The Gemara (Yevamot 61b) explains that, tragically, in the times of Rabbi Akiva, approximately 24,000 of his students died of a plague during the period of Sefirat HaOmer. Only five of his students reportedly survived. They were R’ Meir, R’ Yehuda, R’ Yosi, R’ Shimon Bar Yochai and R’ Elazar Ben Shamua. Rav Nachman, a later Gemara sage, opined that the students who died had symptoms of high fevers, hard coughing, obstructed, infected airways and difficulty breathing. We can only imagine, based on our current coronavirus circumstances, how similar and devastating this plague must have been. Almost all the rabbis died in this outbreak.
Some say the 24,000 students died because they were inconsiderate and self-centered. Other explanations have it that they were part of the Bar Kochba rebellion, supported by R’ Akiva, and that they were massacred by the Romans because they openly taught Torah. R’ Telushkin is of the opinion that they died over a period of time because they did not coordinate their resistance to the Romans. In any event, the loss of almost the entire rabbinic population was catastrophic and threatened the survival of the Oral Torah. To remember this sad event, we have developed “light” mourning rituals during this time period. For example, we do not take haircuts, we do not schedule weddings and we do not listen to live musical concerts.
On Lag B’Omer we stop observing mourning rituals because R’ Akiva’s students stopped dying that day. Also, it is the yahrzeit of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai, who, according to legend, transmitted the secrets of Kabbalah as he lay dying. This was later codified by his students into the mystical writings of the Zohar.
The Gemara in Shabbos (33b) recounts the famous story of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai. He made cynical remarks about the Roman Empire that eventually got back to the governor. “They only built their fine roads to have better access to their prostitutes,” he said. “They only built the bridges and infrastructure so that they could charge tolls and enrich themselves.” As a result of making these remarks, he and his son were sentenced to death and had to hide in a cave, buried up to their necks in sand for a 12-year period of exile to avoid capture.
When the Roman Emperor finally died, the Prophet Elijah informed him that it was safe to come out again. However, R’ Shimon Bar Yochai apparently still had not learned his lesson. When he and his son exited the cave, he saw the common folk engaged in their day-to-day activities and made cynical remarks about them as well. He cast an evil eye on them, causing destruction. A Heavenly voice rang out and ordered them to return to their cave for another 12 months of reflection. Thereafter, whenever R’ Shimon’s son began to make a disapproving remark, R’ Shimon would offer healing words of consolation and explanation. He had learned his lesson the hard way, saying, “Let me go forth and make the world a better place.”
As we celebrate Lag B’Omer and take a break from the period of mourning, may we be able to remember the essence of this time period and learn the proper lesson. Let us be careful to treat one another with respect and consideration. Let us try harder to be less cynical and more benign in interpreting the words and actions of our neighbors. Finally, just as with R’ Shimon Bar Yochai, may Hashem grant us the insight and ability to go forth and make this world a better place, free of any future devastating plagues.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]