Yevamot 58 - 64
Building a World of Torah
Rabbi Akiva says, “If one studied Torah in his youth he should also study Torah in his advanced age; if he taught students in his youth, he should also teach students in his advanced age.” It was taught, “Twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students were in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Yehuda, and they all died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with sufficient respect. And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. These Rabbis were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time. Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations.” It was taught, “All of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the period from Pesach until Shavuot.”
It is important to note that although we are taught that they died during the period from Pesach until Shavuot, our tradition informs us that not a single student died on Lag B’Omer. Lag B’Omer is a day that we commemorate and celebrate due to it being the day on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai left this world, and according to tradition is also the day on which he revealed the Kabbalistic teachings of the Zohar.
Our sugya teaches that Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students died because they did not sufficiently honor each other. Our great Torah commentaries offer a variety of explanations for why this tragedy occurred. I am especially fond of the following explanation, one which I was taught by my dear friend and renowned Torah educator Rabbi Reuven Lauffer, shlita.
The Torah students of Rabbi Akiva were meant to be the spiritual leadership for the next generation. They would secure the continuity of the teachings of TorahShebe'al Peh (the Oral Law). They would interpret it, explain it to the masses and make correct halachic rulings. This is why their absolute purity was essential. They required a special purity in every aspect, not only in matters between themselves and Hashem but also in any dealing with other people. Therefore, Chazal identify even an apparently minute character flaw as being the root cause for the terrible plague and their untimely death.
When Rabbi Akiva’s students had died, the issue of the lack of required purity no longer existed. That was the moment when Rabbi Akiva could begin again with five new Torah students and start the process of rebuilding Torah in the world. It may sound somewhat paradoxical, but until all of the original students had passed from the world, it was not possible for Rabbi Akiva to successfully carry on teaching Torah for the next generation. This means that Lag B'Omer, which was a day without the plague (and many say it was the day when the plague completely ended) was also the time when Rabbi Akiva could successfully continue with his holy teachings.
In a metaphorical sense, what transpired with the original students is like finding cracks in the foundations of a building. When there are cracks on the fiftieth floor, you just need some filler to take care of the problem. At most, perhaps a wall needs to be replaced. But when the problem is in the foundations, the entire building has to be taken down and the foundations redone from scratch. Taking down the whole building is an enormous disaster, but it would be even more dangerous to leave the building up since it would threaten not just those who live in it but all those who live in its vicinity. The deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students were undoubtedly a great calamity, one that our Sages describe as being even greater than the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. But to leave them in place as the leaders of the next generation would have been an even greater calamity.
My prayer on the eve this year’s Lag B’Omer: May Hashem help us sufficiently honor each other, and merit the safe and successful continuity of Torah forever and the eternal thriving existence of the Jewish People.
- Yevamot 62b