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SEFIRA - DAYS OF MOURING
DEATH OF RABBI AKIVA'S STUDENTSIn Torah times, the 49 days bridging Pesach and Shavuos were days of joyful anticipation and spiritual ecstasy. These 49 days are counted as we anxiously await the 50th day - Shavuos - when we commemorate the giving of the Torah.
After the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash, however, a major national tragedy befell our people during this same period of time. As a result, the festive character of these seven weeks was muted and certain mourning practices were adopted:
The practice is not to get married between Passover and Shavuos - until Lag B'Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. (Shulchan Aruch section 493:1)
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples … and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuos". Rabbi Chama ben Abba, or some say, Rabbi Chiya ben Abin said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: "Croup." (Yevamos 62b)
The Talmud speaks of 12,000 "pairs" of students and not of 24,000 talmidim. Obviously this is in order to stress the lack of unity of which they were guilty: they did not treat each other with respect.
This tragedy occurred during the days of sefirah. This is a very special time of the year:
Pesach and the days of Sefirah are the root of the whole year, and the way you conduct yourself during these days that is the way they act to you all the days of the year. (The Holy Rashash)
You have to be very careful during these days of Omer to increase love, brotherhood, and friendship one to another, man to his wife, and especially the love of those who learn Torah together, and to honor one another; to distance oneself from arguments, hatred, jealousy and mocking. Particularly until Lag b'Omer, because this is a time when midas hadin is especially strong and the time is very dangerous for machlokes, and even more so for quarrels. (Arizal)
Thus we can understand, somewhat, why this tragedy of Rabbi Akiva's talmidim occurred right before Lag b'Omer. This is a time when we must be outstandingly careful about honoring others, especially Torah scholars.
THE ALTER'S SPECIAL RESPECT FOR HIS STUDENTS
Rav Sholom Shwadron (Sha'al Avicha Vayageidcha, II, p. 196) relates an incident he heard from the Rav of Kvar Saba who had been an elder bochur in the Yeshiva of Slobodka, after it relocated in Hebron in Eretz Yisroel.
The elder bochurim took on the "responsibility" of attending to the needs of the Alter (as the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel (1849-1927), was called). They performed their job with love and tremendous dedication. They were concerned over every detail. They would wash his hands, put on his shoes and take care of all of his needs. Each week another bochur would take his turn being the Alter's shamash.
Once, the bochur whose turn it was that week, had to travel to Yerushalayim. He asked his friend, later the Rav of Kvar Saba, to change places with him, which he gladly agreed to. This first bochur was accustomed to preparing the Alter a very delicious hot bowl of breakfast cereal, of which the Alter was especially fond. The "substitute" bochur didn't want to deprive the Alter of his favorite breakfast, so he decided to prepare the same cereal.
To his consternation, when he brought in the breakfast, the Alter looked at him and said, "What! Do you want to poison me? You're giving me poison!"
"Poison? What poison? Why does the Rosh Yeshiva suspect that I want to poison him?"
But all his arguments couldn't change the Alter's mind. He refused to listen. The other talmidim were standing outside and listening. The bochur feeling tremendously despondent went to the Beis Midrash to learn. But he was immediately surrounded by the other talmidim who asked, "Did you try to poison the Rosh Yeshiva?" They knew it couldn't be true, but still, that's what the Alter had said.
That afternoon, he returned to the Alter's room to continue his duties. Totally downcast and shaking from fear. But the Alter was now in a good mood, and looked at him with a twinkle in his eye. "You wanted to poison me. You wanted to feed me the poison of your taking honor at your friend's expense. You made a cereal your friend couldn't match. You did it better than he. You wanted to take credit when he would feel dishonor. I don't want to eat poison like that!"
Shema Yisrael Torah Network