Shavuot: The Students of Rabbi Akiva & Shavuot

Nov 17, 2014

Rabbi Joel Zeff

We are now nearing the end of the countdown (countup?) towards Shavuot and Matan Torah. This period of the Omer involves customs associated with mourning. Why?

The Talmud relates that during this period, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague. (Several other tragic events in Jewish history also occurred during these months in later times, especially the massacres perpetrated upon the Jewish communities of France and Germany during the Crusades, and the Chmielnitski pogroms in Poland.)

What exactly was the sin of the students of Rabbi Akiva which led to their destruction? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) states that the students died because they did not treat each other with respect. The Maharsha explains that the students should have been deferential towards each other out of respect for their Torah knowledge. Since the Torah is the source of life, they were punished by being deprived of life. The Tashbeitz (1:172) adds that their behavior caused a terrible chillul Hashem, as people would say “Woe to one who has learned Torah…” (If this is the way Torah scholars act!).

The same episode is recounted in Breishit Rabba (Parshat Chayei Sarah), which states that the students died because they were stingy with each other. The Meam Loaz (Parshat Vayeitzei) explains that this means that they refused to share their Torah insights with each other.

The Talmud emphasizes that they all died within one short period (between Pesach and Shavuot). Why this emphasis?

The Davar Yom BeYomo (58a) explains that the Torah informs us that the Jews merited to receive the Torah because of the extraordinary unity they displayed at Har Sinai. The Torah alludes to this by describing their encampment using the verb “camped” (Shmot 19:2) in the singular form, as Rashi adds, “like one person, with one heart.”

The students of Rabbi Akiva did not treat each other with sufficient respect. As a result, they did not merit that year to “re-receive” the Torah at the holiday of Shavuot.

Their deaths immediately before Shavuot remind us for all posterity of the vital need for Jewish unity and respect as a precondition for Kabalat HaTorah.

This sobering message must reinforce the special priority that we at Darche Noam Institutions have always given to this great value of tolerance and brotherhood. During these last few days before Shavuot let us double and redouble our efforts to be “like one person, with one heart” and thereby merit the Divine gift of Torah.

Chag Sameach

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