May 4, 2009

Rabbi Akiva and the curse of Torah without respect

A [sort of] Guest Post by Simon Synett

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died in one period because they didn't treat one-another with respect. In Hebrew shelo nahagu kavod ze-lazeh. (Yevamos 62b) The gemara continues that from that time, the entire world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva took on the five apprentices who would later become the leaders of their generation. Clearly then, Rabbi Akiva and his students were considered as the transmitters of Torah of their time, the greatest scholars and teachers.

Given that, it's hard for us to grapple with the idea that people of such stature would sink to such a low level of behaviour in their interpersonal relationships that they deserved to be killed off by the Angel of Death. It must have been some deep and pervasive character flaw that was so destructive that they simply weren't capable of transmitting Torah to the next generation. They had to be wiped out and Rabbi Akiva's legacy would be passed through a new set of students. Can we put a finger on what the problem was? More importantly, can we make sure we're not suffering from it?

For rest of the article, click here...


  1. Based on you last line, you seem to posit that Rabi Akiva came to 'zeh klal gadol batorah' only after his students died. Why so? I've always thought that their flaw is related to the fact that they didn't reflect that basic teaching of their rav.

  2. MYS,

    Maybe your thinking was incorrect or incomplete in view of the last line of the post. (Put differently, you can't challenge an idea because you've always thought otherwise.)

  3. kol hakavod Simon!

  4. This gemara has always reminded me of the famous insight from R' Goldwyn "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." Amazing how everyone who looks at it sees their hashkafa in the mirror :-)
    Joel Rich

  5. THAT WAS DEEP...and so so true

  6. Yoni, absolutely possible. I'll reread it. But I still would like to know what compels us to think that Rabbi Akiva concluded 'zeh klal gadol batorah' only AFTER his students died? I'm not enough of a scholar to ascertain when he actually said this, and it is entirely possible that it is a dictum that he was already teaching before his students died. Why wouldn't that be the case?

  7. Rafi, thanks for hosting me today! And thanks to all of you for reading and coming back to comment.

    Mordechai, I can't say with absolute certainty that R. Akiva only came to it after the death of his talmidim, but putting it all together, I think it is a compelling suggestion.

    Yoni, I wish more people would adopt that attitude ;)

    Joel, why just this gemara? So much of Torah is like that, and so it should be. 600,000 people heard God speak at Sinai and each heard a message that was unique to him. That's what I think is supposed to happen when a person fully engages with Torah...

    Mark and MrsRBS, thanks for the vote of confidence!



  8. That's what I think is supposed to happen when a person fully engages with Torah...
    Fully consistent with the theory that original intent doesn't matter, it's how the chochmei hamesora understood it (i.e. it doesn't really matter why Rabbi Akiva's students died - unless you hold every reason given was partially responsible). Of course that leaves one with the question as to how can one argue on another's opinion.

    Joel Rich

  9. Very Nice Piece.

    Now let's just get one historical fact straight -- the students died as soldiers in Rabbi Akiva's failed revolt against the Romans.

    Sure, their loss may have been an Act-of-God for not having shown respect for one another. But the "mysteirous" plague was a failed miliatry campagin.

    Yes, Rabbi Akiva started the first Hesder Yeshiva...learing and fighting.

    Ari Enkin

  10. Ari - is that really a historical fact? I never heard that before. the p,ression given over was that they all died over time [in the beis medrash]...

    if they all died in battle, why are they related to any different than any other group of soldiers that died in battle?

  11. Ari, in which case the gemara in Yevamos that says they died from askara, is an excellent precedent for rabbonim resorting to revisionist history for hashkafic reasons.
    < /irony>

  12. There was no sage more military focused than Rabbi Akiva.

    Let me guess --- you people really beleive that Rabbi Akiva was sitting in Bnei Brak all night discussing the Exodus from Egypt.

    He was planning the Bar Kochba revolt! Who were his soldiers? Palmach? Tzahal? Hmmm. Maybe his students?

    Oh brother. Someone has to educate the nation.

    Heck, if you don't beleive me, simply drop an email to Rabbi Berel Wein.

    Ari Enkin

  13. Oh brother. Someone has to educate the nation.I'm with you brother!

    But I assume the irony is not lost that the gemara chose to give a cover story of a plague.

  14. How could you so conclusively state that the death of R' Akiva's students as soldiers in BK's revolt against the Romans is "historical fact?" Rabbi Wein cannot. If you challenge me on that, I'll take it to him. "Askera" is by no means accepted across the board as a buzzword for "death by enemy sword."

  15. The entire Chag of Lag Baomer is based on the Bar Kochva (Kosiva) revolt of AD 133.

    The Bows and Arrows are the weapons they used.

    The Bonfires are the communications methods they used during the rebellion.

    The rebellion was an ill conceived messianic rebellion against the Roman Empire, barely 70 years after the previous rebellion (Destruction of the second temple)

    Rome had no choice but to quash the rebellion. It wasnt religious it was just politics. Rome couldnt allow a tiny colony like Judea a success. It would set an extemely bad precedent for the rest of the Roman Empire (Think Soviet Union and Hungary, 1956 or CzechSlovakia 1968)

    The outcome was inevitable. Israel / Judea was systematically razed to the ground. 1,500,000 jews were killed by the Romans. It was the largest jewish holocaust until the 2nd world war. Jews were completely thrown out of Judea and Israel. Jerusalem was turned into a gentile city by Rome. Jews werent allowed in for the next 300 years.
    An additional 500000 jews were sold into slavery and never seen again.

    Jews were never again able to convince anybody to convert to Judiasm on a large scale. Christianity split itself completely from Judiasm in order not to be part of the national jewish catastrophe. (they also more than tripled in size over the next 50 years.)

    Who supported this rebellion? Who was the religious figurehead beside Bar Kochva.

    The one and only Rabbi Akiva.

    He is more than circumstantially responsible for 1,500,000 Jewish deaths, as well as the complete expulsion of jews from Israel for almost 1800 years.

    For the life of me I do not understand why he is held in such high regard. He is one of Judiasm's most damaging individuals.

    The deaths of his 'students' happened at this time, from a Plague?? It was obviously from the rebellion.

  16. Whoa.
    1) The entire chag of Lag B'Omer is NOT based on the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-5. It's based on the hilula of Rashbi.

    2) The revolt was NOT an ill-conceived messianic rebellion against the Romans. Let's start with Dio Cassius, the Roman historian who claims that Hadrian's founding of Aelia Capitolina in place of Jerusalem and the subsequent erection of a temple to Jupiter on Har HaBayit fomented the revolt. Add to that talmudic claims of gezerot hashemad enacted by Hadrian, and you've got yourself one big showdown that, 300 years prior, had resulted in an autonomous Jewish government. Ain't just messianic fervor, but sound rationalizing that what happened so well once might just happen again.

    3) Jews were NOT completely thrown out of Judea and Israel. Judea was decimated, but the numerous cities/yishuvim in the north stayed stable. Some even argue that some Jews were allowed to live on in certain Judean communities (like Beit Guvrin).

    4)To convince us that the BK rebellion was the cause of loss of mass-conversion (the last historical ones prior to Mered BK were Yochanan Hyrkanus' forced conversions of Idumeans in Maresha and of the Yiturim in the Golan, both dating to @113 BCE, neither of which were viewed positively by Chazal) or the cause of Christianity's severance from Judaism (Paulian theology predates BK by at least 50 years) would be a very difficult sell -- you'd have to try much harder.

    5) The Rambam, who had no small regard for R' Akiva, indirectly references the famous "malcha d'meshicha" of Yerushalmi Ta'anis as the example of how even someone as great as R' Akiva, someone who might want so tremendously to bring an end to the gezerot hashemad and usher in an era of Jewish sovereignty, might err in identifying the messiah (Rambam's point was that he would admit to such upon said messiah's death). Surely you are just flaming when you say that you can't fathom how Judaism reveres R' Akiva as the "father of the Oral Law," a paradigm of chazara l'tshuva and a martyr who demonstrated even in death his love for Hashem. His early endorsement of BK does not erase the fact that he (and his students) basically developed the bulk of the Torah she'ba'al peh.

