What did Rabbi Akiva’s students do wrong? Whatever they did, isn’t killing 24,000 of them a bit much?
Thanks for your question. Allow me to flesh it out a bit for the benefit of those who may not have the necessary frame of reference.
The sefirah period, which lasts from Pesach through Shavuos, is a period of quasi-mourning during which we don’t get haircuts, listen to music, or engage in other behaviors associated with joy. (The exact dates during which the mourning is observed is a matter of various customs, which would be a good subject for another day.) The reason for this mourning period is explained in the Talmud (Yevamos 62b) as follows:
“Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris (in the North), all of whom died in the same period of time because they did not show one another the proper respect. The future of Torah was in jeopardy until Rabbi Akiva went to the South and taught Torah there. His later students included Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, who preserved the study of Torah and transmitted it to future generations. Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students died in the period between Pesach and Shavuos. Rav Chama bar Abba – some say Rabbi Chiya bar Avin – said they all died an ugly death; Rav Nachman clarified that this refers to diphtheria.”
It should be noted that the Talmud was compiled during the era of Roman occupation and many stories are written in code to avoid censorship or political repercussions. It has been suggested that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in battle as part of the Bar Kochba revolt, or were executed as a consequence of it. Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) suggests that they were martyred; Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (d. 1973) said explicitly that “died of a plague” is code for “died fighting the Romans.” (There are others who say this, and it’s widely accepted in academic circles, so it’s surprising to me that this interpretation is not better known.) But whether Rabbi Akiva’s students died of a literal plague or of a plague-as-code-for-the-Romans is immaterial as, either way, our original question remains.
From the fact that we observe a period of mourning for these students, we can easily infer that they were righteous despite this particular shortcoming. That being the case, it honestly doesn’t surprise me if they were held to a higher-than-average standard, because that’s consistent with God’s “standard operating procedure.”
Imagine a brand-new shirt, sparkling white. The tiniest spot on it is a glaring stain. When you’ve had the shirt for a while and it’s getting kind of dingy, the spot doesn’t show as badly and it won’t bother you as much. By the time the shirt is all gray and covered with oil and grease from working on your car with it on, you don’t even care if you drip soup on it because who’s going to notice? Spiritually speaking, people are also like that. Most of us are gray and stained, or at least a little dingy – a tiny spot like not extending sufficient honor to our colleagues is barely going to show. But the righteous are like new white garments – a little stain in really going to stand out. It totally ruins it. So a defect that’s minor to you and me is glaring in truly great people.
Consider how Moshe was punished for hitting the rock in Numbers chapter 20. There is some discussion as to what Moshe “really” did wrong. I favor the explanation that his “sin” was that he lost his temper with the Jews when he yelled, “Listen up, you rebels!” at them in verse 20:10. But regardless of the interpretation, all the potential “sins” of Moshe have one thing in common – they all seem pretty minor. Certainly not deserving of Moshe being unable to enter Israel after all he had done! The answer is because Moshe was Moshe. Everyone looked to him as their role model. Accordingly, he was obligated to adhere to a much higher standard of behavior.
The same is true of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who died during the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Their crime was apparently bringing an incense offering that was not commanded (Leviticus 10:1). As with Moshe, there is some discussion as to what their sin really was (ruling in front of their teachers, asking when they would assume leadership, drinking before performing the service, etc.) but the same fact remains: none of their potential “sins” really seem to be deserving of death. Again, this is not because they were lesser, it’s because they were greater. The Torah tells us as much when God says, “I will be sanctified through those who are close to Me” (10:3). Nadav and Avihu were held to a higher standard specifically because of their greatness.
We see elsewhere in Chumash (and throughout Tanach) that the righteous are held to higher standards, so it’s not a great leap that Rabbi Akiva’s students might have been punished harshly for a minor flaw because of their greatness.
I have seen other explanations, such as that Rabbi Akiva’s students were being groomed to be the Torah leaders of the next generation but they demonstrated that they lacked one of the character traits necessary for proper acquisition of Torah (see R. Chaim Vital). Another idea is that what seems like proper respect to you and me is insufficient when one is a student of Rabbi Akiva, who is famous for the opinion that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the central theme of the Torah. I would like, however, to share an idea that occurred to me for which I have seen no support.
Imagine I said to you, “Bob died in his sleep because he didn’t have a carbon monoxide detector.” You might derive a lesson from that – that it’s important to have a carbon monoxide detector in your home (which it is) – but would you infer that Bob was Divinely punished with death over his lack of such a detector? Probably not. We recognize that Bob’s death was a natural occurrence (as much as any death is) and that Bob merely lacked the means to protect himself against it.
That being the case, let’s re-read the Gemara’s first sentence: “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris, all of whom died in the same period of time because they did not show one another the proper respect.”
Maybe that doesn’t mean that God actively smote them because of this flaw. Maybe death from the diphtheria epidemic (or the Roman occupation) was the “natural” course of events. Rabbi Akiva’s students were so great that they might have been deserving of miraculous salvation except for one thing: they didn’t honor one another sufficiently. According to this reading, they weren’t killed because of their shortcoming but this shortcoming kept them from meriting Divine intervention. (For more about the idea that greater spiritual perfection equals greater Divine protection, see here.)
I think that such an approach is not unprecedented. Consider, for example, the mei’il (robe) worn by the Kohein Gadol, the hem of which was ringed with small bells. Exodus 28:35 says, “It shall be upon Aharon to perform the service; its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before Hashem, and when he comes out, so that he not die.” From the language, it would seem that dying was the natural consequence of entering the Holy of Holies and the mei’il served as Divine protection against this reality.
Like I said, applying this logic to Rabbi Akiva’s students is my own idea; if any well-versed readers know of a source who theorizes such an approach, I’d love to hear it. But even if you don’t accept my hypothesis because I can’t cite precedent for it, my earlier point still stands: greater people are held to higher standards. If the students of Rabbi Akiva did indeed perish for such an offense, then they were on a truly high spiritual level and mourning the loss of what they could have contributed is an appropriate response on our part.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent