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Jewish World Review May 20, 2003 / 18 Iyar, 5763

The Mystery of Lag B'Omer

By Rabbi Pinchas Stolper



http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Thirty-three days following the first day of Passover, Jews celebrate a "minor" holiday called Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer. It is an oasis of joy in the midst of the sad Sefirah period that passes almost unnoticed by most contemporary Jews. Yet it contains historic lessons of such gravity that our generation must attempt to unravel its mystery. We may well discover that our own fate is wrapped in the crevices of its secrets.

The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuos are the days of the "Counting of the Omer," the harvest festivities which were observed in the Land of Israel when the Temple stood on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. This fifty-day period should have been a time of joyful anticipation. After experiencing the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach, Jews literally "counts the days" until they can relive Mattan Torah — the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai which took place on Shavuos, exactly fifty days after the Exodus.

While the Exodus marks the physical birth of the Jewish Nation, the Giving of Torah completes the process through the spiritual birth of the Jewish Nation.

Each year, as we celebrate the Seder on Passover, we are commanded to see ourselves "as though each of us actually experienced the Exodus." It therefore follows that we should prepare ourselves during the Sefirah period (counting of the Omer) to once again accept the Torah on Shavuos - to make our freedom spiritually complete.

Clearly then, the Sefirah days should be days of joy, but instead, they are observed as a period of semi-mourning. Weddings, music and haircuts are not permitted; some men do not shave during this entire period. Yet on the thirty-third day of semi-mourning the holiday of Lag B'Omer occurs, the one day when our mourning is halted, when sadness is forbidden.

What is the reason for sadness during what should have been a period of joyful anticipation? The reason, the Babylonian Talmud tells us, is that during this period, Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students, who lived 1,850 years ago in the Roman dominated Land of Israel, died from a mysterious G-d-sent plague.

Rabbi Akiva was the most revered Tanna of his day, whose insights and brilliant decisions fill the Mishnah and Gemara. Why did his students die? Because, the Talmud teaches, "they did not show proper respect to one another." However, Lag B'Omer (literally meaning the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) is a day of celebration because on that day Rabbi Akiva's students ceased to die.

A SERIES OF UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

This explanation leaves us with numerous unanswered questions. Why does this event, the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, tragic as it was, merit thirty-two days of mourning, when greater tragedies in Jewish history — such as the destruction of both Temples — are marked by a single day of mourning? In terms of numbers, the massacres of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Chmelnitski pogroms and the Holocaust far overshadow the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students. Why are the students given so much more weight?

Another question that arises stems from the fact that every event in the Jewish calendar was placed there by the Divine Hand because it conforms to a preset definition of the significance of the seasons and of history. Nature and history correspond and intermesh; certain days and periods are most suited to joy or to sadness. Why does the Sefirah mourning coincide with the joyous holidays of Passover and Shavuos, which in turn coincide with a time of harvest festivities? Even more importantly, how does the Sefirah mourning period, and its association with Rabbi Akiva, relate to the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai on Shavuos?

There also appear to be inconsistencies in the story itself. If Rabbi Akiva's students perished as a punishment for their sins, why should we mourn them? Didn't they deserve their punishment? In fact, why is Lag B'Omer a day of celebration? If what happened on Lag B'Omer was a cessation of the plague, wouldn't it be more fitting to set it aside as a single memorial day for the thousands of scholars who died, especially in view of the Talmudic statement that as a result of their deaths "the world became spiritually desolate"?

We must also consider the connection between Lag B'Omer and the revolt against the Romans. Let us remember that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt in the year 70 of the Common Era. At that time, numerous factions fought each other bitterly, each vying for the loyalty of the Jewish People. Sixty-five years later, nearly all of the Jewish population was united behind the authority of the Tana'im, the great rabbi-teachers of the post-Temple era, of whom Rabbi Akiva was the most revered. One of Rabbi Akiva's most notable students was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who later authored the Zohar, containing the Torah's mystical teachings. What connection is there between Lag B'Omer and the revolt? And why do we sing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on this day?

And finally, why are all these questions not discussed openly in the Talmud or in the writings of our Sages?

