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A scholarly, mystical look at the Omer mourning period.
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 be brought 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.
There are those who have claimed that the custom of mourning was instituted during the Talmudic period;3 there is, however, no Talmudic statement which supports this opinion and consequently there are those who opine that the custom is, in fact, of later origin.4
Of particular interest is the formulation of the Rav Yichiel Michel Epstein in his classic "Aruch HaShulchan." He states that the tragedy of the students of Rabbi Akiva is connected with the crusades, pogroms and blood libels that occurred a thousand years later in the course of Jewish history. These attacks were often rooted in a twisted Christian perspective of the Passover ceremony, and the days after Passover became a time of peril for Jews in Christendom. Rav Epstein describes these days as well-established days of "judgement."5
According to this approach, the rabbis in the Middle Ages felt that the very nature of the Omer period was harsh, despite the Torah's perspective that this was a time of joy. The Talmudic passage concerning Rabbi Akiva's students served as an anchor for turning a happy period into a time of mourning. The logic was that if the students of Rabbi Akiva died specifically during these days, the nature of this time period is not as straightforward as we might have thought. In other words, the reason that the Omer has become a time of mourning is the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva, but the specific impetus for instituting customs of mourning was the blood libels of the Middle Ages.6
The story of the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva may be part of a much larger issue.
The story of the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva may be part of a much larger issue. An analysis of a later parallel source may provide the clue necessary to unravel the mystery.
Rav Shrira Gaon, commenting on the original passage, uses a very telling expression to describe the death of the students: "Rabbi Akiva raised many students, [but] there was a religious persecution [shmada] on the students of Rabbi Akiva.7
The Talmud spoke of a plague striking the students, yet Rav Shrira speaks of religious persecution! The change is subtle yet the implication drastic.
The Talmudic tradition seemed quite clear: these students treated one another without respect, and therefore died of a plague. What caused Rav Shrira to introduce religious persecution as the cause of the students' demise?
A careful reading leads us to the conclusion that Rav Shrira does not disagree with the Talmud. Surely, in the tradition of thousands of commentaries before and after his time Rav Shrira saw his task as interpreting the Talmudic passage and not disagreeing with the Talmud.
Apparently Rav Shrira had a tradition that the students died during a religious conflict. The book that this information is found in is primarily a book with an historical agenda. The work "The Letter of Rav Shrira Gaon" contains singular traditions of the Talmudic period. This book – or "letter", as it is called - is the major source for information about the Talmudic age.
If we posit that Rav Shrira saw his role as the telling of history, while the role of the Talmud is to share theological perspectives, the question dissipates: Rav Shrira tells us how the students died while the Talmud tells us why they died.
TELLING WHY IT HAPPENED
The Talmud, the unparalleled work of Rabbinic Judaism, had no need to retell well-known historical episodes. Its task was to illuminate and explain God's hand in history – to explain why things, especially specific tragedies, befell our people. Ironically, in this instance, the Talmud became our primary source for what were well-known events. Though the Talmud was not interested in telling us what happened, rather why it happened, uninitiated readers were deluded into thinking they knew what happened as well. Rav Shrira wished to set the record straight. Therefore he tells us what happened; the students died due to religious persecution.
We know that Rabbi Akiva was himself eventually murdered as part of the Hadrianic executions.
The question which emerges is which religious persecution is referred to? We know that Rabbi Akiva was himself eventually murdered as part of the Hadrianic executions. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was an enthusiastic supporter of Bar Kochba.8 Therefore the association between Rabbi Akiva's "students" and the followers of Bar Kochba is likely.9
Maimonides describes Rabbi Akiva as an "arms bearer of Bar Koziba."10 The source of Maimonides's assertion is a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud:
Rav Shimon Ben Yochai taught: "Akiva my master would expound the verse a star will come from Jacob as 'Koziba will come from Jacob.' When Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziba he would say, 'There is the King Messiah.'"
