Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Rabbi and the Professor

The Rabbi and the Professor
Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

(The following is based on a combination of first - hand knowledge and a composite reconstruction of events as retold to me.)

Many years ago when I was a relatively young yeshiva student I had the opportunity to study with one of the great rabbis of the previous generation. His name was Rabbi Yisroel Zeev Gustman and he may have been one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century. He was certainly the greatest "unknown" rabbi: While he fastidiously avoided the limelight and was therefore unfamiliar to the general public, he was well known to connoisseurs of Torah learning.

His meteoric rise from child prodigy to the exalted position of religious judge  in the Rabbinical Court of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski at around the age of twenty was the stuff of legend – but nonetheless  fact. Many years later, I heard Rav Gustman's own modest version of the events leading to this appointment: A singular (brilliant) insight which he shared with his fellow students was later repeated to the visiting Rav Chaim Ozer, who invited the young student to repeat this same insight the following day in his office in Vilna. Unbeknownst to Rav Gustman, the insight clinched an argument in a complex case that had been debated among the judges in Rav Chaim Ozer's court – and allowed a woman to remarry.

One of the judges adjudicating the case in question, Rabbi Meir Bassin, made inquiries about this young man, and soon a marriage was arranged with his daughter Sarah. When Rabbi Bassin passed away before the wedding, Rabbi Gustman was tapped to take his place as rabbi of Shnipishok and to take his seat on the court. Although Rav Gustman claimed that he was simply "in the right place at the right time," it was clear that Rav Bassin and Rav Chaim Ozer had seen greatness in this young man.

While a long, productive career on the outskirts of Vilna could have been anticipated, Jewish life in and around Vilna was obliterated by World War II. Rav Gustman escaped, though not unscathed. He hid among corpses. He hid in caves. He hid in a pig pen. Somehow, he survived.

For me, Rav Gustman was the living link to the Jewish world destroyed by the Nazis. I never had to wonder what a Rav in Vilna before the war looked like, for I had seen Rav Gustman, 35 years after the war. At the head of a small yeshiva in the Rechavia section of Jerusalem, Rav Gustman taught a small group of loyal students six days a week. But on Thursdays at noon, the study hall would fill to capacity: Rabbis, intellectuals, religious court judges, a Supreme Court justice and various professors would join along with any and all who sought a high - level Talmud shiur that offered a taste of what had been nearly destroyed. When Rav Gustman gave shiur, Vilna was once again alive and vibrant.

One of the regular participants was a professor at the Hebrew University, Robert J. (Yisrael) Aumann. Once a promising yeshiva student, he had eventually decided to pursue a career in academia, but made his weekly participation in Rav Gustman’s shiur part of his schedule, along with many other more or less illustrious residents of Rechavia and Jerusalem.

The year was 1982.  Once again, Israel was at war. Soldiers were mobilized, reserve units activated. Among those called to duty was a Reserves soldier, a university student and a Talmudic scholar, who made his living as a high school teacher: Shlomo Aumann, Professor Yisrael Aumann's son. On the eve of the 19th of Sivan, in particularly fierce combat, Shlomo fell in battle.

Rav Gustman mobilized his yeshiva: All of his students joined him in performing the mitzvah of burying the dead. At the cemetery, Rav Gustman was agitated: He surveyed the rows of graves of the young men, soldiers who died defending the Land. On the way back from the cemetery, Rav Gustman turned to another passenger in the car and said, "They are all holy." Another passenger questioned the rabbi: "Even the non-religious soldiers?"  Rav Gustman replied: "Every single one of them". He then turned to the driver and said, "Take me to Professor Aumann's home.”

The family had just returned from the cemetery and would now begin the week of shiv’a – mourning for their son, brother, husband and father. (Shlomo was married and had one child. His widow, Shlomit, gave birth to their second daughter shortly after he was killed.)

Rav Gustman entered and asked to sit next to Professor Aumann, who said: "Rabbi, I so appreciate your coming to the cemetery, but now is time for you to return to your Yeshiva". Rav Gustman spoke, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew, so that all those assembled would understand:

"I am sure that you don't know this, but I had a son named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed. I escaped. I later bartered my child's shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food – I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadosh – he is holy – he and all the six million who perished are holy."

Rav Gustman then added: “I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth in Gan Eden – in Heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him ‘I died because I am a Jew – but I wasn't able to save anyone else. But you – Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel’. My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy – but your Shlomo is a Shaliach Zibbur – in that holy, heavenly minyan.”

Rav Gustman continued: “I never had the opportunity to sit shiv’a for my Meir; let me sit here with you just a little longer.” Professor Aumann replied, "I thought I could never be comforted, but Rebbi, you have comforted me."

Rav Gustman did not allow his painful memories to control his life. He found solace in his students, his daughter his grandchildren, and in every Jewish child. He and his wife would attend an annual parade (on Yom Yerushalayim) where children would march on Jerusalem in song and dance. A rabbi who happened upon them one year asked the Rabbi why he spent his valuable time in such a frivolous activity. Rav Gustman explained, “We who saw a generation of children die, will take pleasure in a generation of children who sing and dance in these streets.”

A student once implored Rav Gustman to share his memories of the ghetto and the war more publicly and more frequently. He asked him to tell people about his son, about his son’s shoes, to which the Rav replied, “I can't, but I think about those shoes every day of my life. I see them every night before I go to sleep.”

On the 28th of Sivan 5751 (1991), Rav Gustman passed away. Thousands marched through the streets of Jerusalem accompanying Rav Gustman on his final journey. As night fell on the 29th of Sivan, 9 years after Shlomo Aumann fell in battle, Rav Gustman was buried on the Mount of Olives. I am sure that upon entering Heaven he was reunited with his wife, his teachers and his son Meir. I am also sure that Shlomo Aumann and all the other holy soldiers who died defending the People and the Land of Israel were there to greet this extraordinary Rabbi.

On December 10th 2005, Professor Robert J. Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. I am sure he took with him to Stockholm memories of his late wife Esther, and his son Shlomo. I suspect he also took memories of his Rabbi, Rav Gustman.

May it be the will of God that the People of Israel sanctify His Name by living lives of holiness which will serve as a light to the nations – and may no more children, soldiers or yeshiva students ever need to join that holy minyan in Heaven.

The last time I saw Rav Gustman, I was walking in the Meah Sharim/Geulah section of Jerusalem with my wife and oldest son who was being pushed in a stroller. It was Friday morning and we saw the Rosh Yeshiva, we said hello, wished him “Good Shabbes.” Then, I did something I rarely do: I asked him to bless my son. Rav Gustman looked at the toddler, smiled and said “May he be a boy like all the other boys”. At first, my wife and I were stunned; what kind of blessing was this? We expected a blessing that the boy grow to be a zaddik – a righteous man – or that he be a Talmid Chacham – a Torah scholar. But no, he blessed him that he should be “like all the boys”.
It took many years for this beautiful blessing to make sense to us. The blessing was that he should have a normal childhood, that he have a normal life, that he have his health… Looking back, I realize what a tremendous blessing Rav Gustman gave, and why.