The answers to these questions lie shrouded in the history of a turbulent age and in the mysteries of the Messianic era. First, we must understand that much of the material in the Talmud that deals with political matters was written with a keen sensitivity to the Roman censors. The Talmud could not speak openly concerning the political ramifications of certain events. In order to obtain a true picture of what happened, we must piece together the story from various historical sources and from Talmudic hints.

Using this method, we can infer this scenario:

After the Second Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside lay in ruins from border to border. Scores of thousands of Jews died in the fierce fighting and subsequently from persecution and starvation; thousands more were sold as slaves and forced into exile. Victorious General Titus erected a grand monument in Rome, the famous Arch of Titus, which stands to this day. Coins were minted bearing the inscription Judea Capta — "Judea is fallen." The Romans considered the Jewish Nation defeated and obliterated.

But even in defeat the spiritual leaders of the Jewish People struggled to rebuild Jewish life and recreate Jewish institutions. At this point, the Romans renewed their oppression of the Jews. In 135 CE, no longer able to tolerate Roman brutality, the Jews felt that the opportunity to restore their independence and rebuild the Temple was at hand.

A Jewish military leader named Bar Kosiba succeeded in organizing a fighting force to rid the Land of Israel of the hated Romans. Thousands rallied to his cause, including Rabbi Akiva. Some of Rabbi Akiva's contemporaries felt that a new revolt against the Romans was doomed to failure and urged the avoidance of bloodshed. But Bar Kosiba persisted and succeeded in organizing and training a superb military force of 400,000 men.

The Talmud relates that Bar Kosiba demanded that each recruit demonstrate his bravery by cutting off a finger. When the rabbis protested the self-mutilation, Bar Kosiba substituted a new test: Each recruit was required to uproot a young tree while riding a horse. Such was the level of their bravery and strength.

Many historians believe that the prospects for toppling Rome were very real. Various sources estimate that 10%-20% of the population of the Roman Empire at that time was Jewish. The pagan foundations of Rome were crumbling. Many Romans were in search of a religious alternative — which many of them subsequently found in Christianity in the following two centuries. Significant numbers converted to Judaism.

If the large numbers of Jews who lived throughout the Roman Empire could have been inspired and convinced to participate in anti-Roman revolts, and if they would have had the support of tens of thousands of sympathizers, there would have been a true possibility of success.

If the revolts succeeded and Jews from all over the world would unite to return to their homeland, Rabbi Akiva believed that the Messianic era — the great era of spirituality and universal peace foretold by Israel's Prophets — could begin. All Jews would return to the Land of Israel, the Jerusalem Temple would be rebuilt and Israel would lead the world into an era of justice, spiritual revival and fulfillment. Rabbi Akiva won over a majority of his rabbinic colleagues to his point of view.

Rabbi Akiva gave Bar Kosiba a new name: "Bar Kochba"— Son of the Star — in fulfillment of the prophecy, "A star will go forth from Jacob."(Numbers 24:7)

To Bar Kochba and his officers, all seemed to be in readiness. Rome was rotten and corrupt. Numerous captive nations strained at the yoke; rebellion was in the air. Bar Kochba trained an army capable of igniting the powder keg of rebellion and Rabbi Akiva lit it with one of the most dramatic proclamations in Jewish history — that Bar Kochba was the long awaited Messiah.

Discussing the Messianic era in his Laws of Kings (Chapter 11:3), Maimonides (known also as Rambam) says, "Do not think that the King Messiah must work miracles and signs, create new natural phenomena, restore the dead to life or perform similar miracles. This is not so. For Rabbi Akiva was the wisest of the scholars of the Mishnah and was the armor bearer of Bar Kosiba . He said concerning Ben Kosiba that he is the King Messiah. Both he and the sages of his generation believed that Bar Kosiba was the King Messiah, until [Bar Kosiba] was killed because of his sins. Once he was killed, it became evident to them that he was not the Messiah."

One of the greatest Torah teachers and leaders of all time, Rabbi Akiva could not have made this crucial and radical declaration, proclaiming a man to be the Messiah, unless he was certain. Rabbi Akiva added a new, spiritual dimension to the war of liberation. He attempted to merge the soldiers of the sword with his soldiers of the Book — his 24,000 students — each a great Torah scholar and leader.

