The Tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s Students
By Rabbi Michael Singer
Have you ever wondered about this mysterious time in the Jewish calendar called the sefirah, in which we count the omer? In particular, why do we mourn as a people? Traditionally, there are no weddings or haircuts until Lag Ba’omer (the thirty–third day of the omer). And of course don’t forget those itchy sefirah beards. The word omer, meaning “sheaf”, is a dry measurement of grain which was originally brought as an offering to God in anticipation of the new barley harvest. In this week’s parshah, the Torah teaches:
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation (omer) — the day after the Sabbath — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week — fifty days” (Leviticus 23:15–16).
This commandment seems fairly innocuous. Why then is this traditionally a period of mourning? In fact, the case could be made that this time was not only an agriculturally exciting one for our ancestors, but also a spiritually uplifting one as we moved from our liberation from Egypt to the foot of Mt. Sinai, counting down (or up) to receive the Torah.
One story in our history radically changed the nature of the counting of the omer from a joyous anticipation of a prosperous harvest and the yearly re–enactment of revelation at Mt. Sinai, to a time in which we mourn. In the Talmud we are taught that during the period of counting the omer, the 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva perished on one day (Yevamot 61b). The initial reason the Gemara gives is that they did not have kavod (honor or respect) for one another. The Gemara then presents the opinion that they were struck down by a mysterious plague. I believe that both reasons for the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students can be read harmoniously. It was precisely because of the breakdown of civil discourse and respect for one another that they were afflicted with the plague and died.
It is not difficult to imagine the way in which a disagreement over interpretation or halakhic practice could become heated, particularly about an issue which hits home personally. Within our own Conservative Movement today there are many such “hot button” issues about which people are deeply passionate and continue to fundamentally disagree. The old adage about two Jews in a room ending up with three opinions is never more fitting than for our movement today. The lively discussions and representations of a wide variety of ideas are, I believe, the main reasons for Conservative Judaism’s continued vitality and dynamism.
There is, however, one very serious danger which threatens this pluralism, and that is a loss of respect for those with whom you disagree. The loss of dignified discourse destroys the ability for differing perspectives to coexist and hinders the free exchange of ideas. We can become so enraptured by the premise that one side may hold the only “truth”, or the only “morally” correct option, that it leads to the condemnation of any opinion or idea which is in opposition. In my opinion it is no less than the metaphoric death of our precious Torah.
Could this have happened to the students of Rabbi Akiva? The Talmud could have easily only attributed the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students to a plague, whether natural or at the hands of the Romans. Instead our sages chose to first ascribe it to a loss of kavod as a powerful reminder of what can happen to us when we forget how to conduct discourse grounded in honor and respect. So divided and torn over their disagreement were the students of Rabbi Akiva, that they might have lashed out at one another with hurtful words, severing the dynamic unfolding of Torah, and leading only to polarization, defeat, and death.
Ironically it is one of Rabbi Akiva’s later students, Rabbi Eleazar Ben Shamua, who helps define for us the importance of kavod. He teaches, “The dignity (kevod) of your student should be as precious to you as your own; the dignity (kevod) of your colleague should be as precious to you as your reverence for your teacher; your reverence for your teacher should be as great as your reverence for God” (Pirkei Avot 4:15). Taking this lesson to heart in the context of the sefirah, may we dedicate ourselves to discourse with honor for each other, thereby giving honor to the Torah and to God.
Rabbi Michael Singer
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.