Today, that son - Matityahu, and our second son Hillel, are soldiers in combat units in the Israeli Defense Forces. Brave, strong, motivated and idealistic, they are wonderful soldiers, wonderful Jews. I pray that they return home safely along with all their comrades, and live normal lives – “just like all the boys”.

© Rabbi Ari D. Kahn 2009

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Shaving in Honor of Shabbat During the Omer" Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

      "Shaving in Honor of Shabbat During the Omer"

      Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

                Summarized by Yair Yaniv
       Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass

For other Sefirat Ha-Omer related articles, see our website:

      Our  earliest sources make no mention  of  a  ban  on haircuts  during Sefirat ha-Omer (the days  between  Pesach and  Shavuot).  The Ritz Giat, for example, refers only  to marriage:
"All  of  Israel is accustomed to not marry between  Pesach and  Shavuot.  This is because of mourning, not because  of any  prohibition...[The  mourning  is  restricted  to  not] marrying  ("nisuin"), for the main joy  is  at  the  bridal canopy ("chuppa") and the marriage itself, but there is  no restriction    on    "erusin"   and   "kiddushin"    (legal engagement)...  So ruled the Geonim."

      The   custom  to  refrain  from  having  a   haircut ("tisporet") during the Omer appears in the Tur  (OC  493); according to the Beit Yosef, its source is Rav Yehoshua ibn Shuib's "Derasha for the First Day of Pesach."
      In  order to deal with our question, whether one  can shave before Shabbat during this period, we must relate  to three different issues:
1.  Does "tisporet" including shaving, or just cutting  the hair on one's head?
2.  Is  this custom part of the existing laws of  mourning, and, if so, which stage of mourning?
3.  Does  the  obligation of honoring Shabbat override  the custom forbidding tisporet.

     We find (Ta'anit 15b) a prohibition against "tisporet" in the rules for the participants in the ma'amad (shifts of Israelites who made a pilgrimage to the Temple to represent the  nation  during the communal sacrifices).   Though  the parameters of the prohibition are not stated here, some  of the  sources regarding laws of mourning relate directly  to this issue.
      Masekhet Semachot (7:11) reads: "What is the rule  of "tisporet?"  Cutting all hair is forbidden - the head,  the mustache, the beard and all other hair."  In contrast,  the gemara  (Mo'ed  Katan  24a) derives  the  prohibition  from Vayikra 10:6: "You (Aharon and his remaining sons after the deaths  of  Nadav and Avihu) should not let your hair  grow long [as normal mourners do]."  Ostensibly this refers only to cutting the hair on the head.
     The Rambam rules (Hilkhot Evel 5:2):
"How   do  we  know  that  a  mourner  is  prohibited  from 'tisporet?'  The sons of Aharon were commanded "Do not  let your  hair grow long" - implying that any other mourner  is prohibited from cutting his hair and must let it grow wild. Just as the mourner is prohibited from cutting the hair  of his head, so too is he prohibited from cutting the hair  of his beard and all other hair."
     The Rambam implies that the basic prohibition of hair- cutting only applies to the head, based on the verse, while shaving is merely an extension of that prohibition.
      Aside  from  the  semantic question of  defining  the specific parameters of tisporet, we must discuss the nature of  the custom of refraining from haircuts during the Omer. It  is  most likely not an independent one, but  is  rather part  and  parcel  of  the  laws  of  mourning  which   are appropriate to this time period.
      There are different levels of mourning: the seven-day (shiva),  thirty-day (sheloshim), and twelve-month periods. It  seems  obvious  that the level of  mourning  in  effect during  the  Omer  is parallel to that of the  twelve-month period,  for all the prohibitions included in the custom  - festive gatherings, marriage, and hair cutting - are  those that  extend  beyond the thirty day period.  On  the  other hand,  none of the prohibitions that last only thirty  days are included in the custom.
     During the twelve-month period, both getting a haircut and  shaving are prohibited, but only "until one's  friends scold him [to tell him that his hair is too long]" ("ad she- yig'aru bo chaveirav": Moed Katan 22b; Rambam Hilkhot  Evel 6:3).
     Someone  who goes a day or two without shaving  would certainly  deserve  a reminder from his friends  to  shave. However, the Acharonim argue about whether one can cut  his hair only when his friends ACTUALLY scold him, or when  the TIME for scolding arrives, regardless of whether anyone did so.  If we accepted the second opinion, there would be room to  permit  one who reached that stage - usually  within  a very few days, definitely after a week - to shave.
      The Ramban, in his extensive discussion in Torat  Ha- adam  about  whether the laws of mourning are  biblical  or rabbinic   in   origin,  proposes  a  distinction   between different  types  of  prohibitions.   Those  that  bar  the mourner  from indulging in luxuries are Torah  laws,  while those   that  thrust  upon  him  distinctly  uncomfortable, substandard conditions are rabbinically mandated.  So,  for example, washing in hot water is considered a luxury and is biblically  prohibited,  but  not  washing  at  all  causes discomfort and is rabbinically prohibited.
      It is possible, at least according to one opinion  in the   Rishonim,  to  infer  that  the  same  is  true   for "tisporet."  The Rishonim debate whether a mourner can trim his  mustache  if  it  interferes with eating:  The  Ramban permits  it  even during the first seven days of  mourning, whereas the Ra'avad prohibits it all thirty days.  The Ritz Giat (who is followed by the Shulchan Arukh YD 390:1) takes a  middle  approach;  during the first  seven  days  it  is prohibited, but afterwards it is permitted.
      The  Ramban and the Ra'avad are clear: they  disagree whether  the  need  for  eating is a legitimate  cause  for permitting  trimming one's mustache during  mourning.   The Ritz  Giat's  hybrid  opinion, distinguishing  between  the seven-day  and  the thirty-day periods, needs  explanation. He  might,  like  the Ramban in Torat Ha-adam,  distinguish between  shiva, when discomfort is mandated, and  sheloshim when  only luxuries are prohibited.  During the first seven days  he  must let his mustache grow even if it  interferes with  eating;  afterwards only hair-cutting in  general  is prohibited, but not that which causes actual discomfort.
      One  might apply the Ritz Giat's distinction  to  our issue  and permit shaving without resorting to the rule  of "ge'ara" (scolding). One who shaves regularly does not view his  shaving  as  a  luxury, to look  his  best;  he  feels uncomfortable and unkempt if he does not shave  for  a  few days.  Therefore, there is no reason to distinguish between trimming a mustache, the case he spoke about, and shaving a beard.   We  may distinguish, though, based on the  Rambam, between haircuts, which are the basic prohibition, and  the others,  which are extensions thereof.  When  the  Rishonim spoke  about "giluach," they had trimming a beard in  mind.
Trimming  a  beard is similar to a haircut; it is  done  to look   good,   not  to  avoid  looking  ugly   or   feeling uncomfortable.   Based  on  the  Ritz  Giat,  it  would  be permitted  to  shave  once  every  several  days,  for  the mourning of the Omer is certainly not on the level  of  the shiva.
      If  shaving, for a clean-shaven man, is analogous  to trimming  a  mustache that gets in the way of eating,  then even during "sheloshim" one could permit shaving every  few days.  This is certainly not the prevalent custom (although I  know of a case where Ha-gaon Rav Moshe Soloveitchik z"tl ruled  leniently - though I do not know what  rationale  he relied  upon - that a lawyer could shave for his livelihood during   sheloshim).   With  regards  to  the  twelve-month period, though, which is less stringent, one could rely  on this leniency.
     The above two reasons, a) having reached the situation where people would tell the mourner to cut his hair and b)  discomfort being a feature only of shiva and not of the periods which follow, permit shaving during the week,  once every   few  days.   Before  Shabbat,  though,  there   are additional  reasons  to  be lenient  maybe  even  to  REQUIRE shaving for one who is accustomed to shave daily.
      Honoring ("kevod") Shabbat includes preparing oneself through washing and wearing clean clothing.  Nowadays,  for people  who shave daily, shaving is a regular part of  pre- Shabbat preparations.  The gemara speaks of a case where  a prohibition  against  shaving clashes  with  kevod  Shabbat (Ta'anit  15b):  "The men of the 'mishmar' (kohanim-priests on  rotation  for  Temple  service)  and  the  men  of  the 'ma'amad'  (as explained above) are forbidden to  cut  hair and  to  wash  clothes, but on Thursday they are  permitted because of kevod Shabbat."