These outstanding scholars would become the real "army" of the Jewish People, a spiritual and moral force that would bring Torah to the entire world, overcoming anguish, suffering and the cruel boot of the corrupt Roman Empire. They would soon inaugurate a new era of peace, righteousness and justice, an era in which "the Knowledge of G-d would cover the earth as water covers the seas." The fact that the Jews were able to unite around a single leader separates this event from the great revolt of the previous century, when bitterly divided factions warred with each other inside the walls of Jerusalem even as the Roman army stormed the gates.

Bar Kochba's army achieved many initial victories and the rebellion raged for six years. Many non-Jews joined Bar Kochba's army as well. It is reported that it grew to 400,000 men - larger than the Roman Army. Bar Kochba was so successful that Hadrian called in all of his best troops from England and Gaul. Rome felt threatened as never before. On Lag B'Omer, it is believed by some, Bar Kochba's army reconquered Jerusalem, and we celebrate that great event today. Jewish independence was restored for four years. Many believe that Bar Kochba actually began to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple.

One writer — Rabbi Leibel Resnick in "The Mystery of Bar Kokhba" (Jason Aaronson, 1996) believes that he completed the building of the Third Temple.

There were two Roman legions in the country when the uprising began, one in Jerusalem and one near Megiddo. Both were decimated by Bar Kochba's men. Reinforcements were dispatched from what are today Jordan, Syria and Egypt but these, too, were mauled. Legion 22, sent from Egypt, disappeared from the listings of military units published in Rome. Scholars speculate that it was so badly beaten (most likely in the area of Lachish) that it ceased to exist as an organized force. The Jews apparently employed guerilla tactics, utilizing underground lairs, ambushing convoys and striking at night.

In desperation, Hadrian sent for his best commander, Julius Severus, who was then engaged in battle in far off Wales. Severus imported legions from Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Romans were hurt so badly in the bruising campaign against the Jews, that upon returning to report to the Senate in Rome, Severus omitted the customary formula, "I and my army are well."

This was total war. In the middle of the effort to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash, the tide turned and Bar Kochba lost the support of Rabbi Akiva and the Sages who backed him. What had happened? Bar Kochba had accused his cousin, the distinguished Tanna Rabbi Elazar, of revealing the secret entrances of the fortress-city of Betar to the Romans and murdered him. Rabbi Akiva then realized that Bar Kochba no longer possessed the qualities that initially led him to believe that he was the Messiah.

THE TRAGEDY OF RABBI AKIVA'S DISCIPLES

There was an additional spiritual dimension to the failure of Bar Kochba as well.

Whether the spiritual failure of Rabbi Akiva's students was the only cause, or whether it was also the failure of Bar Kochba to rise to the spiritual heights expected of the Messiah is beyond our knowledge. For then — out of the blue — the horrendous plague Askera descended and struck Rabbi Akiva's students. The dream collapsed. For reasons that will probably forever remain obscure, the students of Rabbi Akiva were not considered by Heaven to have reached the supreme spiritual heights necessary to bring about the Messianic age.

Apparently, as great as they were, an important factor was missing. The Talmud tells us that, "Rabbi Akiva's students didn't show proper respect one for the other." Precisely what this phrase refers to we do not know. With greatness comes heightened responsibility, and with greatness comes a magnification of reward and punishment.

Because of their failures and deficiencies - which would certainly be counted as minor in a generation such as ours, but which were crucial for great men on their high spiritual level — their mission, to bring the Messianic age and to fill the world with the teachings of Torah, was cancelled and they died a mysterious death.

With them died the Messianic hope of that era and for thousands of years to come. In the terrible war that followed, Bar Kochba and his army were destroyed in the great battles defending the fortress city of Betar. The war had been a catastrophe. Dio Cassius reports the deaths of 580,000 Jews by Roman swords, in addition to those who died of hunger and disease. Some scholars think that the bulk of the Jewish population of Judea was destroyed in battle and in subsequent massacres. One historian believes that the Jews lost a third of their number in the war, perhaps more fatalities than in the Great Revolt of the year 70.

For the survivors, the failure of the Bar Kochba uprising marked the great divide between the hope for national independence and dispersal in the Diaspora. The trauma of the fall of Betar coming after the fall of Jerusalem effected deep changes in the Jewish people. The stiff-necked, stubborn, fanatically independent People that did not hesitate to make repeated suicidal lunges at the mightiest superpower of antiquity lost its warlike ambitions. The hope of the Jew for Redemption was to be delayed for at least 2,000 years.

