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Sinners or Saints? The Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Students (Emor Lag B’Omer 05/05/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Sinners or Saints? The Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Students
One would think that if a mourning period was declared, it would be over some thing or person worth mourning. Yet, we just concluded a month long semi-mourning period on Lag B’Omer this past Thursday for the loss of apparently unworthy students.
Based upon an incident recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students spanning all of Israel, from South to the North. Rabbi Akiva was well known for stating that “Ve’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha”, You should love your fellow as yourself, is the principle teaching of the Torah.  And yet, the Talmud states that all 24,000 died from Passover to Shavuot from a plague of “Oscara” due to them not treating each other with respect.
Oscara is a terrible affliction which swells the tongue and causes choking.  It seems that their tongues were chosen for punishment for the words of disrespect they said to each other with their tongues.  Because these potential rabbis and scholars died, we mourn for them by not having weddings and by refraining from live music and other joyous occasions during this period.
Yet, why should we mourn for them?  If they were so indecent that they couldn’t treat each other with respect, that they couldn’t follow their rabbi’s main teaching, then why feel sorry for their loss?  We should be happy that this lot didn’t become our next leaders!
Additionally, there’s something dubious about this plague.  If this “Oscara” was a virus such as the Spanish Flu, then why did only the students die?  The Talmud says unequivocally, “once a plague is let loose, it doesn’t distinguish between the innocent and guilty.”  But here it did; why?
Some religious scholars and historians question whether the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students was really due to a Heavenly plague.  They posit it was from their support of Bar Kochva’s (Simon Bar Kosiba’s) rebellion and their resulting mass death in Beitar (circa 138 C.E) when the rebellion was squashed by the Romans.
Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport in the journal Kerem Chemed (vol. 7, p. 183) suggests that the Romans chased and killed the students of R’ Akiva on the suspicion that they were involved in the Bar Kochba revolt, as R’ Akiva himself was.  He supports this by quoting the description of the students’ death in the letter of R’ Sh’rira Gaon (the leader of Babylonian Jewry in the 10th century):
והוה שמדא על התלמידים של ר’ עקיבא
“And there was a Roman decree of persecution upon the students of R’ Akiva”
Although the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) identifies their death as being though “Oscara” which means something like “suffocating” or some type of disease, Rapoport suggests that since the students were forced to flee to the desert, they very well could have died of thirst or hunger or disease.
The Eitz Yosef (famous Midrashic commentator) says that they died `in one period between Passover and Shavuot in the war of Beitar’.  He makes a similar statement elsewhere, saying they died in Bar Kosiba’s war.  These lines were previously censored out by Church-controlled printing presses.
Actually, describing the students as having died from Oscara, a type of asphyxiation, supports the case that they died in a war against Rome.  The Romans typically crucified rebels. says “Without any supplementary body support, the victim would die from muscular spasms and asphyxia in a very short time, certainly within two or three hours.  Shortly after being raised on the cross, breathing would become difficult; to get his breath, the victim would attempt to draw himself up on his arms.  Initially he would be able to hold himself up for 30 to 60 seconds, but this movement would quickly become increasingly difficult.  As he became weaker, the victim would be unable to pull himself up and death would ensue within a few hours.”
Rabbi Hershel Shechter (the leading rabbi at Yeshiva University) asserts that Rabbi Akiva’s students were in fact killed in the Bar Kochba revolt.  The Talmud hid this fact by mentioning their cause of death as being something ridiculously impossible.  Namely, how can Rabbi Akiva, who popularized loving one’s fellow as much as oneself as the main tenet of the Torah, have all his students die from a lack of this behavior?  Rather this statement was a blatant sign, saying “Don’t believe this!  They died due to other reasons that we can’t say openly”.
With this understanding, it makes sense to feel great loss and create a mourning period for future generations.  The Bar Kochva uprising was the last hope for Jewish sovereignty.  When that was lost, defeat and exile remained the Jews’ lot for the next 1800 years; clearly something to mourn over.
The whole story is now upside down.  Rabbi Akiva was a great teacher who exhorted “Love your neighbor as yourself” as the main teaching of the Torah, and surely, his students followed them. When his students also followed his support of Bar Kochba’s rebellion and perished, with their demise also came the loss of Jewish sovereignty.
Therefore, a mourning period was established over the loss of these loyal students and freedom fighters, and the continuation of our subjugation and exile.  Perhaps now, with Israel back in our hands and Jewish sovereignty restored, we should reevaluate the mourning observances of this period.

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