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

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