      One  might  reject this source as irrelevant  to  our discussion  by  pointing out that the prohibition  of  hair cutting for the men of the mishmar and the ma'amad  is  not connected to mourning, but was made in order to insure that they  shave earlier, similar to the prohibition of  shaving during chol ha-mo'ed (Ta'anit 17a).
      The  gemara  on  Ta'anit 26b,  though,  is  certainly relevant:
"During  the  week  on  which  Tisha  Be-av  falls,  it  is prohibited  to  cut  hair  and  to  wash  clothes,  but  it permitted on Thursday for kevod Shabbat."
      The  commentary  ascribed to Rashi comments  that  if Tisha  Be-av falls out on Shabbat one can wash on Thursday. Here, breaking mourning is explicitly permitted because  of kevod Shabbat.
      Tosafot's position (Ta'anit 30a s.v. Ve-tarvayhu  le- kula)  is  more extreme than Rashi's.  They permit  washing and  cutting hair on Thursday even if Tisha Be-av comes out on   Thursday  -  even  though  one  could  do  all   these preparations  on erev Shabbat!  Because of the  "burden  of Shabbat  preparations  one  should  not  wait  until   erev Shabbat."   Although the Beit Yosef was astounded  by  this radical  opinion and therefore ascribed it  to  a  mistaken student, the fact that the same comment appears in  Tosafot Ha-rosh makes his doubts implausible.  Even if one does not go  as far as the Tosafot, permitting mourning prohibitions on  Tisha  Be-av itself because of kevod Shabbat, there  is certainly  firm  basis to permit shaving  during  the  Omer because of kevod Shabbat.
      True,  the Or Zarua writes that only washing  clothes was  permitted  because of kevod Shabbat, but  not  cutting hair.   However,  the  Magen  Avraham  explains  that   his reasoning  is that one washes clothes every week  but  does not  cut one's hair every week.  If that is the case,  then in a situation where one does shave every week, even the Or Zarua would permit shaving for kevod Shabbat.
     The mourning customs of the Omer are much more lenient than those of the week of Tisha B'Av.

There  are two reasons to permit those who shave  daily  to shave during the Omer on a normal weekday:
1.  After  several days one reaches the level of  "ge'ara," where   friends   would   scold  him   because   he   looks un-presentable (according to those who say that one does not have to actually be told by people).
2.  The  level  of not shaving which causes discomfort  and looks  undignified  is  mandated  only  during  shiva,  but probably not during sheloshim and certainly not during  the twelve-month period that the Omer parallels (Ritz Giat).       Hence,  since  kevod  Shabbat takes  precedence  over mourning customs of the Omer (based on Ta'anit 26b), it  is not  only  permissible,  but  obligatory  to  shave  before Shabbat.

This article originally appeared in Daf Kesher #133, vol.
2, pp. 54-56, Yom Yerushalayim 5748.
This article was not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012



Excerpt from "Emanations" Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

The Talmud in Megila teaches:
“Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Shesheth: On the Sabbath of Chol Hamoed, on both Pesach and Sukkot we read from scripture “V’ata R’ay” (Shmot 33). The Haftorah on Pesach, “The Dry Bones” (Yechezkel 37) and on Sukkot “The day of the arrival of Gog” (Yechezkal 38)” (Megila 31a)

R. Huna said in the name of R. Shesheth: On the Sabbath which falls in the intermediate days of the festival, whether Passover or Tabernacles, the passage we read from the Torah is ‘See, Thou [sayest unto me]’ and for haftarah on Passover the passage of the ‘dry bones’, and on Tabernacles, ‘In that day when Gog shall come’. (Megila 31a)

The passage in the Talmud discusses the appropriate readings for the various Festivals. Generally the text which is read has an intrinsic connection with the day, but in this case no connection is apparent. Over  a thousand years ago, this question was asked of Rav Hai Gaon, the leading scholar of his generation. He responded that he was not aware of any intrinsic connection between the scripture read in the Haftorah and these holidays, but continued:

“I have a tradition from the Sages that Resurrection will take place in Nissan, and victory over Gog and Magog, will take place in Tishrei; therefore in Nissan we read of the dry bones (which will live) in the Haftorah, and in Tishrei we read of the battle of Gog” (Tur Oruch Haim section 490, see Otzar Hagaonim Megilah pg 64)

This tradition, that Resurrection is to take place in Nissan, is the key to a number of passages in the Talmud.