Rav Yochanan ben Torta said: "Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not come." (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit chapter 4:5 page 68d)
The verse in question -- a star will come from Jacob -- is in the prophecy of Bil'am, the evil prophet who set out to curse the Jewish people but ended up blessing them instead:
I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not near; there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall strike the corners of Moab and destroy all the sons of Seth. (Numbers 24:17)
Bil'am's clairvoyance allowed him to see a star who would yet emerge and lead the Jewish People. Rabbi Akiva declared that the fulfillment of this verse was in the person of Bar Kochba a name which literally means, "Son of a Star." In fact, his name was not actually Bar Kochba: Based on recent archeological finds we know that his actual name was Bar Kosba (written with the Hebrew letter "samech"). The appellation Bar Kochba was part of the messianic identification made by Rabbi Akiva, by applying this verse from Bil'am's prophecy to Shimon bar Kosba. After the Bar Kochba rebellion was quashed, its leader was called Bar Koziba, "son of deceit" or "son of disappointment."
Rabbi Yohanan said: "Rabbi used to expound, There shall step forth a star (kochav) out of Jacob thus 'Read not star (kochav) but lie (kazav).'" (Eicha Rabba 2:4)
The aftermath of the painful defeat caused Bar Kochba to receive a new moniker, which recorded the profound failure for posterity.
A VOICE IN OPPOSITION
While Rabbi Akiva afforded Messianic status to the rebellion in general, and to Bar Kochba in particular, there was another voice which spoke out in opposition:11
The phrase is enigmatic.12 What is the inference of grass growing from the cheeks of Akiva? If it means "Akiva, you will be in the grave before the Messiah arrives," the passage should have read "Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and then the son of David will come."13 It sounds as if Rav Yochanan ben Torata rejects the Messianic age completely.14 This position is untenable for we know that Rav Yochanan Ben Torta believed in the coming of the Messianic age:
Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta said: "...But [regarding] the last Temple (the third) which will be rebuilt in our lives, in our days, it is written And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. And many people shall go and say: Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for from Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. [And he shall judge among the nations, and shall decide for many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.]15 (Isaiah 2:2-4) and it says For there shall be a day, when the watchmen upon Mount Ephraim shall cry, Arise, and let us go up to Zion to the Lord our God. (Jeremiah 31:5)" (Tosefta Menachot 13:23)
If Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta indeed believes in an impending Messianic age, what is the nature of his attack on Rabbi Akiva? If we listen to his words carefully it seems that there are two problems:
Rav Yochanan ben Torta said: "Akiva grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not come." (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit chapter 4:5 page 68d)
Even if this elusive grass were to grow from Rabbi Akiva's cheeks, there may be a second impediment. If we were to look at the previous paragraph of the Tosefta cited above, this becomes clear:
Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta said, "Why was Shilo destroyed? Because of the desecration of the sacred things thereof. Jerusalem? The first Temple, why was it destroyed? Because of idolatry, sexual licentiousness, and the spilling of blood within. But this previous Temple (the second Temple) we knew (the people of that era). They were diligent in Torah study, and careful with tithes. Why were they exiled? Because they loved their money and man hated his neighbor." (Tosefta Menachot 13:22)
Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta is the author of the well-accepted view that the cause of the destruction of the second Temple was groundless hatred.16 If this is the case, we have now come full circle.
We saw at the outset that the students of Rabbi Akiva died because they did not treat one another with respect. Therefore Rav Yochanan, who indeed believes the Messiah will come, is adamant that the cause for the destruction of the Second Temple must be healed before one can speak of a new Messianic movement.
You should not think that the Messiah must perform miracles or wonders, or create new realities, or bring back the dead,17 or other similar things; the matter is not so. For Rabbi Akiva was the greatest sage of the age of the Mishna, and he was an arms-bearer of Bar Koziba the King, and he said concerning him "He is the King Messiah," until he was killed due to his sins. Once he was killed it became apparent to them that he was not [the Messiah]. And the sages did not ask of him neither sign nor wonder...(Maimonides, Laws of Melachim 11:3)
Maimonides explains that life in the Messianic age will be no different from current times in terms of the miraculous.18 What is Maimonides' source? Rabbi Akiva, in our passage in the Jerusalem Talmud.
If Rabbi Akiva concludes that the Messiah need not perform miracles, and Rav Yochanan Ben Torta disagrees with Rabbi Akiva, then we may deduce that Rav Yochanan ben Torta believed that the Messiah must perform miracles.
Now we understand why he says "Akiva grass will grow from your cheeks and still the Messiah will not come."19 He seems to be saying, "as far as I am concerned the Messiah must perform miracles, but even if a miracle worker appears, I do not believe that the Messianic age can begin prior to rectifying the cause of the destruction of the previous Temple."
