Akiva’s students was ill and none of his colleagues came to visit him. However, Rabbi Akiva himself came to visit, and the student felt that he had been given new life. He said to Rabbi Akiva, “Teacher, you have revived me!” Rabbi Akiva left this visit and taught that one who does not fulfill the mitzvah of visiting a sick person is considered to have spilled his blood.
From this story it would seem that the attitude between Rabbi Akiva’s students was a little more severe than just not respecting one another. They didn’t care for each other, to the point that when one was lying sick, no one went to visit and tend to him. They felt it was beneath their dignity to involve themselves in such matters, until Rabbi Akiva himself needed to go and tend to him.
But this still needs clarification.
There are those historians who attribute the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students to the war waged by Bar Kochba. Rabbi Akiva lived in the era after the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. The Jewish people intended to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash immediately, just as 70 years after the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash the second was rebuilt. Fifty years after the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, Bar Kochba started a rebellion against the ruling Romans who were preventing the Reconstruction of the Temple.
At first, he was very successful and Rabbi Akiva himself was would carry Bar Kochba’s weapons, proclaiming him to be the Moshiach! Thus it seems that Rabbi Akiva was the first to support this war. Therefore, it’s understandable that many of his students would have enlisted in Bar Kochba’s army and been killed in the war. In the end, when Bar Kochba changed his colors and spoke against G-d, the scholars of Israel removed their support of him, he was killed and the Jews suffered a shameful defeat at the hands of the Romans.
Though this is a nice explanation, there is no Talmudic or historical evidence that ties the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students to the Bar Kochba uprising. There are, however, ancient, reliable sources that testify to the connection between the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the spiritual struggle that he organized against the Romans.
In that era, the Romans forbade the study of Torah and decreed that anyone caught teaching Torah would be killed. It is well known that a Jew named Popus Ben Yehuda, an informant for the Romans, once approached Rabbi Akiva. “Why do you risk your life just to teach Torah?” Rabbi Akiva replied that he wasn’t sure he’d get caught but he was sure that life without Torah is no life at all.
Indeed, Rabbi Akiva was found teaching Torah and was arrested and executed. He is one of the famous Ten Martyrs.
In a letter written by Rav Shrirah Gaon, who was among the greats of Bavel and lived more than 1,000 years ago, we find the following: “Rabbi Akiva gave himself to die, and they executed Rabbi Chanina Ben Tradyon. Thus the knowledge of Torah diminished after them. Rabbi Akiva had established many students and they all perished between Pesach and Shavout.”
From his words it seems that they didn’t die from an epidemic or plague but that they followed in their teacher’s ways. After seeing Rabbi Akiva sacrifice his life in order to teach Torah, they did the same and sacrificed their lives in order to learn and teach Torah and were eventually killed by the Romans.
Similarly, the Chabad followers in Russia risked their lives following the Previous Rebbe’s example. Indeed many of them were killed in unusual ways in the dungeons of the KGB because they secretly taught Torah and circumcised Jewish babies. So too, with the students of Rabbi Akiva; they followed their teacher through fire and water and so were also killed.
Perhaps this is the reason that Jews mourn their deaths for seven weeks every year. They were killed for spreading Torah and strengthening Judaism, so we mourn them as recognition for the kindness they did us.
In our generation, when we are lucky enough that there is no place in the world that stops Jews from practicing Judaism or studying Torah, we surely need to emulate Rabbi Akiva and his students and give of our time and will to share whatever Torah knowledge we have with as many Jews as we can!