“It was taught, Rabbi Eliezer said; in Tishrei the world was created, in Tishrei the Avot were born, in Tishrei the Avot perished, on Pesach Yitzchak was born, on Rosh Hashanah Sarah, Rachel, and Hanah were answered. On Rosh Hashanah Yosef left  prison, on Rosh Hashanah the slavery came to an end in Egypt. In Nissan we were redeemed, in Tishrei we will be redeemed in the future. Rav Yehoshua said, in Nissan the world was created, in Nissan the Avot were born, in Nissan the Avot perished, On Pesach Yitzchak was born, .. In Nisan we were redeemed, in Nissan we will be redeemed (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a)

It has been taught: R. Eliezer says: In Tishri the world was created; in Tishri the Patriarchs were born; in Tishri the Patriarchs died; on Passover Isaac was born; on New Year Sarah, Rachel and Hannah were visited; on New Year Joseph went forth from prison (Talmud - Rosh HaShana 11a) on New Year the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt ceased; in Nisan they were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come. R. Joshua says: In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; in Nisan the Patriarchs died; on Passover Isaac was born; on New Year Sarah, Rachel and Hannah were visited; on New Year Joseph went forth from prison; on New Year the bondage of our ancestors ceased in Egypt; and in Nisan they will be redeemed in time to come.

In this passage we find that two of the great Tannaim, Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua, argue not only about biblical chronology but also about eschatology. At the root of this disagreement is the intricate relationship of history and destiny in the view of these great sages.  Days have a personality or a charisma of their own, just as people do; therefore the understanding of the past allows us to better understand the future. Rabbi Eliezer  and Rabbi Yehoshua have a fundamental argument regarding when the world came into being, and  their differences are interrelated with  the question of how the End of Days will shape up.

Tishrei is a month of judgment, while Nissan is a month of miracles, as is indicated by its very name (“Nissan”, perhaps from the root “nes”, miracle). In this context, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua differ over the very nature of existence: Is our life defined primarily by justice or mercy? Tosefot, in their comments to the passage in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, point out that actually both aspects are accurate  representations of our existence: Rabbi Eliezer focuses on the thought of creation which came into existence in Tishrei, while Rabbi Yehoshua  focuses on the actual Creation which took place in Nissan. It is interesting to note that  Jewish law reflects the opinion of  Rabbi Yehoshua, as is evidenced by a relatively obscure law: Birchat Hachama, a blessing on the sun which may be made  every 28 years when the sun is in the exact alignment it was at the moment of creation, is pronounced in Nissan (see Shulchan Aruch 229:2 Mishna Brura 7).

If creation indeed took place in Nissan, thereby establishing the law in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua, then we may conclude that Redemption will also take place in Nissan, as per Rabbi Yehoshua. This is interesting in and of itself, but does not seem connected with our original question regarding Resurrection. The connection is only brought out by an additional  passage:

“Rabbi Eliezer said, if Israel repent they will be redeemed, if not they will not be redeemed. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him; if they don’t repent they won’t be redeemed? Rather, The Holy One Blessed be He will bring a king whose decrees are as difficult as Haman, and the Jews will repent, and rectify their ways” (Sanhedrin 97b)

This matter is disputed by Tannaim: R. Eliezer said: if Israel repent, they will be redeemed; if not, they will not be redeemed. R. Joshua said to him, if they do not repent, will they not be redeemed! But the Holy One, blessed be He, will set up a king over them, whose decrees shall be as cruel as Haman's, whereby Israel shall engage in repentance, and he will thus bring them back to the right path. Another [Baraitha] taught: R. Eliezer said: if Israel repent, they will be redeemed, as it is written, Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. R. Joshua said to him, But is it not written, ye have sold yourselves for naught; and ye shall be redeemed without money? Ye have sold yourselves for naught, for idolatry; and ye shall be redeemed without money — without repentance and good deeds. R. Eliezer retorted to R. Joshua, But is it not written, Return unto me, and I will return unto you? R. Joshua rejoined — But is it not written, For I am master over you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion? R. Eliezer replied, But it is written, in returning and rest shall ye be saved. R. Joshua replied, But is it not written, Thus saith the Lord, The Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nations abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, (Talmud - Sanhedrin 98a) Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship? R. Eliezer countered, But is it not written, if thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the Lord, return unto me? R. Joshua answered, But it is elsewhere written, And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times and a half’ and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished. At this R. Eliezer remained silent.

Again, Rabbi Eliezer’s view of the world is based on merit, on judgment and justice. Redemption is possible only if the Jews deserve it, if they repent. In its conclusion, the Talmud teaches that according to Rabbi Yehoshua, Redemption is unconditional; his statement that  G-d would bring a wicked tyrant to persecute us was Rabbi Yehoshua’s understanding of Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion (The Jerusalem Talmud Ta’anit 1:1, reports that it was Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, and not Rabbi Yehoshua’s,  that G-d would bring a wicked tyrant on the Jews if they do not repent on their own). In the end of the passage Rabbi Eliezer is silenced by the arguments of Rabbi Yehoshua. Apparently both agree that Redemption will come sooner or later, but Redemption will inevitably come (the Ramban clearly states that in conclusion Rabbi Eliezer concedes to Rabbi Yehoshua, as is indicated by his “silence”. See “Sefer HaGeulah” Kitvei Ramban Volume 1 page 277).

Juxtaposing  these two Talmudic teachings allows us to draw conclusions regarding the sages’ debate: In Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua argue as to when Creation took place and  when the final Redemption will come. If these two arguments are connected, the passage in Tractate Sanhedrin is highly instructive. The argument regarding Redemption, ends with the acquiescence of Rabbi Eliezer, which is consistent with our understanding of the passage in Rosh Hashanah, where the law is also established in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yehoshua. Tosafot’s teaching, which reconciles the two positions by identifying each with a “different” Creation, may be applied to both passages equally:  There is no fundamental argument, rather, one passage refers to the idea of Creation while the other refers to the actual Creation. 

In other words, do we consider the beginning of the process, or are we concerned with  the end result? Rabbi Eliezer focused on the beginning of the process of Creation; therefore he speaks of Tishrei, which is the time of Creation in thought, long before anything existed in reality. Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer, when considering Redemption, spoke of the upheaval which will lead to spiritual renaissance. This is the beginning of the process of Redemption. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehoshua focused on the end of the process, the actual Creation. The tradition referred to by Rav Hai Gaon, that resurrection will take place in Nissan, refers to the end of the process of Redemption,  resurrection.

Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion finds its own expression in the Talmud: The Talmud only uses the phrase “Atchalta d’Geula -“Beginning of the redemption” in one place-

            “War is also considered the beginning of the redemption” (Megila 17b)

Rabbi Eliezer, who looked at the beginning of the process of Creation, considered the beginning of the redemptive process as well: The Haftorah for Chol HaMoed Sukkot describes the apocalyptic battle between Gog and Magog, the beginning of the process of Redemption.  This epic battle, which Israel is destined to be swept into if they do not repent in due course, is to take place in Tishrei, the month in which Sukkot is celebrated. Here, then, is the link with the Haftorah which we sought. It is the link between Tishrei and the Atchalta d’Geula which Rabbi Eliezer illuminated.