THE CORE OF THE ARGUMENT
The core of this argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rav Yochanan ben Torta may be based on a similarity between these two great individuals. Both began their careers as outsiders, and joined the sages at a later point in life. Rabbi Akiva was an adult before he began to study Torah, a fact preserved in numerous sources. Of particular relevance is the description offered in Avot D'Rebbe Natan:
What were the origins of Rabbi Akiva? It was said that he was 40 years old and had not learnt anything. One time he was standing near a well and asked "Who made a hole in this stone?" It was said to him "The water which constantly falls every day. Akiva, don't you know the verse Water erodes stones (Job 14:19)"?
Rabbi Akiva immediately inferred the teaching regarding himself, and said "If that which is soft can engrave that which is hard, then the words of Torah which are like steel can certainly penetrate my heart which is but flesh and blood." He immediately returned to study Torah. (Avot D'Rebbe Natan chapter 6)
Here we are privy to the moment of enlightenment which begins Rabbi Akiva's spiritual odyssey from ignorant shepherd to legendary scholar.20 The process was a natural one, just as one drop at a time can add up to an ocean of water with incredible kinetic power.
The transformation of Rav Yochanan ben Torta is not as well known. The source is the Pesikta which describes the incredible, spiritually-redemptive power of the Red Heifer:
There was once a story of a Jew who owned a cow, with which he used to plow. He fell on hard times, so he sold his cow to one particular non-Jew. The non-Jew took it out and plowed with it for six days of the week. On Shabbat he took it out to plow, he placed it under the yoke, he walked and beat the animal but it would not budge from its place. When he saw this he went to the Jew who sold him the cow and told him "Take your cow. It must be injured, for no matter how much I beat it, it will not move from its place." The Jew understood that it must be because of Shabbat, being that the cow was accustomed to rest on the Shabbat. He said, "Come and I will get the cow moving." When they got there he went over to the cow and said in its ear "Cow, cow, you know that when I owned you, you ploughed during the week, and rested on Shabbat. Now due to my sins [I lost my money and had to sell you. Now] you are owned by a non-Jew. Please, I ask you, get up and plough." The cow immediately arose and ploughed. The non-Jew said, "I ask of you, please take your cow. Until now I have been moving myself trying to get the cow up. Moreover I am not releasing you until you tell me what you said in that cow's ear. I exhausted myself and beat the animal and it would not get up." The Jew tried to placate the non-Jew, and said, "It was not magic and the cow is not possessed, but this is what I said in its ear ... and as a result it got up and ploughed." The non-Jew became immediately frightened. He said, "If a cow which can not speak and has no human intelligence can recognize its Creator, while I whom my Creator created in His image, and endowed me with human intelligence – I don't recognize that I have a Creator?!" He immediately came and converted. He studied and merited [great success in] Torah. They called him Yochanan ben Torta (literally, "son of the ox"), and until this very day the rabbis teach laws in his name. And if you are astounded how a cow brought a person under the wings of the Shechina, by virtue of a cow is the purity of the entire community of Israel. (Pesikta Rabati Parsha 14)
In this amazing passage we find that Rav Yochanan ben Torta was born a non-Jew. Only upon witnessing a miracle was he shocked into seeking his Creator. His very name "Ben Torta" – "son of the ox/cow" – is testimony to his metamorphosis.21
Rabbi Akiva, who saw a natural process, extended his individual experience to the entire community of Israel. He postulated that just as he found his Creator, all the children of Israel would find themselves, and join God in the partnership which he offered them all those years ago.
Rav Yochanan ben Torta, on the other hand, felt that in order for the entire world to recognize God as Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, nothing less than an open miracle would be effective.
A NATURAL PROCESS
Maimonides tells us that the law is according to Rabbi Akiva: the Messianic process is a natural one. Though Rav Yochanan ben Torta is credited for pointing out the reason for the various destructions, Rabbi Akiva was correct about the theory of Redemption.
The passage which tells us about the death of Rabbi Akiva's students seems to vindicate at least part of Rav Yochanan ben Torta's observation: A generation which is no better than the generation which suffered the destruction cannot expect to witness the rebuilding of the Temple.
Rabbi Akiva was surely aware of this, however Rabbi Akiva was perhaps the greatest optimist the Jewish people have ever had. He thought that once the process begins the idea of Redemption will spread like wildfire, and the people will reach the levels of greatness of which they were capable.
