Chazal’s recounting of the story of the deaths of Rabi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand Talmidim is well-known. However, a careful examination of this story yields many questions. The answers to these questions, though, present a compelling new perspective on this decisive event in Jewish life that has many implications for our contemporary challenges as individuals and as a community.
A Classic Talmudic Story
The Gemara (Yevamot 62b) relates:
It was said that Rabi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gevet to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah, Rabi Yosei, Rabi Shimon [Bar Yochai] and Rabi Elazar ben Shamua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot." Rav Hama ben Abba or, it might be said, Rav Chiya ben Avin said: "All of them died a cruel death." Specifically what was it? Rav Nachman replied: "Croup."
Four glaring questions spring forth from the text. First, why describe the number of Rabi Akiva’s Talmidim with the cumbersome phrase, “12,000 pairs,” instead of the more straightforward 24,000 students? Next, why is it significant that the Talmidim died in the period between Pesach and Shavuot? Third, Rabi Akiva is well-known for emphasizing VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself (VaYikra 19:18), which he classifies as a Kelal Gadol BaTorah, a central pillar of Torah values. With such a Rebbe, how is it possible that Rabi Akiva’s Talmidim failed to show respect for each other?
The final question stems from the fundamental Torah principle that Hashem is fair. Thrice daily we recite, “Tzaddik Hashem BeChol Derachav,” “Hashem is righteous in all His ways” (Tehillim 145:17), teaching that, simply put, Hashem is fair. When Hashem punishes, He does so in a reasonable and proportionate manner. Chazal often phrase Hashem’s method of punishment as Middah KeNegged Middah, that the punishment matches the sin (see Mishnah Sotah 1:7, for example). In our story, does the lack of respect merit the horrific deaths suffered by the 24,000 Talmidim of Rabi Akiva?
The Attraction of Talmidim to Rabi Akiva
Before these students died, Rabi Akiva headed a Torah learning enterprise of massive proportions - tens of thousands of Talmidim situated at many locations. Of course, students flocked to Rabi Akiva in unprecedented numbers due to his unparalleled greatness. We must ask, however, what specifically was so attractive about Rabi Akiva’s learning style that convinced so many Talmidim to flock to him? Why would they join his Yeshivah if they would hardly have the opportunity to learn with him due to the Yeshivah’s many students and locations?
In order to explain this phenomenon, we must first note that Rabi Akiva is considered to be the greatest Torah scholar of his time. This is expressed by the teaching that Halachah KeRabi Akiva MeiChaveiro, the Halachah follows Rabi Akiva when he disagrees with one of his colleagues (Eiruvin 46b). Moreover, an examination of the intense Tannaitic debate between Rabi Eliezer and his colleagues as to whether one may violate Shabbat to take the preparatory steps necessary for offering a Korban Pesach (when Erev Pesach falls on Shabbat) reveals the superiority of Rabi Akiva (Pesachim 6:1-2). At first, the great Rabi Yehoshua fails in his argument to disprove his contemporary, Rabi Eliezer. However, Rabi Akiva, the student of Rabi Eliezer, emerges to do battle and ultimately is awarded the last word in the Mishnah due to his successful refutation of Rabi Eliezer’s arguments.
Moreover, Rabi Akiva represented the cutting edge of Torah learning during his time, as he introduced many new and out of the box approaches and ideas. The following Gemara (Bava Metzia 62a) is a sampling of Rabi Akiva’s innovations that generated great excitement, and caused people to flock to him.
"Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank, they would both die, but if one of them drank, [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: 'Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend's death,' until Rabi Akiva came and taught: 'Your brother should live with you (VaYikra 25:36)—your life takes precedence over the life of your friend's.'"
This phrase “until Rabi Akiva came and taught” appears also on Shabbat 64b, Pesachim 22b and Nedarim 27a, indicating the innovative and, to a certain extent, revolutionary style of Rabi Akiva that was one of the reasons he attracted multitudes of students.