The association of Resurrection with Nissan has a number of expressions and implications. One of the teachings which both Rabbis agreed on was the birth of Yitzchak on Pesach. Yitzchak is the first biblical figure who is linked with resurrection. One Midrash describes the connection in the following terms: When Yitzchak was tied down to the altar at the Akaida,

“The angels began to cry and their tears fell on the blade, the knife rose up to the neck of Yitzchak, for he (Avraham) could not control it. His (Yitzchak’s) soul departed him. G-d called Michael (the angel) and said “Why are you standing there? Do not allow him to slaughter him” Immediately Michael called out “Avraham, Avraham” …he let go (of the knife) and his soul returned, he(Yitzchak) stood on his feet and pronounced the blessing “Blessed is he who restores life to the dead” (Baruch michayei maytim) (Otzar Midrashim page 146)

According to this Midrash, the first one to utter the blessing on restoration of life was Yitzchak, when his own life was restored. This idea is also consistent with a second teaching. We are taught that the first 3 blessings of the amidah are called “Avot”. While the other elements of the amidah vary depending on the day, these 3 blessings are constants. The first of these blessings, which speaks of G-d’s chesed, is “Magen Avraham”, associated with Avraham and the spiritual realm so inseparably associated with him. The second blessing is “Michayei HaMaytim,” and is similarly related to Yitzchak. The second blessing starts with “Ata gibor,” gevurah being the spiritual attribute associated  with Yitzchak and  the one which is preserved and expressed 3 times a day by Jews for millennia. The second blessing of the amidah is instructive in other ways:

“You are eternally mighty my Lord, the resuscitator of the dead are you; abundantly able to save …”

In the winter the phrase which follows is:

“He makes the wind blow and the rain descend, He sustains the living with kindness”

In Israel, in the summer months the subsequent phrase reads :

“Bring down the dew!
He sustains the living with kindness”

The difference between these two phrases seems obvious, the distinction being in  the object of our prayer, either  rain or dew. There is, however, a more subtle difference.  The prayer said in the winter is “He makes the wind blow and the rain (geshem) descend, He sustains the living with kindness”. There are some who have a custom of saying Gashem (kamatz, instead of segol). The significance of the punctuation goes way beyond the grammatical:  “Geshem” is the form of the word which would appear in the middle of a sentence, whereas “Gashem” indicates the end of the sentence.  The alternative readings would indicate whether the second half of the blessing modifies the first, or stands alone.  Geshem , rather than Gashem, would indicate that  the kindness which is bestowed is the rain itself. The phrase used in the summer is “Moreed hatal,” the word tal (dew) punctuated with a kamatz. “Dew” is the end of the sentence, as opposed to a later appearance in the  weekday amidah where the word tal,  with a patach, is used in the middle of the sentence.

If the term “Bring down the dew!”  is the end of the sentence, then it must modify what immediately preceded it; “You are eternally mighty my Lord, the resuscitator of the dead are you; abundantly able to save: Bring down the dew!”  Dew is directly connected with resurrection. But what is the nature of this connection? In numerous places in Talmud, Midrash and Zohar, we see that dew is the catalyst which brings about the Resurrection!

“Dew - tal will be used in the future by the Holy One Blessed be He to bring about Resurrection” (Chagiga 12b)

“After each of the 10 Commandments (the people died when G-d spoke) so (G-d) brought dew on them which will be used in the future to resurrect man, and they came back to life” (Shabbat 88b)

“How do we know that Resurrection will only take place via dew?…(Yerushalmi Brachot 5:2)

“The dead (bones) which Yechezkel brought back to life-- dew from heaven descended upon them.” (Pirkei d Rebbi Eliezer chapter33)

“Dew is a symbol of resurrection” (Tanchuma Toldot section 19)

By means of that dew all will rise from the dust, as it says, “for thy dew is as the dew of lights” (Is. XXVI, 19), these being the supernal lights through which the Almighty will in future pour forth life upon the world. (Zohar, Bereshith, 130b)
Said R. Hiya: ‘And what is more, from the words, “Thy dead ones will live” (Isa. XXVI, 19), it is evident that not only will there be a new creation, but that the very bodies which were dead will rise, for one bone in the body remains intact, not decaying in the earth, and on the Resurrection Day the Holy One will soften it and make it like leaven in dough, and it will rise and expand on all sides, and the whole body and all its members will be formed from it, and then the Holy One will put spirit into it.’ Said R. Eleazar: ‘Assuredly so. And the bone will be softened by the dew, as it says: “Thy dead ones shall live... for thy dew is the dew of plants” (Ibid.).’ (Zohar, Shemoth, 28b)

We would expect that the second blessing of the amidah, the one connected with Yitzchak, the blessing which concludes “Blessed is G-d who brings the dead to life”, would naturally make reference to the final Resurrection. If so, when we say “Bring the dew!” our intention should be “Bring the resurrection!” 

The prayer for rain is said only in the winter.  On Pesach, we begin to ask for tal.  At the time of our  redemption from Egypt, the time of  the birth of Yitzchak, we say this blessing with anticipation of the complete Redemption, the end of the Redemption: Resurrection.  This is the full circle of the second blessing of the amidah and the link between the month of Nissan, the birth of Yitzchak, the Exodus and the result of the Redemption which Rabbi Yehoshua sought to draw in the passage in Tractate Rosh HaShanah.

When the Jews left Egypt they had three goals: 1. To leave Egypt, 2. To receive the Torah 3. To build the Temple. In the Ramban’s Introduction to the Book of Shmot he explains that Shmot  is the book of redemption, but the book can not end after leaving Egypt nor after the receiving of the Torah. The book does not end until the Mishkan-Temple is built. Pesach marks the celebration of leaving Egypt, but it can not be seen in a vacuum. On Pesach we immediately begin counting the days until the Torah is given at Sinai. But receiving the Torah is not an end in and of itself. Receiving the Torah means living the Torah, following its statutes, taking the ideals described in the Torah and turning them into a wonderful reality. The reality of living the Torah necessarily leads to the Messianic Age, and culminates in the end of this Age - Resurrection. For this reason, on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed we read the description of how dry bones shall live, for the bones coming to life are the culmination of the Redemption begun on Pesach.

