The inner cause of Rabbi Akiva’s students’ death

  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

The Torah passages and Israel's holidays are full of important messages that are relevant and empower our day-today lives. Rabbi Shai Tahan, head of the Sha'arei Ezra community and head of the Arzi HaLebanon teaching house, opens the gates for us to understand these messages, from their source, in a clear way. This week: The inner cause of Rabbi Akiva’s students’ death.

The period of Sefirat HaOmer coincides with a time of mourning over the death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. The Gemara explains that the students died because they did not afford one another proper respect and honor. An obvious question arises: why were they unable to respect each other correctly? Aren’t Talmidei Chachamim supposed to have exemplary middot and give everyone the proper respect that they deserve? 

Moreover, the Chazon Ish explained that if one does not have proper middot, he cannot grow and excel in their Torah learning as well. How then were Rabbi Akiva’s students able to reach such high learning levels without respecting each other properly?

Furthermore, why does the Gemara specify that these scholars were Rabbi Akiva’s students, instead of simply calling them Talmidei Chachamim? It’s unlikely that the reason is due to a fault Rabbi Akiva in any way or that he taught them the wrong way.

To answer these questions, we first need to know that Rabbi Akiva had extremely high standards in every field of the Torah and the Mitzvot.

For example, Rabbi Akiva famously taught: ‘ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha’: you love your fellow as you love yourself. Although this is a verse in the Torah, Rabbi Akiva added to it that it’s the ‘klal gadol batorah’- this is a big principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva viewed this concept as the main fundamental principle that the entire Torah stands on. If one doesn’t love the other as much as he loves himself, he is defaulting on the entire Torah.

It is very difficult to live up to the standard of loving others the way we love ourselves! These students, as high as they were, could not succeed in attaining as much respect and love for their fellows as they had for themselves.

Now, since Rabbi Akiva was the mentor of those 24,000 students, he also set the tone, and they had to live up to his standards. The fact that they couldn’t live up to it cost them their lives.

This idea that whenever one sets standards, he and his surroundings are affected by it and must therefore live up to it, is found in various places in our Torah: 

For example, when the angels came to remove Lot (Avraham’s brother-in-law), from the city of Sedom, he told them that while he was living in Sedom, he was considered a Tzaddik amongst the wicked which merited him being saved from the same fate met by Sedom. But now that he was returning to be around Avraham, he would be considered wicked amongst Tzaddikim, and will no longer be worthy of being saved.

Another example of this idea is when the Isha HaTzorfit asks Eliyahu Hanavi, “Did you come tonight to remind me of my sins”? Rashi explains that before Eliyahu Hanavi arrived, she was considered righteous amongst the people and was worthy of receiving lots of good from Hashem. Now that Eliyahu was in her home, she was not considered anything special anymore, thus her sins were being recalled, and she would be unworthy of Hashem sending her any goodness.

We learn from here that the standards that an individual upholds affects all those around them as well.

This is what happened with Rabbi Akiva’s students—they were held to his standards and judged accordingly. 

We also learn that disrespect for Talmidei Chachamim is judged much more harshly than disrespect for the general public. The Gemara tells us of a big Rabbi called Nechemia who had a novel theory that every time it says “et” (את) in the Torah, it comes to add/teach something. 

For example, in the commandment “ כבד את אביך ואת אמך—honor your father and your mother” the word “et” is placed in front of both father, and mother. R’Nechemia deduced from this that the “et” comes to include your father’s wife: she must be honored as well, even if she is not your mother. However, R’Nechemia got stuck when he reached the verse saying: “et Hashem Elokecha tira—you should fear Hashem”. There is an ‘et’ added in front of Hashem’s name, but who can possibly be included in the commandment to fear as much as one should fear Hashem? He wondered if he was wrong about his “et” theory, thus R’Nechemia retracted his theory in all other verses which says this word.

This was until Rabbi Akiva taught that the “et” in this pasuk includes Talmidei Chachamim. The Pasuk commands us, according to Rabbi Akiva, to fear Talmidei Chachamim to the level we fear Hashem.

Rabbi Akiva taught this lesson to his students and held them to that high standard as well, but that was an extremely high level to achieve which his students, as much as they tried, couldn’t reach.

This article was written in cooperation with Shuva Israel