We are now just past the halfway mark of the Omer – the Torah commandment to count the days leading up to receiving the Torah at the festival of Shavuot.
There are a number of significant events and commemorations which take place during these days, but what I’d like to focus on is the period of mourning we observe. We often refer to this period of mourning as the “Omer” itself, but really it has very little to do with it; it only happens to coincide with the 49 days we count between Pesach and Shavuot.
During this period in history, a tragedy took place. The students of the great Rebbe Akiva, the great Talmudic sage who lived almost two thousand years ago, died from the plague. And these few weeks were set aside to remember their death and to mourn their loss even though they died millennia ago. Rebbe Akiva’s students perished over a period of 33 days, and there are varying customs concerning when to observe the mourning. Some start from the beginning of the counting of the Omer and complete the mourning period on the 33rd day of the omer (Lag b’Omer); others begin slightly later at Rosh Chodesh Iyar and complete it just before Shavuot (with a day’s break right in the middle for Lag b’Omer). There are various customs and permutations even within these two overarching approaches. There are also many laws of mourning (no weddings, haircuts or music for example), and you should consult your local rabbi for further direction.
The question is, why is there such emphasis on this event? There have been many tragedies throughout Jewish history, and few of them are remembered with a period of national, public mourning the way the death of Rebbe Akiva’s students is remembered. Let’s try and understand why. What exactly happened during this period? And considering it happened almost two thousand years ago, what is the relevance of this particular tragedy for us today? What do we have to learn from it?
We know that whenever we have set aside times of public mourning, it isn’t just to remember the tragedy, but to reflect on the lessons and how we can grow from those lessons. Indeed, all times of difficulty and tragedy in our lives are provided to us as an opportunity to grow from the experience; difficulties aren’t simply something we are meant to contend with and get past – we need to use them to make positive changes that have a lasting impact upon our lives.
So what impact does this period of mourning during the Omer have on our lives that we remember the death of Rebbe Akiva’s students? In order to understand this I would like to share some of the thoughts of Rabbi Aharon Kotler – one of the great rabbis of the twentieth century, who escaped the carnage of the Holocaust and emerged to rebuild Judaism and the Jewish community in America during the post-war years. Starting with a handful of students, he founded the famous Lakewood yeshiva in New Jersey – an esteemed academy of learning that today has around five thousand students, and is probably the largest institution of its kind in the world. What began as the dream of one man became a very important engine for the rebuilding of American Jewry in the post-war years.
That in itself is an important, heroic story that needs to be remembered and retold. But to return to the question at hand, we know that there are two periods of national mourning during the year – the period during the Omer when we mourn for Rebbe Akiva’s students, and the “Three Weeks” later on in the year leading up towards the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple.
Rabbi Aharon Kotler says that the loss of Torah scholars is even greater than the loss of the Temple. He explains the purpose of the Temple was to inspire people with G-d’s Torah and with His word and with His ideas and His philosophy and His law. And that, he says, is in the hands of the Torah scholars. He cites a passage from the Talmud that discusses the various commandments that brought people to Jerusalem during Temple times. Some brought the farmers who would bring their first fruits or special tithes to Jerusalem, and would therefore constantly be in the vicinity of the Temple. The Talmud explains that the purpose of this was to inspire them to learn and be able to perform G-d’s will; the farmers would be exposed to the holy atmosphere in Jerusalem and the sight of Temple and the priests and the Sanhedrin, and this would inspire them to greater observance and greater commitment to Torah values.
As powerful as this experience was, says Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the ultimate inspiration and impetus towards fulfilling Torah law and embodying Torah values comes from the study of Torah. Torah study leads to deed; it is the engine, the stimulus; it provides the meaning behind everything that we do in fulfilment of G-d’s will. This is why our sages have always said that to the degree that we study and appreciate and strive to understand it, we will be inspired by and committed to Torah, and connected to G-d.
This is perhaps one of the unique dimensions of Judaism – that the intellectual pursuit of understanding G-d’s will becomes a religious value. Torah study is not just something that one does; it’s not an academic exercise. It’s actually a spiritual act that inspires us at every moment.
Thus, mourning the tragic loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students symbolises something greater – our appreciation for what Torah scholars bring to the world. The loss of those students – the best and brightest, the greatest Torah scholars of their generation – was a loss on the level of losing the Temple. Because when you lose the people who teach you the Torah – who uncover G-d’s wisdom and expound upon it and equip others with the tools that make G-d’s wisdom accessible – then that is a major loss to everybody. Torah scholars empower people. That’s why learning is such an important value in Judaism – it’s empowering. There’s never been an attempt in Judaism to restrict access to G-d, knowledge and the power to read the way there was in certain societies in the Middle Ages, because everyone has a commandment to learn and to study and to read and to understand. Judaism recognises that the ability to learn is crucial in pursuit of G-d’s will. And the role of the Torah scholars is to make the Torah’s teachings accessible, and to empower people to access Torah on their own.
And so, therefore, the loss of Rebbe Akiva’s students is incalculable. And at this time of public mourning we remember that one of the highest values that we have is the study of Torah, and that Torah scholars are among the most important people in any Jewish society. That’s why if a Torah scholar walks into a room, the law is that we stand up for such a person. We stand up for a rabbi because that is part of our very culture, a part of who we are. A Jewish society that values an appreciation for Torah learning is one that will operate at the highest level; that will be sensitised to G-d’s will and attuned to the highest moral standards. And it is a Jewish society that will endure.
You can actually tell a lot about a nation by the kind of public holidays they choose to commemorate. In South Africa, for example, we have the likes of Freedom Day and Youth Day and the Day of Reconciliation, that reflect our great, historic struggle against Apartheid. And among the key historical events that we, the Jewish people, have chosen to commemorate are these national days of mourning for Rebbe Akiva’s students. It’s not so much the tragedy of their deaths as individuals that we are remembering, as it is what they represent – the loss of Torah learning that is the core of Jewish society. The loss of these Torah scholars is, in a sense, everything to us.