“You are eternally mighty my Lord, the resuscitator of the dead are you; abundantly able to save: Bring down the dew!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Students of Rabbi Akiva and The Omer

The Students of Rabbi Akiva and The Omer

Excerpt from "Emanations" Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

The days between Pesach and Shavuot are known as the Omer. These days are counted as we anxiously await Chag Shavuot, the day commemorating 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. From the biblical perspective, the counting is directed towards a date of agricultural significance, as the new fruits would be brought to Jerusalem on Shavuot. On the other hand, the understanding that this 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. 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. We can readily understand how agricultural man would have been overjoyed when the literal fruits of his labor came to fruition. The Torah’s order places this very human, natural joy within a religious context. Moreover, by linking this agricultural festival with the very day on which the holy Torah itself was revealed surely elevated the joy from the mundane to the sacred. Thus, the counting in Temple times between Pesach 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 days of mourning. No weddings or other public expressions of joy are celebrated. The accepted explanation for this transformation of a joyful period into a time of mourning is the demise of the students of Rabbi Akiva:

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות פסח סימן תצג סעיף א
נוהגים שלא לישא אשה בין פסח לעצרת עד ל"ג לעומר, מפני שבאותו זמן מתו תלמידי רבי עקיבא; אבל לארס ולקדש, שפיר דמי, ונשואין נמי, מי שקפץ וכנס אין עונשין אותו. הגה: מיהו מל"ג בעומר ואילך  הכל שרי.
The practice is not to get married between Pesach and Shavuot – until Lag Ba’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. (Shulchan Aruch section 493:1)

The reference of the Shulchan Aruch, and therefore the source of the well-established custom, is the tragic story of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died during this time of the year:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סב עמוד ב           
רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר, לָמַד תּוֹרָה בְּיַלְדּוּתוֹ, יִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָה בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ. הָיוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידִים בְּיַלְדּוּתוֹ, יִהְיוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידִים בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, "בַּבֹּקֶר זְרַע זַרְעֶךָ" וְגוֹ. אָמְרוּ, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אֶלֶף זוּגִים תַּלְמִידִים הָיוּ לוֹ לְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, מִגְּבַת עַד אַנְטִיפְרַס, וְכֻלָּן מֵתוּ בְּפֶרֶק אֶחָד, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹֹּא נָהֲגוּ כָבוֹד זֶה לָזֶה. וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם שָׁמֵם, עַד שֶׁבָּא רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אֵצֶל רַבּוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַּדָּרוֹם, וּשְׁנָאָהּ לְרַבִּי מֵאִיר, וְרַבִּי יְהוּדָה, וְרַבִּי יוֹסֵי, וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן, וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן שַׁמּוּעַ, וְהֵם [הֵם] הֶעֱמִידוּ תּוֹרָה בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה. תָּנָא, כֻּלָּם מֵתוּ מִפֶּסַח וְעַד עֲצֶרֶת. אָמַר רַב חָמָא בַּר אַבָּא, וְאִיתֵימָא רַבִּי חִיָּא בַּר אַבִין, וְכֻלָּם מֵתוּ מִיתָה רָעָה. מַאי הִיא? אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן, אַסְכָּרָה:
It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand 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 R. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Yose, R. Shimon and R. Elazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot. R. Hama b. Abba or, it might be said, R. Hiyya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it?-R. Nahman replied: Croup. (Yevamot 62b)[2]

The Talmud speaks of twelve thousand “pairs” of students and not of twenty four thousand, 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”. The tragedy of the students of Rabbi Akiva is connected with the crusades, pogroms and blood libels suffered over the course of Jewish history. These attacks were often rooted in a twisted Christian perspective of the Pesach ceremony, and the days after Pesach 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 nature of this 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, their nature 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. 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:

אגרת רב שרירא גאון כיצד נכתבה המשנה אות י
ומסר רבי עקיבא את עצמו להריגה (ברכות סא, ב) אחר שנפטר רבי יוסי בן קסמא, ונהרג ר' חנינא בן תרדיון ונתמעטה החכמה אחריהם. והעמיד ר' עקיבא תלמידים הרבה והוה שמדא על התלמידים של ר' עקיבא, והות סמכא דישראל על התלמידים שניים של ר' עקיבא, דאמור רבנן שנים עשר אלף תלמידים היו לו לר' עקיבא מגבת ועד אנטיפטרס וכלם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת והיה העולם שמם והולך עד שבאו אצל רבותיהם שבדרום ושנאה להם רבי מאיר ור' יוסי ר' יהודה ור' שמעון ור' אלעזר בן שמוע והם העמידוה באותה שעה כדאיתא ביבמות (סב, ב).

Rabbi Akiva raised many students, [but] there was a religious persecution [shmada] on the students of Rabbi Akiva (letter of Rav Shrira Gaon, Sefardic recension page 13)

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. The Talmud, the unparalleled work of Rabbinic Judaism, had no need to retell well-known historical episodes. Its task was to illuminate and explain G-d’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.

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 Kochva.[7]  Therefore the association between Rabbi Akiva’s “students” and the followers of Bar Kochva is likely.[8]

The Rambam describes Rabbi Akiva as an “arms bearer” of Bar Koziba.[9] The source of the Rambam’s assertion is a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud:

ירושלמי תענית פרק ד
 תני ר' שמעון בן יוחי עקיבה רבי היה דורש דרך כוכב מיעקב דרך כוזבא מיעקב רבי עקיבה כד הוה חמי בר כוזבה הוה אמר דין הוא מלכא משיחא אמר ליה רבי יוחנן בן תורתא עקיבה יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא
Rav Shimon Ben Yochai taught; Akiva my master would expound the verse “A star will come from Yaakov” as ‘Koziba will come from Yaakov.’ 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.” (Yerushalmi Taanit chapter 4:5 page 68d)

The verse in question is in the prophecy of Bil’am, Israel’s would-be anathema who instead blessed the Jewish people:

I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not near; there shall come a star out of Ya’akov, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall strike the corners of Moav and destroy all the sons of Seth. (Bamidbar 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 Kochva (literally, ‘Son of a Star). In fact, his name was not actually Bar Kochva: Based on recent archeological finds we know that his actual name was Bar Kosba (with the Hebrew letter “samech”). The appellation Bar Kochva 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 rebellion was quashed, he was called Bar Koziba, “son of deceit” or “disappointment”.

R. Yohanan said: Rabbi used to expound, “There shall step forth a star (kochav) out of Ya’acob” (Bamidbar 24, 17), thus: Read not ’kochav but kazav (lie). (Eicha Rabba 2:4)

The aftermath of the painful defeat caused Bar Kochva to receive a new moniker, which recorded the profound failure for posterity.

