Lag Ba’omer, Rebbe Akivah, and Kabbalah

By Rabbi Tzadok Cable

As we cross over the midway point of Sefiras Ha’omer we approach the milestone of Lag Ba’omer – the 33rd day of the Omer. What significance lies within this special day and what connection does it have to the days of Sefiras Ha’omer? When we look into this question the first thing that comes to mind is that Lag Ba’omer marks the day when the students of Rebbe Akivah stopped dying and it also marks the yartzeit (the day of passing) of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.

Rebbe Akivah was of course the great master and leader of the generation who saved the Torah from being forgotten through his sacrifice. One of his main cornerstones of teaching was “Ve’ahavtah L’reacha Kamochah – love your neighbor as yourself. Rebbe Akivah understood and emphasized in all of his teaching and in all areas of life, the importance of interpersonal relationships and the high level of sensitivity that the Torah demands us to have towards one another. To Rebbe Akivah this was not only a central precept of Judaism but also one that by mastering it would lead to growth and increasing levels of completion in all other areas of Torah.

With this in mind we must certainly be perplexed by the following teaching from the Talmud

“They said that Rebbe Akivah had 12,000 pairs of students between the cities of Geves and Antifrus, and all of them died during one period of time because they didn’t conduct themselves with the proper respect for one another. And then the world was desolate and the Torah was in danger of being forgotten until Rebbe Akivah came down to our Rabbis in the south – Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yehudah, Rebbe Yosi, Rebbe Shimon, and Rebbe Elazar ben Shamuah and they reestablished the standing of Torah at that time. The Tannah teaches us that the period of time when Rebbe Akivah’s first students passed away was between Pesach and Shavuos. Rav Chamah bar Abbah and some say Rav Chiyah bar Avin said they all died a very bitter death, what is that referring to “Askarah”(according to our tradition this is the most painful form of death in the world). Yevamos 62b

The Beis Yosef in his comments on the Tur in Siman 493:2 says that there is an alternative version of this story found in a Midrash. The Midrash says that all of the first students of Rebbe Akivah died between Pesach and “pros ha’atzeres” which means fifteen days before Shavuos. He goes on to explain that this means that the students died between Pesach and the 33rd day of the Sefiras Ha’omer period.

These two alternative texts are the foundation for the different customs of mourning that we observe today during the Omer period. These practices of mourning include not getting married, not getting haircuts, and not dancing during this period of time. Some keep this custom for the entire 49 days of the Omer period based on the text of the Gemara above. However, the prevailing custom amongst Ashkenazic Jews today is to keep these customs of mourning for the first 33 days of the Omer (or what is otherwise known as “Lag Ba’omer – the word “Lag” – ‘lamed’ ‘gimmel’ has a numerical value of 33).

But putting the legalities of this time period aside there is a very difficult problem in this historical accounting. How is it possible that the 24,000 students of Rebbe Akivah were guilty of not conducting themselves with the proper respect for one another? Rebbe Akivah was the one who lived and taught to the greatest degree the foundation of “V’ahavtah L’reachah Kamochah”. How is it possible that his message wasn’t clearly established and practiced amongst his students? We can find the answer to this dilemma from our tradition. We know that there is a general rule in how Hashem deals with people in this world called “Hakadosh Baruchu Medakdek al Hatzadikim K’chut Hasa’arah” which means that G-d is actually more exacting in judgment (even to a hairsbreadth) with the righteous than he is with normal people. We know the famous Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a

“There was once a story that happened to the daughter of Reb Nechunia Chofer Shichin where she fell into one of the water wells that he had dug for the Jews coming up to Jerusalem for the 3 festivals. People went to tell this news to Rebbe Chaninah ben Dosa who was a very pious individual so that he would pray for her. The first hour passed and Rebbe Chaninah said she is still alive, the second hour passed and he said the same. The third hour passed and he said she has come out of the pit. When she came back from being saved she related a miraculous story of how a sheep had wandered and fallen into the opening of the well. There was an old man following it and he saw me and saved me. (Rashi comments that the old man was actually the spirit of Avraham Avinu who had come to save her) They asked Rebbe Chaninah if he had prophecy in order to know she was saved and he said I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet but I knew that the mitzvah that her father sacrificed so much for could not possibly be the cause of death for his offspring. Nevertheless Rebbe Acha said that Rebbe Nechunia’s son died of thirst as it says “and for those in G-d’s close surroundings it is extremely tenuous”. This verse is teaching you that G-d is exacting with the righteous ones even to a hairsbreadth.

