Rabbi Akiva's Students and the Omer
Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16-18 )
The period of the Omer is characterized by mourning over the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. The Talmud explains that they were punished because they did not give sufficient honor to each other.1 However, the Midrash offers a different explanation. It states that they died because they were unwilling to share their Torah with others. How can these two seemingly contradictory Rabbinic sources be resolved?
In truth, it is possible that both failings emanate from the same source: They both came about as a result of a slight lack of appreciation for the importance of Torah2. The root of their failure to attribute sufficient honor to their fellow Torah scholars was a lacking in some small way in appreciation of the importance of Torah and the accompanying honor one must give those who learn it.
It would seem that the Midrash’s criticism that they did not that they did not share their Torah could also emanate from a lack of respect for the importance of Torah. This is borne out from the following gemara, as explained by the Maharal. In Shelach, the Torah, in describing one who worships idols, says that "he disgraced the word of Hashem." The gemara in Sanhedrin ascribes this degrading description to a number of other negative forms of behavior such as denying that the Torah is from God. The gemara adds; "Rebbe Meir says; one who learns Torah and does not teach it is included in the category of, 'for he disgraced the word of HaShem'3." It is very difficult to understand why learning and not teaching can be placed in the same category as truly terrible sins such as denying that the Torah is from God4! The Maharal explains that the honor of the Torah is greatly enhanced when one spreads the word of Hashem to others. One who does not do so prevents Torah from being learnt by others. Therefore, he disgraces the word of Hashem because through his inaction he hinders the enhancement of God’s honor5. We see from the Maharal that a failure to teach others is indicative of a lack of true concern of the honor of the Torah.6
With this understanding, it seems that the gemara and Midrash are not arguing – both agree that Rebbe Akiva’s students were lacking in a slight degree in the appropriate appreciation for Torah. The consequences of these sins were so significant that all of these great men died, and as a result the gemara tells us that the world was desolate of Torah. This would seem to be a measure for measure punishment of their inability to spread Torah to others – since they did not teach Torah, they were punished that with their deaths, the continuation of the Torah would be under severe threat.
This is not the only example where we see that a lack of teaching Torah was the cause of great desolation. The gemara in Avoda Zara describes the first two thousand years of existence as being years of desolation7. This period ended when Avraham began to teach Torah to the world. At that time, the ‘period of Torah began’. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein notes that there were individuals who learnt Torah before Avraham, accordingly he asks how this period can be described as being one of spiritual desolation? He explains that since these men were not going out to teach others, it was impossible for Torah to spread throughout the world. Thus, even though there were individuals learning Torah, it was a time of great desolation. The desolation only ended when Avraham began teaching the world.8
We have seen how the failure to honor and spread Torah led to the devastating tragedy of the death of 24,000 Torah scholars. It is little surprise that the rectification of the sin was that the new students should spread Torah. Accordingly, the Midrash informs us of Rebbe Akiva’s exhortation to his new students. He told them. “do not be like the first students.” The Midrash continues that that when they heard this, “they immediately got up and filled all the land of Israel with Torah.”9
Based on all the above, we have a new perspective about the reasons for the practice of mourning the deaths of the 24,000 students before Lag B’Omer. Some commentaries have pointed out that we do not mourn the deaths of people for longer than twelve months, no matter how great they are. In the Omer we are not mourning the deaths of the student, rather the devastating loss of Torah that came about as a result of their deaths. By mourning this loss of Torah, we can hopefully increase our appreciation for the Torah and the need to spread it to all Jews.
- Yevamot, 62b.
- Of course, it should not be forgotten that Rebbe Akiva’s student were surely on an extremely high level and their actual failings were very small. However, because of their lofty level, they were judged very severely. However, as is often the case, the Sages magnify their sins so that we can relate to them on our level.
- Sanhedrin, 99a.
- See the gemara for the other sins included in this derogatory verse.
- In Jewish thought, passivity from doing good is considered doing bad.
- Maharal, Chiddushei Aggadot, Sanhedrin, 99a.
- Avoda Zara, 9a.
- Darash Moshe, Parshat Lech Lecha.
- Kohelet Rabbah