While Rabbi Akiva afforded Messianic status to the rebellion in general, and to Bar Kochva in particular, there was another voice which spoke out in opposition:[10]

Rav Yochanan ben Torta said; “Akiva grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not come” (Yerushalmi Taanit chapter 4:5 page 68d)

The phrase is enigmatic.[11] 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”.[12] It sounds as if Rav Yochanan ben Torata rejects the messianic age completely.[13] This position is untenable for we know that Rav Yochanan Ben Torta believed in the coming of the messianic age:

מנחות -צוקרמאנדל- פרק יג הלכה כב               
אמר ר' יוחנן בן תורתא מפני מה חרבה שילה מפני בזיון קדשים שבתוכה ירושלם בניין הראשון מפני מה חרבה מפני עבודה זרה וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים שהיה בתוכה אבל באחרונה מכירין אנו בהן שהן עמלין בתורה וזהירין במעשרות מפני מה גלו מפני שאוהבין את הממון ושונאין איש את רעהו ללמדך שקשה שנאת איש את רעהו לפני המקום ושקלה הכתוב כנגד עבודה זרה וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים:אבל בבנין האחרון שעתידה ליבנות בחיינו ובימינו מה נאמר בו והיה באחרית הימים נכון יהיה הר בית י"י בראש ההרים וגומ' והלכו עמים רבים ואמרו לכו ונעלה אל הר י"י ואל בית אלהי יעקב ואו' כי יש יום קראו נוצרים בהר אפרים קומו ונעלה ציון אל י"י אלהינו:
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 G-d of Ya’acob; 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.]  (Yeshayahu 2:2-4) and it says “For there shall be a day, when the watchmen[14] upon Mount Ephraim shall cry, Arise, and let us go up to Zion to the Lord our God. (Yirmiyahu  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” (Yerushalmi 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 Toesfta 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;[15] 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.

What then is the reference to the “grass growing” from Rabbi Akiva’s cheeks? An analysis of the passage of the Rambam will provide explanation.

רמב"ם הלכות מלכים פרק יא הלכה ג   
ואל יעלה על דעתך שהמלך המשיח צריך לעשות אותות ומופתים ומחדש דברים בעולם או מחיה מתים וכיוצא בדברים אלו, אין הדבר כך, שהרי רבי עקיבא חכם גדול מחכמי משנה היה, והוא היה נושא כליו של בן כוזיבא המלך, והוא היה אומר עליו שהוא המלך המשיח, ודימה הוא וכל חכמי דורו שהוא המלך המשיח, עד שנהרג בעונות, כיון שנהרג נודע להם שאינו, ולא שאלו ממנו חכמים לא אות ולא מופת, ועיקר הדברים ככה הן, שהתורה הזאת חוקיה ומשפטיה לעולם ולעולמי עולמים, ואין מוסיפין עליהן ולא גורעין מהן. +/השגת הראב"ד/ אל יעלה על דעתך וכו', א"א והלא בן כוזיבא היה אומר אנא הוא מלכא משיחא ושלחו חכמים לבדקו אי מורח ודאין או לא וכיון דלא עביד הכי קטלוהו.+

“You should not think that the messiah must perform miracles or wonders, or create new realities, or bring back the dead,[16] 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…(Rambam, Laws of Melachim 11:3)         
The Rambam explains that life in the messianic age will be no different from current times in terms of the miraculous.[17] What is the Rambam’s source? Rabbi Akiva, in our passage in the Yerushalmi. 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”.[18] 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 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’rabbi Natan:

אבות דרבי נתן פרק ו'
 ושותה בצמא את דבריהם זה רבי עקיבא מה היה תחלתו של רבי עקיבא. אמרו בן ארבעים שנה היה ולא שנה כלום. פעם אחת היה עומד על פי הבאר אמר מי חקק אבן זו אמרו לא המים שתדיר -נופלים- עליה בכל יום אמרו -לו- עקיבא אי אתה קורא אבנים שחקו מים. מיד היה רבי עקיבא דן קל וחומר בעצמו מה רך פסל את הקשה דברי תורה שקשה כברזל על אחת כמה וכמה שיחקקו את לבי שהוא בשר ודם. מיד חזר ללמוד תורה. הלך הוא ובנו וישבו אצל מלמדי תינוקות א"ל רבי למדני תורה אחז רבי עקיבא בראש הלוח ובנו בראש הלוח כתב לו אלף בית ולמדה.
Drink thirstily their words” this is Rabbi Akiva. What were the origins of Rabbi Akiva? It was said that he was forty 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” (Iyov 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’Rebbi 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.[19] 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 P’sikta which describes the incredible, spiritually- redemptive power of the Para Aduma (Red Heifer):

פסיקתא רבתי -איש שלום- פרשה יד   
אמרו רבותינו מעשה היה בישראל אחד שהיה לו פרה אחת חורשת, נתמעטה ידו ומכרה לו לגוי אחד, כיון שלקחה הגוי וחרשה -עמה- -עמו- ששת ימים של חול, בשבת הוציאה שתחרוש עמו,  ורבצה לו תחת העול, היה הולך ומכה אותה והיא אינה זזה ממקומה, כיון שראה כן הלך ואמר לאותו ישראל שמכרה לו, בא טול פרתך שמא צער יש בה שהרי כמה אני מכה אותה והיא אינה זזה ממקומה, אותו ישראל הבין לומר בשביל של שבת והיתה למודה לנוח בשבת, א"ל בא ואני מעמידה, כיון שבא ואמר לה באזנה פרה פרה את יודעת כשהיית ברשותי היית חורשת ימי החול בשבת היית נינוח עכשיו שגרמו עונותי ואת ברשות גוי בבקשה ממך עמדי וחרשי ומיד עמדה וחרשה, א"ל אותו הגוי אני מבקשך טול פרתך עד עכשיו אני בא ומיסב אחריך שתהא בא ומעמידה, על אחת חוץ מזו ומזו -ואיני- -איני- מניחך עד שתאמר לי מה עשית לה באזנה, אני נתייגעתי בה והכיתי אותה ולא עמדה, התחיל אותו ישראל מפייסו ואומר לו לא כשוף ולא כשפים עשיתי אלא כך וכך הסחתי לה באזנה ועמדה וחרשה, מיד נתיירא הגוי, אמר ומה אם פרה שאין לה לא שיחה ולא דעת הכירה את בוראה ואני שייצרני יוצרי בדמותו ונתן בי דעת איני הולך ומכיר את בוראי, מיד בא ונתגייר, ולמד וזכה לתורה והיו קוראים שמו יוחנן בן תורתה, ועד עכשיו רבותינו אומרים הלכה משמו, ואם תמיה אתה שעל ידי פרה נתקרב אדם אחד לכנפי שכינה הרי על ידי פרה היא -טהרתו- -טהרתן- של כל ישראל ממה שקראו בענין זאת חקת התורה.
Our Rabbis taught: 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 cannot 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 Maker. His very name “Ben Torta” – “son of the cow” is testimony to his metamorphosis.[20]

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 Maker, as a natural process, as the result of a natural process all of Israel would find themselves, and join G-d 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 G-d as Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, nothing less than an open miracle would be effective.

