Iyar is the only month where the religious experience today is the opposite of what it was designated to be in Biblical times.
Iyar in the Torah was designated as a month of total anticipation and elation as we count up to the receiving of the Torah. The Sefer HaChinuch tells us that each day we count signifies a step of growing excitement as we prepare to re-experience our rendezvous with Divine revelation.
Yet, Jewish experience in the second century changed all this, and it is now primarily a time of pain, tragedy and mourning. The sudden and tragic death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, which happened predominantly in the month of Iyar, sharply altered the religious and emotional experience of this month.
Why did this particular tragedy, as opposed to so many other tragic massacres, evoke a time of collective mourning for future generations?
Undoubtedly, the death of such a large quantity and quality of Talmudic scholars effectively resulted in the decimation of Torah learning in Judea—an enormous tragedy in and of itself. But there is a twist in the plot. Although the Talmud mentions that they died of a disease called אַסְכָּרָה, perhaps diphtheria, Rav Shreira Gaon maintains that they died as a result of שְׁמָד—a religious war. This means that they died during the Bar Kochba rebellion, as this was the only religious war at that time. Not sickness alone, therefore, caused this destruction but rather their death at the hands of the Romans.
Understanding the depth of the tragic failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion is crucial to understanding the depth of the loss and mourning that ensued.
The fall of Beitar and the vanquishing of the rebellion is one of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history. The Rambam goes as far as to say that this loss was as tragic as the day of the destruction of the Temple itself. Why?
Because of both the unparalleled loss in human terms as well as the devastating impact of these events on the national psyche. Historians at that time write that, in terms of human loss, the Bar Kochba rebellion was even more tragic quantitatively than in the Churban of Yerushalayim 65 years prior.
An additional element is that while many were killed and exiled, and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, the vast majority of Jews remained in Judea, building thriving communities with the Sanhedrin relocating to Yavneh. There was still hope for an imminent rebuilding of Jerusalem, just as it had been rebuilt following the previous 70-year Babylonian exile. Indeed, this was the aim and hope of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, supported by Rabbi Akiva. However, with the horrific fall of Beitar, a new period in history was ushered in. Judea was laid waste, the national infrastructure was destroyed and hope for imminent return was lost. This exile would be longer.
Iyar, the great month of spiritual exhilaration, was turned into a darker time of mourning for the destruction of the Torah world and the loss of hope of the return to Jerusalem.
In the modern era, the month of Iyar has begun to be redeemed!
In addition to Lag BaOmer on the 18th of Iyar, we have two new modern miracle days of exhilaration—both signifying the beginning of redemption: the 5th of Iyar, the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel, and the 28th of Iyar, the liberation of the Old City of holy Jerusalem. Baruch Hashem, Iyar is slowly returning to its former glory, from days of mourning of “Sefirah” to days of “Sefirat HaOmer”—the anticipation with exhilaration of the wheat offerings in the Temple and the collective national acceptance of our treasured Torah.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the executive chairman of World Mizrachi.