The historical disaster the rabbis covered up

What’s the reason for the mournful period of the Omer? It may not be quite what the Talmud says

By Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen, May 3, 2012
Celebrating Lag ba’Omer, which marks a break in the mournful season of the Omer

Celebrating Lag ba’Omer, which marks a break in the mournful season of the Omer

The traditional way of teaching the background of the Omer period, between Pesach and Shavuot, is that its original, joyful harvest spirit was suddenly transformed into a period of semi-mourning on account of a tragedy that occurred to the disciples of Rabbi Akiva (135 CE).

The talmudic account of that tragedy is significantly vague and is a tapestry of statements by different sages, rather than a unified historical tradition. The first reference relates that "Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 disciples, from Gevat (in the Jezreel valley) to Antipatris (near Petach Tikvah), who all died at the same period of the year because they did not treat each other with respect."

This surely represents a most perplexing, if not terrifying, notion of a grossly disproportionate divine retribution. "Not showing respect," even on the part of sages, was hardly a capital crime! We are forced to the conclusion, therefore, that the rabbinic explanation of this tragedy is clearly a cover-up, a theological slant on a situation whose real import the sages did not wish to reveal.

Another talmudic source states, cryptically, that "they all died a terrible death". The nature of that death is clarified by a subsequent statement in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, that it was askera, croup. But several passages in the Talmud attest to the fact that it was recognised that croup primarily affects young children and is hardly a contagious disease which could have caused such a large-scale

Furthermore, it is inconceivable that even a variant adult version of such a respiratory condition could have affected students living so spread out, "from Gevat to Antipatris". Even more mystifying: how was it possible for any disease to have been restricted exclusively to talmudic students and not to the rest of the population? Yet the Talmud insists that it was only Akiva's disciples who were thus affected.

The abortive Bar Kochba revolt (135 CE) constituted the end of any effective Jewish resistance against Rome. It resulted in the total devastation of Judea and the execution of nearly all the leading rabbis of the generation, known as the Yavneh School, for having supported the revolt. This, in turn, was followed by a shift of the Jewish centre to the Galilee, which had largely avoided the devastation of the south.

It is clear, not only from the medical improbability of askera being responsible for such widespread deaths, but primarily from the fact that Akiva had hailed Bar Kochba, the leader of the Jewish revolt, as the messianic deliverer, that the real facts of the situation have been suppressed, and that his pupils were more than likely overwhelmed in battle, fighting a revolt which their teacher had instigated.

Support for this may be gleaned from the fact that Akiva's disciples were at that point spread all over the country and not in proximity to their illustrious teacher.

Our chief argument in support of this theory is their presence, specifically, at Gevat and Antipatris, two places of great strategic importance. Gevat, east of present-day Haifa, was well-placed as a military centre to cover the northern Galil region, where the highest proportion of the Jewish community were living at that period. Antipatris, in Roman times, stood at the junction of important highways leading to Jerusalem, Caesarea and Jaffa and is often mentioned as a military campsite.

We may speculate, therefore, that the Talmud consciously suppressed the record of Akiva's role in that revolt in an attempt to spare that illustrious and beloved spiritual hero the responsibility for the ensuing massacre of his students and followers. Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that Akiva's was probably the most tragic miscalculation made by any rabbi throughout Jewish history, and the talmudic explanation of the disciples' deaths - not treating each other with respect - is certainly the greatest cover-up!

Akiva's hawkish policy was diametrically opposed to that of previous religious leaders, such as the pacifistic Yochanan ben Zakkai, who succeeded, through negotiation, in winning concessions from the Romans. It was also bitterly condemned by most of Akiva's own colleagues who told him that "weeds will grow out of your jaws and the messianic deliverer will still not have arrived".

This may provide an important contemporary perspective on the concepts of da'at Torah and emunat chachamim ("having implicit faith in the views of sages") that are often articulated these days in order to garner support for political positions held by Charedi religious leaders or political parties. Rabbi Akiva's colleagues clearly did not view those principles as operative outside the purely halachic parameters, and did not feel constrained to follow their master's inclinations when it came to political or other issues.

Rabbi Cohen is the author of a forthcoming book The Siddur in Poetry

Last updated: 6:32pm, May 3 2012