The Rambam 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 our people has ever had. He thought that once the process begins the idea of redemption would spread like wildfire, and the people would reach the levels of greatness of which they were capable. If he 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 Pesach and Shavuot mark the redemption that did not happen. We mourn that failure. On Pesach, when we celebrate the Redemption from Egypt, we also try to discern the art of redemption in order to 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 Pesach and Shavuot will reacquire their original identity and become a time of joy.

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 G-d of Ya’acov; 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.]  (Yishayahu 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 G-d.’ (Yirmiyahu  31:5) (Tosefta Menachot 13:23)

[1]  The actual date the Torah was given is a subject which is debated in the Talmud - Shabbat 86b
“Our Rabbis taught: On the sixth day of the month [Sivan] were the Ten Commandments given to Israel. R. 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 (Shmot 19, 1).”
[2]  See Bereishit Rabba 61:3, Kohelet Rabba 11, Yalkut Shimoni Kohelet section 989, for parallel sources. Also see Tana Dbei Eliyahu Zuta chapter 22.
[3]  See Otzar HaGeonim on Yevamot 62b (page 141) and sources cited. Rav Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer volume 5 O.H. section 38.
[4]  See Birkei Yosef 493:10 where he cites a number of opinions that the custom not to wed during this period is late and spurious.
[5]  Rav Yichiel Michel Epstein, Oruch HaShulchan 493:1. He also sites the Chok Ya’akov (493:3) and mentions the opinion of Rav Yochanan ben Nuri, that the maximum hell to which a soul may be sentenced is the length of the period between Pesach and Shavuot, (Mishna Edyot 2:9) which further points to the “judgment” aspect of this period.
[6]  The Aruch HaShulchan specifically states that the custom began in the time of the Geonim. This may also explain why specifically Sefardic poskim found the custom difficult.
[7] The Talmud says that the students died from the croup which is the English word for “askara”, a term which denotes choking. The association with Bar Kochva may explain this term, as Bar Kochva’s death is described as taking place when a snake (a symbol of his sins) choked him: Jerusalem Talmud Ta’anit 4:5, Midrash Rabbah – Eicha 2:4.
“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 G-d 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 Kochva was defeated. The motivation for this response may be seen from another source, which shows that Bar Kochva 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 Kochva was a great warrior, and he said to G-d “Do not help nor hinder us and we will be successful”. The Rambam and Ra’avad reflect these two traditions; see Laws of Melachim 11:3, where the Rambam most likely understands that the sources complement one another as I described above, because it is unlikely that he would reject the Talmud Bavli in favor of another tradition.
[8]  This would explain the incredible number of  “students” who perished. There have been historians who have made this association. On the other hand, a number of sources speak of students of Rabbi Akiva not behaving properly.
Nedarim 40a        “Did it not once happen that one of R. Akiva's disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So R. 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] R. Akiva went forth and lectured: He who does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood.”
Menachot 68b      R. 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 b. 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? R. Tarfon remained silent, and at once the face of Yehudah b. 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 R. Yehudah b. Ila'i, ‘This happened a fortnight before Pesach, and when I came up for the ‘Azeret festival I enquired after Yehudah b. Nehemiah and was told that he had passed away’.
This second source is particularly impressive as the death clearly takes place between Pesach 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.
[9]  The real name of the supposed messiah was Bar Kosba, see below, after the failure he was known as Bar Koziba, this is how the Rambam refers to him Melachim 11:3. The name Bar Kochva as such is not found in Talmudic literature, cf. Buber edition of Midrash Eicha Rabba.
[10]  The Rambam Laws of Melachim 11:3, makes it sound as if the entire generation was in agreement with Rabbi Akiva, the language “all the sages of the generation” must mean “most”. Unless this represents a later view, after the revolt began to unravel.
[11]  This is the only use of this phrase in Rabbinic writings. I once discussed the phrase with Professor Daniel Sperber, who informed me that the phrase is not used in Greek or Latin writings either. Rabbi Soloveitchik once suggested that the idiom referred to Rabbi Akiva’s eloquence.
[12]  There is another teaching of Rav Yochanan ben Torta which relates to the grave: Midrash Rabba – Shir HaShirim 7:16: R. Yohanan b. Torta said: Even when one is dead, his lips quiver in the grave. How do we know? Because it says, “Moving gently the lips of those that are asleep”. (Shir Hashirim 7:10)
[13] The Talmud does record one opinion of a certain Rebbi Hillel that the messianic age was exhausted in the days of Hizkiya, but this opinion is considered antinomian. See Sanhedrin 99a.
[14]  “Notzrim” – ‘watchmen’, may be a play on words meaning Christians—not, of course, in the Biblical text but in the particular usage by Rav Yochanan ben Torta.
[15]  This teaching is also found in Yoma 9a, but the Talmudic discussion clouds the authorship of Rav Yochanan ben Torta. A careful reading of that source will yield the same conclusion.
[16]  It should be noted that Rabbi Menachem M. Shneerson, in his commentary on this passage, concludes that the messianic age – the coming of the Messiah - will predate the epoch of the resurrection. See Chokrei Hazmanim by Alter Hilovitz, Mosad HaRav Kook, volume 2 pages 19-35, for the Rebbi’s treatise on this passage. 
[17]  As seen in the previous footnote, we must stress that there are various epochs described as being part of the Jewish eschatological vision. According to the Rambam the messianic age is the first part. While this epoch requires no change of nature, subsequent epochs must include basic changes. For example, the Rambam clearly believes in resurrection, as is evidenced by his including lack of belief in resurrection as tantamount to heresy, in his laws of Teshuva. Therefore we may conclude that resurrection is part of a later epoch. See article cited in previous note.
[18]  This comment would be more caustic if Rabbi Akiva was in fact bald, as is implied by at least one Talmudic source and is the understanding of a number of medieval authorities. Talmud Bechorot 58a, “‘Ben Azzai says: ‘All the Sages of Israel are in comparison with myself, as thin as the husk of garlic, except that bald head.’ Rashi identifies the “bald head” as Rabbi Akiva, hence Rav Yehoshua ben Korcha is the son of Rabbi Akiva. Tosfot s.v. “Chutz”, Tosfot Baba Batra 113a, Rashbam and Tosfot Pesachim 112a, Machzor Vitri section 424.
[19]  See Pesachim 49b for an example of Rabbi Akiva’s attitude from his days as an “am haaretz”.
[20]  The only other conversation between Rabbi Akiva and Rav Yochanan ben Torta recorded reads:
“The Rabbis related that once when R. Yochanan b. Torta came before R. Akiva, the latter said to him: Rise and read the Torah [for us].[He replied [“I have not reviewed the portion’; whereupon the Sages praised him, [because he fulfilled the verse] ’ Then did he see it, and declare it.’ Midrash Rabba – Shmot 40:1