Sefiras HaOmer and Rabbi Akiva's Students: Torah and Love
By Rabbi Yehudah Prero
Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, is a day of
celebration. The mourning that had been observed during the Omer period
until this day is suspended. One of the reasons for this celebration is
that the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying on this day. (See I:20 for
more information on Rabbi Akiva's students and I:22 for more information
on Lag B'Omer.)
The tragic death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva is discussed in the
Talmud. The Gemora
in the tractate of Yevamos (62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva "had 12,000
pairs of students...and all
of them died in one period of time because they did not conduct themselves
with respect towards
one another." The Medrash phrases the reason for the students' death a bit
differently, by saying
that they died because "they were jealous of each other." The Yefas To'ar
explains this Medrash
by saying that the students did not want to help each other in their
studies. This seems a bit odd.
These students were the leaders of their generation. They were revered
scholars, each distinguished in his own right. What exactly was it, then,
that caused all 12,000 pairs to suffer the
Another perplexing issue is the terminology used to describe the time
period in which they died.
The Gemora in Yevamos cited above continues to say that the students died
in the time period
between Pesach and Shavu'os. However, we have seen that we celebrate Lag
B'Omer because the deaths stopped on that day. That being the case, why
does the Gemora say that they died during the entire time period; it
should have said that they died until Lag B'Omer!
In the sixth Mishna of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avos, we find that
Torah is acquired by means of forty eight qualities. During the 49 day
period when we count the days until Shavu'os, the day the Torah was given,
we are to prepare ourselves for the gift of the Torah by perfecting these
qualities within ourselves. Rav Eliyahu from Vilna, the Vilna Gaon, writes
that it is possible for a
person to have positive traits other than these that increase ones
receptivity towards Torah.
However, it is impossible for any one person attains proper levels in all
48 qualities. Only by
working together with another who may posses those qualities which the
other lacks, it is possible
for these two to reach the completeness in all of these 48 qualities, and
thereby acquire Torah.
The Chasam Sofer writes that the students of Rabbi Akiva died during the
49 day time period
because they were lacking in one specific quality of the 48 listed that is
to be perfected : loving
G-d's creatures. Why did this particular quality have such a terrible
impact? Being that the only
way one can even dream of reaching completeness in the 48 qualities and
Torah is through the assistance of another, if there is a lack of
cooperation, Torah will never be
acquired. Only when one freely loves his brother and exhibits care for his
fellow Jew can one
possibly acquire Torah.
During the days of preparation for accepting the Torah, the students of
Rabbi Akiva were to be
perfecting these 48 qualities needed for acquiring the Torah. However,
they were slightly lacking
in one area: care for one another. The Talmud never says that 24,000
students died, but rather
12,000 pairs of students died. Yes, each student learned with and cared
for one other. However,
the remaining 23,998 students were somewhat slighted. Yes, the 2 students
learned with each
other. However, they did not help all the others in learning as they
should have. Therefore it was
truly 12,000 pairs that died.
Being that these 12,000 pairs were lacking the quality that was essential
for acquiring Torah, they were found to be totally unprepared to receive
the Torah. As the time period between Pesach and Shavuos is the time
during the year when we must be prepared to receive the Torah and the
students, through their own correctable flaw, we not prepared, this was
the time that was deemed appropriate for them to suffer the consequences.
The Gemora chose its words carefully. It is true the students stopped
dying on Lag B'Omer. However, they died when they did because it
was "between Pesach and Shavuos," the time dedicated to preparation for
the receipt of the Torah.
The lesson from the students of Rabbi Akiva is multi-faceted. For one, we
must be sure to take
the necessary actions during the Sefira period so that we are prepared to
accept the Torah on
Shavuos. Also, unless we exhibit love for our fellow Jew, we will never be
able to be prepared to
receive the Torah. Furthermore, we need our fellow Jew to help us acquire
the Torah. May
harmony pervade the nation of Israel so that we all learn together, so
that we all compliment and
supplement each other, and so that we will all be prepared to accept the
Torah on Shavuos as it
was accepted originally: with unity, like one man with one heart.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Yehudah Prero and Torah.org.
The author has Rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, NY.