    6) Getting back to the death of his students: Ari, Anonymous, etc.: since the death of his students is known to us only as an aggadata in which their actual death is attributed to askera, and no historical context is given, for all we know they could have died of a plague in 112 CE. Or 122 CE. Or even 132 CE, on the eve of the rebellion. You get the idea.

  17. I must say this is a very interesting debate.

  18. Tamar

    1) The Bar Yochai relationship to Lag Baomer is fairly new: Jews would go up to Navi Shmuels Kever on Chal Hamoed up until the 18th century when the muslims made it illegal for jews to go there. It was then moved to Meron to the kever of Shimon Bar Yochai.

    You would also have to explain the bows and arrows and Bonfires. AS well as why a chag was made for the Yahrzeit of an individual. Ther is no other chag like that.

    2) Dont even get me started on Chanuka. How can you say it wasnt messianic? It was the Bar Kochba revolt, not the holy fury at Hadrian revolt. The preparation was years in the making.

    It was ill-Conceived as Rome was not the Syrian Greek Government. (under Antiouchus IV). Rome was more powerful by many degrees. In addition the Chamuka revolt gave the jews 4 years of freedom before the Greeks took it back. Everything after that Judea stayed a vassal of the Syrian or Roman empire. IN fact you can make strong arguments that The story of Chanuka directly led to the destruction 200 years later as well as the religious fervor which created christianity but thats a discussion for another time .

    Somebody of Rabbi Akiva's nature should have had the historical knowledge to realize how futile the rebellion would be.

    3) That's just semantics. For all practical purposed, Israel was done . within 50 years the center of Judaism moved from Israel to Bavel. The Romans wouldn't allow the rebellion to come back. They instituted harsh laws against all jews in Israel.

    4) Just look at the number of Christians circa 133 AD and the numbers just 50 years later. (btw I cant find it now but I read recently that the though now is that the mass conversions if the Idumeans and the Iturians never really happened. The archeology seems to state that the conversions happened naturally over the course of about 100 years. ) It is well known that the Romans, especially women who liked the fact that jews were very unlikely to abandon their babies, and were much warmer to their children, were open to the jewish religion. After the BK rebellion Jews were very unpopular as non-loyalists to the empire. Christianity immediately filled a void which did not exist up to that point.

    5) In general I am a big fan of the thought processes of the Rambam. He was very rational and would be thrown out of every yeshiva and shul today if he said anything like what he said in his time.

    However the Rambam lived almost 900 years after the events mentioned here, with no benefit of actual historical and archeological evidence.

    I do not accept the argument that just because he was good on one side he should be excused for his actions in this case.
    His actions can be compared with Nathan of Gaza during the Shabbetei Tzvi situation, except In this case he had much more clout to sway the people. AS Spiderman would say: With great power comes great responsibility. At best you can say he wasnt very responsible.

    What you are saying is that since He developed Torah shel Bapeh (Wait a second wasnt it always there? You mean without rightfully (I feel) removing him from our Mesorah, we would not have the Torah as we know it today? That sounds heretical to me. He was one man. The effects of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who created Reform Judaism, I meant who reinvented a Judaism without a Beis Hamikdash, I meant he saved Yavneh) are much greater by far then Rabbi Akiva. I think we would be just fine if we faced up to the historical facts.

    6) That is just making stuff up.
    Occam s Razor : 1,500,000 people died in an even associated with Rabbi Akiva. We mourn the deaths of thousands of people associated with Rabbi Akiva. Seems highly probable they are related.