It would be 2,000 years before there would be a Jewish fighting force. In the great and tragic defeat, not only were between 250,000-600,000 Jews killed, but the Romans were encouraged, once and for all, to uproot the Jewish religion and the Jewish People, to bring an end to their revolutionary hopes and their redemptive dreams.

It is for this reason that we mourn today. The mourning of Sefirah is not for the students alone, but for the failure of the Jewish People to be worthy of the Messianic age, for the fall of the curtain on Jewish independence, Jewish hopes and Jewish Messianic ambitions.

Every anti-Semitic outbreak that Jews suffered since that day, every pogrom, massacre and banishment that took the toll of so many millions during the 2,000-year bitter night of exile, must be traced directly to the failure of Bar Kochba — but ultimately, to the failure of the students of Rabbi Akiva. This was a tragedy of inestimable proportions to a war-ravaged world suffering under the bitter yoke of Rome as well as to the Jewish People. Rome did not fall at that time, but its fury led to the exile and dismemberment of the Jewish People.

Yet, on that very Lag B'Omer day 2,000 years ago, a new hidden light of hope emerged. In the midst of defeat, the Tanna Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai emerged from his hiding place in a cave and revealed to a small number of students the secrets of the mystical Zohar.

In the formulas, disciplines and spirituality of the Zohar lay the secrets that could bring about the coming of the Messiah. The Zohar's living tradition has kept that hope alive down to this very day. On Lag B'Omer the plague stopped, indicating that the Messianic dream was delayed, but it was not destroyed. It was to be nurtured throughout the generations and the stirrings of its realization enliven us today.

Because Lag B'Omer deals with the secrets of the future Messianic age, it is not discussed openly or understood as clearly as the Exodus or other events of the past. Whenever we stand between Passover and Shavuos — between our physical liberation from Egypt and our spiritual elevation at Sinai — we recall those chilling events of the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

Today we rejoice over the return of our people to Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land, and to Jerusalem, the site of our destroyed Temple. History is bringing together so many crucial events: The history of our ancient past is once again coming alive in the land of our fathers. Clearly the days between Passover and Shavuos are filled with the potential and challenge of great spiritual growth. At the same time, these can also be days of spiritual failure, as the sin of the Golden Calf and the failure of Bar Kochba indicate.

There are significant parallels between our own age and that of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba. Following a frightful Holocaust, which many believed would spell the end of the Jewish People, we experienced a restoration of Jewish independence - once more did a Jewish army score miraculous victories against overwhelming odds. Following the destruction of the great European centers of Torah scholarship, we witnessed the rebuilding of yeshivos (Judaic academies) in America and in Israel. We are experiencing an impressive revival of Torah study. The teshuvah (return to observance) movement has brought about a re-embracing of aTorah lifestyle for so many who had been alienated. Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are in our hands.

All around us, the world is in turmoil as violence, despair and corruption rage. Once again, the Jewish People have been entrusted with a great and frightful opportunity. Once again we have been given the potential to recreate a Jewish civilization of Torah greatness in our own land. Will we succeed or will our efforts be aborted because of our own failures, our own inability to respect the differences within the Torah community and unite the entire Jewish People to our cause?

The personality of Rabbi Akiva itself offers important lessons and opportunities. It was Rabbi Akiva who understood that "love your fellow as you love yourself" is the overriding principle which must be internalized by all Jews if our nation is to achieve its goals. Rabbi Akiva, too, is the quintessential ba'al teshuvah: At 40 years of age he was unable to distinguish between an aleph letter and a beis, yet he later rose to be Jewry's greatest Torah scholar.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews — Americans, Israelis and Russians — are today's potential Rabbi Akivas. The fate of Jewry and the achievement of Heaven's greatest goals are in the hands of this generation. Will we attempt to achieve them or will we withdraw into our own selfish cocoons by refusing to shoulder the historic responsibilities God has set before us?