The question once again is that we understand why Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter was saved from this form of death. What we don’t understand is how it could have been that she should have fallen into that well to begin with. Would Hashem not protect the offspring and descendants of Rebbe Nechunia from any form of danger with regards to these wells which their father dug with such self sacrifice? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of why Hashem is exacting with the tzadikim even to a hairsbreadth. This seems so unfair. Shouldn’t it be that someone who is so dedicated to reaching the highest level of service of Hashem, and who sacrifices to such a great degree to do so, should receive some sort of immunity?

The answer is of course – NO! This is a warped view of the ways of the Almighty. He doesn’t offer diplomatic immunity to his righteous ones. On the other hand, if this is true then why would anyone want to make this sacrifice and try to be so great when all that is waiting for him on the other side is being treated with such exacting judgment? The answer is that the advantage and the benefit of living life on a higher plane of completion and to such a degree of sacrifice far outweighs the comfort of being treated with greater mercy but remaining less connected to Hashem. You can’t have it both ways. The tzaddik realizes that even though he will be judged more strictly as he reaches greater levels in the service of Hashem, it is worth it because in return a deeper level of closeness and a stronger bond with the Almighty becomes available. The normal person who doesn’t make that push may be treated with more mercy and allowed a more lenient form of judgment. However, in return for that he looses out on a greater level of closeness that can only be gained by the path of the tzadik. This is the insight of this teaching about Hashem’s way with the tzadikim.

Therefore, not only is the righteous person treated with greater exactingness in judgment, but he is judged more strictly specifically in the areas where he is great. It is no coincidence at all that Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter fell into one of his wells, nor is it a coincidence that Rebbe Akivah’s students passed away specifically because they weren’t complete in the area of “Been Adam Lachaveiro” – interpersonal relationships. Specifically because Rebbe Akivah was so great in this area, he was tested and judged so strictly with regards to it. Perhaps more than anything else we focus our attention on the centrality of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro” during the Omer. This is the time that the Torah wants us to make the transition between the barley offering on the second day of Pesach to the two wheat breads of Shavuos. We discussed in another article about the significance of the counting of the Omer that the whole point that the Torah wants is for us to realize that our productivity both physically and spiritually needs to be refined from more selfish to more selfless. The more selfless a person becomes the easier it is to fulfill the precepts of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro”.

We saw above that Rebbe Akivah wasted no time after his 24,000 students passed away. He immediately picked up the pieces and started to rebuild. He knew what needed to be done and he knew where he had fallen short in the past. It is therefore by no coincidence that one of the students that developed from his second try was Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, the father of the Kabbalistic teachings and the author of the Zohar. The Tosefta in Chagigah 2:2 teaches us the following:

“Four men entered into paradise Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rebbe Akivah. Ben Azai gazed at what was there and died, Ben Zoma gazed at what was there and went insane, Acher gazed at what was there and became a heretic, and Rebbe Akivah went up there in peace and came back down in peace”

Our tradition says that this idea of going up to paradise has to do with learning the mystical secrets of Kabbalah. To enter paradise means to gain access to the mystical secrets of the universe and thus be able to incorporate them into the way and manner in which we perform our Divine Service. Of the greatest scholars of his time only Rebbe Akivah was able to go into this realm of thought and absorb the depths of understanding available there. Only Rebbe Akivah was prepared and worked out enough to manage to gain access to the deepest ideas in the Torah and bring them back down to the physical realm, to the mundane day to day life we live.

What gave Rebbe Akivah this ability? It was his mastery of Bein Adam Lachaveiro. Because Rebbe Akivah had mastered the art of being selfless, therefore he was able to absorb the deepest secrets of the unity of G-d. He had no sense of self to distort the ideas and twist them to fit his “personal interest”. Clearly, one of his greatest students – Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, was the benefactor of the greatness of his master and followed in his footsteps to the greatest degree. This is specifically what gave Rebbe Shimon access to the secrets of the Kabbalah like his master. Interestingly enough, we find throughout the Zohar that Rebbe Shimon constantly referred to his students as “a group of friends”. He saw the crucial element of Bein Adam Lachaveiro as being central to reaching the levels of depth and insight that can only be found in the Kabbalah.

Of course it is by no coincidence that Rebbe Shimon passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer. This is the same day that marks the ultimate breakdown of Rebbe Akivah’s first attempt at healing the rift in the world between the Almighty and His children. Rebbe Akivah’s message was clear even then. It’s all about Bein Adam Lachaveiro. This is the only way to bring the ultimate level of completion to the world through Torah. Anything short of striving for this ideal will leave a warping and a distortion in our full understanding of the Torah. The source of this distortion will be rooted in the aspect of selfishness. Rebbe Shimon passed away on the same day but in a totally different context. He left behind the “close group of friends” with whom he had shared such a close and deep relationship, that together they were able to bring down the revelation of the deepest secrets of the mystical teachings of the Torah. He left behind the Zohar with all that this gives us as Jews and with all that adds to the world. One of the most common and basic teachings in the Zohar is that someone who has truly mastered the stages of preparing himself to attain an understanding of the secrets of the Kabbalah, is capable of making the most profound and deepest form of transformation on the world. He can fix the world more powerfully and more intensely than others. Certainly if we understand that the Torah is “the precious tool that G-d used to create the world” (Avos 3:18), than all the more so we understand that someone who has refined themselves from all selfishness and thus attained the clearest and deepest understanding of Torah can wield the greatest change and the greatest impact on our universe through his Divine Service.