  19. 1) I don't immediately have the resources to address the historicity of the chag, although hod she'bahod (the middat hayom of day 33) has obvious association with the transmitter of sod, Rashbi, and it is his hilula. I do not believe that the association of the day with Rashbi is a late assignment. And when I posited that Lag B'Omer was based on the hilula of Rashbi, I intended all of the various historical and spiritual significance associated with that event, including the contention that this was a day of rejoicing upon the cessation (or pause) of askera among R' Akiva's students, a fact perhaps intimately related to the character of Rashbi. I will iy"H be doing more research into the history of how the chag was celebrated/related to for next week's shiur and will report back if you'd like.

    2)I would find it difficult to contend that the BK revolt was any more ill-conceived than was the revolt against Syria; late Talmudic sources are bolstered by very solid apocryphal ones (Maccabees I and II) that speak of desperate guerilla warfare campaigns led by Yehuda with very little objective chance for success. Rabim b'yad me'atim, etc. And yet they succeeded! Hasn't that historically been the classic modus operandi of Jewish revolt (desperation)? Hashmonaim, Mered HaGadol, BK, Warsaw Ghetto, 48, 67...history is replete with "ill-conceived" Jewish revolution that is borne from desperation. Let's not forget the that first 18 months-2 years of the BK revolt saw astonishingly success for the Jews. I dislike the term "ill-conceived" here -- the Jews thought they stood a chance, it would seem, even though they knew the empirical odds were stacked against them. That's usually the case (perhaps the modern IDF and HaMelech David's fighting forces stand as exceptions).

    3)It's NOT semantics. Survey the Mishnaic/Talmudic population centers of the galil and golan from the mid 2nd c-7th c. You'll find abundant evidence of vibrant, teeming and significant Jewish life in E"Y during that time period. (Susita, Tzipori, Teveryah, Katzrin, Hamat Gader, Beit Alpha, Sachnin, Ginosaur, Gush Halav, and dozens of others up there; as I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few cities in Judea as well (Ein Gedi, Sussya, Emmaus, Gimzu, Lod, etc.) True that later circumstances would determine that Babylonia would serve as the center of Jewish life, but that cannot negate the facts on the ground (and the myriad textual sources) that attest to the significant Jewish community in E"Y during the Roman/Byzantantine periods.

    4) Many curious factors contributed to the mass conversion of mostly pagans to Christianity. Why would any of them, perhaps BK revolt included, be of any consideration for this argument? Considering the risks of being a Christian prior to Constantine were serious and life-threatening -- Diocletian persecutions as late as 305 CE -- it's not like an "easy way out." Find me some evidence directly linking Jewish conversion to Christianity to the BK revolt. I'd suspect you'd have a dissertation on your hands if you could.
    Regarding the archaeological record attesting to a gradual conversion of the Idumeans and Iturians: show me the money, dude. Or rather I'll show YOU the money: the cache of coins found stashed under the above-ground dwelling place in Maresha that scholarship points to as evidence of flight by the Idumean population prior to John Hyrkanus' onslaught. I spent five (long) hours with Nahum Sagiv in Maresha; he IS the resident archaeologist there. He says you're wrong.

    5) Abba Kovner was the first Jew to publically and frantically determine Hitler's master plan for world Jewish genocide. In 1942! Rare is the insightful person who can gauge what's happening in his present; anyone, however, can look back and judge history. A fortiori, only a prophet can forsee the outcome of events yet to transpire. True, Rabbi Akiva was not a prophet. But without visionaries and dreamers who are willing to take chances and try to grasp at the opportunities that Hashem is gifting them with -- as they understand them -- well, then, you risk not having the Great Moments.
    Finally: the Ribaz gave us Yavneh and focused on rebuilding a shattered Yahadut -- but R' Akiva was the one who was me'akev the Yad Hashem ("b'sha'ah she'alah Moshe la'Marom...Menachot 29).

  20. Forgot to add: don't throw Occam's razor into this. If you want to start mining aggadeta for historicity (24,000 talmidim dying), you have to handel with all aspects of the aggadeta. You CANNOT dismiss how the rishonim have dealt with askerah: a plague, and not in the metaphorical sense. Well, you CAN dismiss it if you like, but then we're "playing by" different rules and it's not worth continuing the discussion.


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