It is not enough to wait for the Messiah's coming; we must toil to perfect our Torah lives and reach out to Jews everywhere, if we are to bring about his speedy arrival. Only if we learn from the lesson of Rabbi Akiva's students will we understand how very much the coming of the Messiah depends on us.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We can now understand why it was Rabbi Akiva, of all the great rabbis and teachers, who said, "To love your fellow as you love yourself is a major principle in the Torah." The meaning of this Talmudic "innovation" and "insight" is puzzling. It is common knowledge that this statement is to be found in the Torah, in Leviticus 19:18, and that it is a major principle in defining the relationship that must prevail between one Jew and another. What is the new insight that Rabbi Akiva proposed in his statement?

The key to this problem is suggested by the great pre-modern sage, the Chasam Sofer (Pituchei Chosam), who proposes the following brilliant insight regarding the tragedy that befell Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 disciples: He says that there is a deeper meaning to Rabbi Akiva's phrase "klal gadol ba'Torah — a major principle in the Torah." A more profound interpretation is that this teaching is a major principle "concerning Torah" or "concerning the transmission of Torah."

"Love your neighbor as yourself" not only describes the ideal in human relationships. It must also govern an area where individual accomplishment often reigns supreme - in the intellectual area of the teaching, transmission and study of Torah.

The Torah was given at Sinai at a moment when there was total Jewish unity. The Torah states, "va'yichan Yisrael neged hahar," the Israelites encamped opposite Mount Sinai. Va'yichan is stated in the singular, which the foremost commentator, Rashi, defines as meaning that Israel encamped opposite the mountain "as one man with one heart," i.e. in a state of total and perfect unity.

From this, we derive the lesson that Torah can only prosper and accomplish its goals when the Jewish people are united. As this relates to Torah study, unity implies circumstances where individual intellectual creativity functions in an environment where love and caring override differences of analysis or opinion. This demands that in the community of scholars, there must exist a high regard for the views of fellow scholars.

Each scholar is expected to promote his own scholarship while at the same time advancing and respecting the scholarship of others. Each scholar must make an effort to bring out the best in his colleagues, not to denigrate or downplay them.

The highest form of love of fellow must therefore be found among those who are engaged in the study and transmission of Torah. We are therefore obligated to love our fellow as ourselves in the process of transmitting, teaching and sharing our Torah with others. Who appreciated this insight more than Rabbi Akiva himself, whose 24,000 students died from the strange sickness which the Talmud calls Askara, because they "were not sufficiently respectful" of one another?

Let us remember that Rabbi Akiva had declared Bar Kochba the potential Messiah of Israel, that the world was a powder keg, that anti-Roman revolts were sprouting all over the Roman Empire, that the Jews believed that they had, with G-d on their side, the capacity to bring Rome down and create a world of justice, peace and respect for all human beings. They believed that these circumstances taken together would initiate the Messianic era.

We don't know the precise role played by Rabbi Akiva's students in the revolt against Rome. Were they scholars or scholar soldiers? Nor do we have proof that Rabbi Akiva taught this doctrine in the wake of the demise of the 24,000 students, but it appears to be obvious that this is the case.

The fact remains that when the Sages recorded the ultimate reason for the failure of the great revolt, they did not point to the failings of Bar Kochba, his generals or his troops. They looked inward and realized that the failure was one of the spirit and of those who personified the spiritual life. The unity needed for victory was lacking.

Perhaps the honor and respect Rabbi Akiva's students gave one another fell short of what Heaven expected of them.

Why is this Lag B'Omer legacy so important? The Jewish Nation is focused on history for one reason - to learn its lessons and act on them.

Note: Medrash Koheles Rabbah 11:10 confirms the above analysis, quoting the words of Rabbi Akiva who said, "'I had 12,000 disciples from Geves to Antiperes, all of whom died during my lifetime [between Pesach and Shavuos]. In the end, I had seven disciples, Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, Rabbi Nechemiah, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yosi Ben Chalafta, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yosi HaGalili and Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar. The earlier [disciples] died because they envied the Torah accomplishments of their colleagues. You [the later disciples] must not repeat their error.' Immediately, they succeeded in filling all of Eretz Yisrael with Torah."

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Rabbi Pinchas Stolper is the author, most recently, of Living Beyond Time The Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals, from where this essay was adapted. (To purchase a copy, click on the link. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment, please click here.


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