This week’s Torah reading is Emor, which begins with a continuation of various priestly and Temple-related laws. The parasha then lists all of the Biblical holidays, starting with the weekly Sabbath, then Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. The holidays of Chanukah and Purim are Rabbinically-instituted, having occurred long after the events of the Torah were complete (although it is important to note that the Torah does hint to those future events, too).
It is here in this week’s parasha that we are also commanded to count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, the period known as Sefirat HaOmer (the meaning of which we have explored in the past; see ‘The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat HaOmer’ in Garments of Light). There are a number of important dates that fall during the Sefirat HaOmer period. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Lag B’Omer, which literally means “the 33rd day of the Omer” (Lag, ל”ג is the Hebrew designation for the number 33), celebrated this past Wednesday evening and Thursday. This festive holiday is marked with lighting bonfires, playing with bows and arrows, and taking a break from the usual mourning customs of the Omer period.
The basic story of Lag B’Omer is that during the first 32 days of the Omer Period nearly two thousand years ago, a plague decimated Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. All of his students died, hence the mourning customs still observed today to commemorate that tragic event. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is why the mourning rituals are now lifted.
The big question is: why were Rabbi Akiva’s students punished with a plague? What had they done to deserve this? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) says that apparently these 24,000 students failed to love and respect one another. However, this immediately begs a whole bunch of other questions.
First of all, it was Rabbi Akiva who taught that the greatest principle of Torah is to love your fellow (TY Nedarim 9:4). Could it really be that Rabbi Akiva’s own students failed to uphold their master’s central teaching? And if it really was the case that these students didn’t love or respect each other, then they really weren’t very righteous people, so why are we so fervently mourning their deaths? Throughout history, there have been much greater numbers of much greater people who have perished, yet we do not mourn for such a lengthy period of time for any of them!
What’s Really Going On?
The Talmud (TY Ta’anit 24b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva was a central supporter of Shimon Bar Kochva during the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), also known as the Third Roman-Jewish War. Bar Kochva was initially very successful against the Romans, and it seemed like the Jews would be able to throw off the yoke of the Roman authorities, and rebuild the Temple (after it was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE). Not surprisingly, Rabbi Akiva went so far as to declare Bar Kochva as the Messiah! After all, the major role of Mashiach is to secure Israel’s borders, end the exile, and rebuild the Temple – which Bar Kochva seemed to be doing. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper has written that Bar Kochva’s army may have reconquered Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer itself (hence the holiday), and began the reconstruction of the Temple on that day. In fact, the Third Temple was nearing completion when Rabbi Akiva announced the messiahship of Bar Kochva.
Unfortunately, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head, and it seems that he became a violent dictator, even killing his own uncle, Rabbi Eleazar haModa’i. Soon, his armies fell to the Romans, who brutally quashed the rebellion. The Romans went on a killing spree, massacring countless people in Judea. One of their victims was Rabbi Akiva himself, who was tortured to death with iron combs (Berachot 61b).
It isn’t hard to imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed in a similar fashion, during this tragic time period. The “plague” that took their lives was the Romans, and the war ended on Lag B’Omer. Indeed, one explanation for why we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer is to commemorate the Bar Kochva war, when the Jewish guerilla warriors would light signal fires to each other. It may also explain why there is a custom to this day to play with bows and arrows – implements of war.
So why would Jewish texts say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague? It wasn’t uncommon in those days for the secular authorities to censor various texts. Perhaps the Romans, in a propaganda effort, forbid the Jews from publicly speaking about the real reasons for the deaths of the 24,000. Others suggest that it was the Sassanians, under whose domain the Talmud was completed, that censored the text to discourage Jews from rebelling against Sassanian authority (as they had rebelled against Rome so many times and so devastatingly). The Rabbis therefore had to encode the real history of Lag B’Omer through indirect means, like bonfires and bows and arrows. Maybe this is why they said that Rabbi Akiva’s students died out of failure to respect one another. They knew that such a statement would immediately set off alarm bells, for this is probably the last thing Rabbi Akiva’s students would fail in.
Many scholars of the past, both religious and secular, have explored this possibility in depth, including Rav Sherira Gaon, Nachman Krochmal, Eliezer Levi, and Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, as well as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim and others in modern times.
Rashbi and Kabbalah
Ultimately, the story ends with a small number of Rabbi Akiva’s students – some say five, others a little more – surviving “the plague”, and going on to re-establish Judaism, saving it from extinction. One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi). The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) is explicit in telling us that he hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, together with his son, surviving off of a carob tree. This is yet another piece of evidence suggesting Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans, and not in a plague.
It was Rabbi Shimon who was first to publicly reveal the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. It is said that he did this to his own students on the day of his death – which was the 18th of the month of Iyar, and the 33rd day of the Omer. The central book of Kabbalah, The Zohar, which was first published sometime in the 13th century, is believed to have originated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and is directly based on those teachings that he revealed. According to tradition, those Kabbalistic teachings were so holy and powerful that when Rabbi Shimon expounded on them on that day of his death, the very house in which he and his students were in appeared to be engulfed in flames. This is cited as another reason for lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.
Rabbi Shimon told his students not to mourn his death, for it was a happy occasion: the deepest of spiritual and mystical secrets were now revealed, and would help to preserve the Jewish religion and nation for centuries to come.