The following Gemara (Menachot 29b) highlights the incomparable stature of Rabi Akiva.
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: When Moshe Rabbeinu ascended to Heaven, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, tying crowns onto the letters of the Torah. He said to God: ‘Creator of the Universe, who prevented You?’ "Hashem answered: 'There will be a person several generations from now and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name. He will extrapolate innumerable Halachot from each of the crowns.' Moshe responded: 'Master of the Universe, let me see him!' God: 'Take a step back.' Moshe thereupon went and sat at the back of the eighth row - and when he listened to Rabi Akiva’s Shiur, he did not understand the content of what was being discussed. He became exasperated. At one point during the class, however, a student asked Rabi Akiva: 'What is the source for that law?' To which the Rabi Akiva responded: 'It’s a Halachah transmitted from Moshe on Mt. Sinai.' Moshe was relieved.
If even Moshe Rabbeinu was eager to attend Rabi Akiva’s Shiurim, then certainly anyone in that generation would be excited for the opportunity to learn from Rabi Akiva. Moreover, the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to Hashem, “face to face” (Devarim 34:10), yet when he was at the back of Rabi Akiva’s Shiur, he expressed the incomparable level of Torah learning occurring in that Shiur, speaks volumes about Rabi Akiva’s teaching ability. Additionally, I suggest that the mention of specifically the eighth row hints (according to the Maharal in Neir Mitzvah) to the symbolism of the number eight as “LeMa’alah Min HaTeva,” something beyond nature, as if to say that Rabi Akiva’s learning was a supernatural phenomenon.
Finally, the fact that Rabi Akiva was also an expert in Kabbalah, as is clear from the following story recounted in the Gemara (Chagigah 14b), shows why so many students flocked to learn with him.
The Rabbis taught: Four [Sages] entered the Pardeis [literally "the orchard"]. (Rashi explains that they ascended to heaven by utilizing the [Divine] Name). They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acheir [Elisha ben Avuya, called Acheir—the other one—because of what happened to him after he entered the Pardeis] and Rabi Akiva. Rabi Akiva said to them [prior to their ascension]: "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Ben Azzai gazed [at the Divine Presence—Rashi] and died. Regarding him, the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [he lost his sanity - Rashi]. Regarding him, the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Mishlei 25:16). Acheir cut down the plantings [he became a heretic]. Rabi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.
The Gemara continues (Chagigah 15b),
“The ministering angels also wished to cast down Rabi Akiva, but the Holy One said, ‘Leave this elder alone, for he is worthy of making use of My glory’". The fact that Rabi Akiva was the only Tanna to emerge whole from a visit to Pardeis, an extraordinarily intense mystical experience, adds to the attractiveness of study with Rabi Akiva, even if one was only one of 24,000 students scattered over many locales. The mere chance of having even the most minimal contact with Rabi Akiva was regarded as more than worthwhile. It was well worth establishing even the most minimal connection with one of the greatest figures in Jewish history for whom it was already recognized in his time that there would be no one comparable for generations to come.
Rabi Akiva’s magnetic attraction was so intense and forceful that hardly any Torah students failed to join him (as indicated by the Gemarot referring to the Torah world as desolate following the deaths of the 24,000 students). Next week we will, IY”H and B”N, expand this point to help answer our four questions on the intense drive among Torah scholars to establish a connection with the incomparable Rabi Akiva.
 The Gemara presents stories in an exceedingly terse manner. A story that could easily fill a full length novel is often described by Chazal in but a few sentences. Thus, the inclusion of any detail in the exceedingly terse prose of the Gemara is significant and does not simply serve as literary embellishment. If we seek to read between the lines of the story and discover the deeper lessons of these stories, an explanation must be given for importance of the seemingly unnecessary details presented by the Gemara.
 Such as bringing the animal from outside the Techum (Shabbat boundary) to the Beit HaMikdash to be offered.
 It is no wonder that Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, traditionally assumed to be the author of the Zohar, was a student of Rabi Akiva in the latter’s later years.