If he himself accomplished his incredible learning despite his advanced age and abject poverty, certainly his illustrious people could bring about the Messianic age. Unfortunately, the people failed; the students and followers did not rise to the occasion, and instead of Redemption, further destruction ensued.
The days between Passover and Shavuot mark the Redemption that did not happen. We mourn that failure.
The days between Passover and Shavuot mark the Redemption that did not happen. We mourn that failure. On Passover, when we celebrate the Redemption from Egypt, we also try to discern how we can make it a reality in our own days.
While ultimately Rabbi Akiva and his generation failed, we must recognize that Rabbi Akiva was completely correct in his understanding of the process, and the capability of man. Too many Jews are followers of Rav Yochanan Ben Torta, awaiting the miraculous as a prerequisite for redemption. These nay-sayers wait passively for the sign from heaven that the time for Redemption has come.
We must follow Rabbi Akiva, and take proactive steps, accepting our partnership with the Almighty. Drop after drop after drop adds up to a tidal wave of activity. When we succeed, the days between Passover and Shavuot will reacquire their original identity and become a time of joy.
"Our Rabbis taught: 'On the sixth day of the month [Sivan] were the Ten Commandments given to Israel.' Rabbi Yose maintained: 'On the seventh thereof.' Said Rava: 'All agree that they arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first of the month. [For] here it is written, on this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 19:1).'" (return to text)
"Forthwith the sins caused Betar to be captured. Bar Koziba was slain and his head taken to Hadrian. 'Who killed him?' asked Hadrian. A Goth said to him, 'I killed him.' 'Bring his body to me,' he ordered. He went and found a snake encircling its neck; so [Hadrian, when told of this] exclaimed, 'If his God had not slain him who could have overcome him?'"
The Bavli describes the death of Bar Kochva as taking place at the hands of the sages: Talmud - Sanhedrin 93b: "Bar Koziba reigned two and a half years, and then said to the Rabbis, 'I am the Messiah.' They answered, 'Of Messiah it is written that he smells and judges; let us see whether he [Bar Koziba] can do so.' When they saw that he was unable to judge by the scent, they slew him."
Most likely the intention that the Sages wished to convey was that once the Rabbis withdrew their support, Bar Kochba was defeated. The motivation for this response may be seen from another source, which shows that Bar Kochba was unable to discern the greatness of one of the Rabbis whom he suspected of treason and had him killed. (Midrash Eicha, and Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4:5) The Jerusalem Talmud adds that Bar Kochba was a great warrior, and he said to God "Do not help nor hinder us and we will be successful." Both Maimonides and Ra'avad reflect these two traditions; see Laws of Melachim 11:3, where the Maimonides most likely understands that the sources complement one another as I described above, because it is unlikely that he would reject the Babylonian Talmud in favor of another tradition. (return to text)
Nedarim 40a "Did it not once happen that one of Rabbi Akiva's disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So Rabbi Akiva himself entered [his house] to visit him, and because they swept and sprinkled the ground before him, he recovered. 'My master,' said he, 'you have revived me!' [Straightway] Rabbi Akiva went forth and lectured: 'He who does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood.'"
Menachot 68b Rabbi Tarfon was sitting and asked this question: "What [is the reason for the difference in law] between [what is offered] before the Omer and [what is offered] before the Two Loaves?" Said Yehudah ben Nehemiah before him, "No. You can say [that what is offered] before the Omer [is invalid], for the prohibition [of the new corn] does not admit of any exception to the private individual, but can you say so [of what is offered] before the Two Loaves, seeing that the prohibition does admit of an exception to the private individual?" Rabbi Tarfon remained silent, and at once the face of Yehudah ben Nehemiah brightened with joy. Thereupon R. Akiva said to him, "Yehudah. your face has brightened with joy because you have refuted the Sage; I wonder whether you will live long." Said Rabbi Yehudah ben Ila'i, "This happened a fortnight before Passover, and when I came up for the Azeret festival I enquired after Yehudah ben Nehemiah and was told that he had passed away."
This second source is particularly impressive as the death clearly takes place between Passover and Shavuot, and, ironically, the topic of discussion was the Omer! One would have to posit that this type of behavior was exhibited by 24,000 individual students, in order to take the first passage at face value. There is, however, another source, which speaks of a "mere" 300 students who perished. See Midrash Tanchuma Chaye Sara section 8, and Responsa Minchat Yitzchak Volume 3 section 38, who surprisingly reads the number 300 into our passage in the Talmud. (return to text)