What Caused the Death of 24,000 Students of Rabbi Akiva?

    May 2011          
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The Death of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 Students the Omer

By Nachum Mohl

The period of the Omer, which is the time between Passover and the Shavuot holiday, is a time that marriages are not performed. The reason given is during this particular time, twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva's students died. That is a lot of people to die. The Talmud (tractate Yevomot 72b) tells us that after they died, Rabbi Akiva when to the south and there he taught five students and from these five students the Torah as we have it today was spread.

The Talmud then asks what happened that so many of Rabbi Akiva's students should die in such a small period of time and it answers because they did not give each other the proper respect that was due. How did they die, the Talmud continues, and answers that they died from ascora, a disease that affect the lungs and throat.

Now for the last two thousand of years since this tragedy we Jews have postponed our wedding plans for a month or two just to commemorate this tragic occurrence. It seems strange that a great rabbi like Rabbi Akiva would have so many students, 24,000 in all, who die and then afterwards he only cultivates five students! Yet it was from these five that our Torah and tradition continues. What happened?

One of the explanations that is given is that the students were not learning the Torah properly. How could it be that Rabbi Akiva's students did not learn properly?

Understand that learning Torah is not like learning any other trade or profession. When a person learns a trade or profession, he is going to take his learning proficiency into the competitive world to make a living. He is going to have to prove to prospective clients and customers that his workmanship is better than his competition. If he can not convince the customer of his proficiency then the customer will go to the competition and the tradesman will loose business and subsequently not earn money.

Each tradesman, each company, and each business is trying to make a name for itself. It is this good name and image that gives prospective customers the impression that this business is the best and therefore worthy of doing business with. Sometimes it will promote itself by telling how great it is and sometimes it will tell how lousy the competition is. In either case, it is trying to boost its image and negate the reputation of the competition.

When people learn Torah, there are two possibilities why they are learning it. One is to know what G-d wants from us and to be able to perform the mitzvot correctly. The other reason that people learn Torah is to become a rabbi or to enhance their status in the eyes of others. This second reason is not considered a pure motive for learning.

The study of the Torah is an intensive intellectual challenge to correctly understand the reasons and rationales of the Torah laws. It requires much contemplation coupled with solid logical analysis. Generally students study in pairs. Each one tries to explain the difficulties in the laws while his partner will listen and analyze what he hears in order to provide critical feedback to his study partner. In this type of leaning situation each student is expected to suggest possible solutions while his partner will analyze it to find flaws in the logic.

When the purpose of the two students is to arrive at the truth, then the analysis and rejection of a possible solution is not an ego shattering event, rather, both partners learn from it until ultimately they will reach the truth of the Torah. However if they are trying to make a name, a reputation as great thinker, or become a rabbi to make a living, then they can easily be tempted to disqualify their study partner's logic with out proper analysis in order to push their own opinions on him. This type of learning has really no place in the study halls and that is why learning Torah to become a rabbi is considered second rate learning. The Torah is not to be a tool for making a living, but rather a method of coming closer to G-d. If a person is blessed with a good head, it is not of his own making but a gift from G-d. Since the person did nothing to merit a good head, there is nothing to be proud about, rather he should utilize it for drawing himself (and others) closer to G-d.

Torah must be learned only for reasons of understanding the will of G-d that we may be able to fulfil His desires; not that we should be called 'rabbi' or merit some fame or fortune from it. That was the terrible 'sin' of the twelve thousand pairs of students who perished in such a short period. Just the opposite we find from the five later students who learned the Torah with the proper intentions. From these later students the Torah found its continuation.

We must be careful that when we approach the service of G-d that we not to make it a competitive activity. Rather each person based upon who he is, is endowed from the Creator with individual tools that he can utilize to properly serve G-d. When we realize that this is the true service, we will reach our ultimate purpose in life.


from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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