Perhaps we can now understand what David Hamelech was saying in Psalms 119:18 “[Hashem] – Open my eyes and I will see the wonders of your Torah”. The word for open in this verse is “gal” – the letters are ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’ the same numerical value as 33. David says “Hashem open my eyes, meaning – allow me to see you and the others in the world that you have Created in the true form in which they exist without the distortion of selfishness. Then as a result of this “I will see the wonders of your Torah. This is a reference to the deeper teachings of the Torah. Furthermore, in the selichos we say in one of the stanzas “purify our impurities and to the light of Your Torah open our eyes”. Again here the word for opening the eyes is ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’. In other words we say “Hashem purify our impurities – meaning our point of selfishness which constantly drives us away from you, and as a result “open our eyes to the light of your Torah”. Again here the reference is to the deeper element of the light of the Torah. This is the aspect that can only be perceived and revealed to a person when they are ready to absorb it.

Based on this it is clear that the 33rd day of the Omer is a very special day. It marks the bridge and the transition of our preparation during the Omer from selfishness to selflessness. We have 17 more days to go until Shavuos but we have crossed the bridge. The seventeen remaining days have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word “good” – TOV. This is when we can cross the threshold into a new level of understanding the world. We can see the good in everything. We can understand the secrets of our universe and learn to use them to bring the ultimate good into the world. This is the legacy of our great master Rebbe Akivah and his giant of a student Rebbe Shimon. Let us take this special day and use it to give us inspiration that we too can reach selflessness. And through this we will merit to stand again on Shavuos as a nation at the base of Mount Sinai like one man with one heart!

Rabbi Tzadok Cable:

My name is Tzadok Cable. I am originally from Miami Beach, Florida, but I have been living in Israel since 1992. Over the years I have had the opportunity to learn Torah from some of the leading Rabbis of our time including: Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt””l, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, Rabbi Yonason Berger, Rabbi Nosson Weisz, and Rabbi Yochanan Bechoffer. Over the last 8 years I have been running the Rabbinical Ordination Program at Yeshivas Aish Hatorah.

I have realized during my years of learning and teaching that there is a tremendous thirst and interest in the world today for deep, explorative, and impacting Torah content. I strive to address this interest in my teaching style. In recent years I have seen the trend in the world towards the usage of the World Wide Web and social media on the internet. My vision is to use this trend to provide an opportunity for people to find what they are looking for.

I have developed a vast range of resources and made them available to you on binyanhaolam.com.

3 comments on “Lag Ba’omer, Rebbe Akivah, and Kabbalah

  1. What exactly made Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students unable or unwilling to fully adopt his elevated attitude regarding Bein Adam Lachaveiro?

    What exactly was his personal relationship with them, and how might it have been better? 24,000 is a lot of people to guide personally!

    To what degree is the teacher held responsible for students’ behavior?

    To what degree are students held responsible as if they had the abilities and personal qualities of their teacher? If they were on a lower level than Rabbi Akiva, wouldn’t their level of responsibility and the severity of the associated penalties for their wrong actions also be lower?

  2. “G-d is exacting with the righteous ones even to a hairsbreadth”

    Tzadok Cable, you are awesome. I checked out your website, you put together something truly wonderful for the masses.

    However, I was never satisfied with this explanation regarding the 24,000 talmidim. Everything you said is of course correct, but I always thought there had to be more, and never felt I really understood this subject.

    Recently, Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon enlightened me and the clouds parted. It seems, according to his explanation, that since each one of the talmidim was a tremendous talmid chacham, each one wasn’t really willing to open his mind up to the opinions of his chavrusa. They loved each other, they respected each other, but not to the point where “you might be right and perhaps I’m wrong”. Each was convinced of his own pshat.

    When Torah is learned like this, it is lacking something. It is missing the process of argument and working things out. The Torah that emanates from this is not a complete type of Torah, so therefore it’s a Torah that’s lacking. Since this was the Torah that would be passed down to generations, it had to be stopped. The only way was to have the talmidim, the source, pass away, and start over again. It was a “warped” Torah that could not be handed down.

    This explanation is more specific to what their role was in life, or else it’s so hard to believe that every single one of these 24000 students was just lacking in respect.

    Tzadok–may you always be a marbitz Torah through your Torah and your website!

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