By Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org
As is the case for many holidays in the Jewish calendar
cycle, Lag B’Omer (April 28 this year) carries within it not one, but multiple
and distinct layers of meaning. Mystical significances, historical memories,
and moral reflections all meld together into the contemporary notion of what
makes this day special, the product of nearly two millennia of overlaid and
interwoven innovations in tradition and observance.
Click photo to download. Caption: A painting of Rabbi Akiva, who according to the Talmud saw 24,000 of his students die during the Omer period until the 33rd day, now known as Lag B’Omer. Credit: Jeff Makor via Myspace.
One of the most prominent themes describes that the 33rd
day of the Omer period brought the sudden cessation of a calamity of national
proportions in ancient Judea—the death of 24,000 students of the sage Rabbi
Akiva. The mourning practices that have become a standard part of counting the 50
days between Passover and Shavuot likewise cease on Lag B’Omer for most
traditional Jews, corresponding to the end of the catastrophe.
The Rabbi Akiva narrative can be traced back to a single,
rather ambiguous passage in the Talmud that identifies neither the timing of
the event nor how the scholars died. It does, however, specify a cause—namely that
Akiva’s students had made a habit of treating each other with disrespect. The
Talmudic narrators reviewing the anecdote then supply more detail, placing the
event chronologically between Passover and Shavuot, and attributing the mode of
death to a divinely ordained plague, punishment for the pupils’ collective
lapse in behavior.
While it has often been interpreted at a literal level,
the vague and mystifying nature of the account, coupled with the immensity of
loss of life it describes, demands that we think critically about what is being
conveyed. It seems quite unlikely that the rabbis would have contented themselves
with explaining such unthinkable devastation as an act of divine justice
necessitated by widespread academic hubris. Instead, it is helpful to
understand the narrative against the social and political backdrop of the times
and the persona of Rabbi Akiva.
Click photo to download. Caption: In Tiberias, Israel, the tomb of Rabbi Akiva, who according to the Talmud saw 24,000 of his students die during the Omer period until the 33rd day, now known as Lag B’Omer. Credit: Almog/Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Akiva’s life coincided with period of violent
upheaval that resulted in the fall of the Judean state. Beginning in the year
70 CE, radical Judean militias staged a series of revolts against the Roman Empire,
on the basis of religious repression, heavy taxation, and the desire for
independence. Each time, the rebellions held out successfully for a few years,
only to be eventually overwhelmed and put down by Rome’s determined leaders and
immense military machine.
It is said that Rabbi Akiva began his rabbinic career at
the late age of 40, but his brilliance, charisma, and creative interpretation
of the law propelled him to fame, wealth, and a spot in the highest echelons of
Jewish leadership. He was also, it seems, an ardent Jewish nationalist. The
Jerusalem Talmud depicts Rabbi Akiva as throwing his influential support behind
the leader of the …read more