Rabi Akiva and His Talmidim—A Fresh Perspective: Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week we began our analysis of Chazal’s well-known recounting of the story of the deaths of Rabi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand Talmidim. We noted that a careful examination of the story yields many questions. The answers to these questions, however, present a compelling new perspective on this decisive event in Jewish history that has many implications for our contemporary challenges as both 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 Shavu’ot ." 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 Shavu’ot[1]? 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?

Rabi Akiva’s Educational Methodology before the Tragedy

In order to resolve these questions, we can posit that the tragic loss of 24,000 Talmidim prompted Rabi Akiva to make a radical change in his educational methodology. We noted last week that Rabi Akiva’s unparalleled greatness attracted students in droves. The students were exceptionally eager to draw close to Rabi Akiva and his learning. I suggest that Rabi Akiva sought to harness this drive among the Talmidim for the attention they craved in order to motivate them to achieve great heights in Torah scholarship. Rabi Akiva sought to create competition for precious access to him as he traveled constantly from the scattered branches of his Yeshivah. Chazal (Bava Batra 22a) do indeed teach that Kinat Soferim Tarbeh Chochmah, competition among Talmidim motivates greater achievement in Torah learning.

It is for this reason, I suggest, that the Gemara describes the Talmidim as 12,000 pairs and not 24,000 Talmidim. Rabi Akiva’s system was to pair off his Talmidim in a competitive environment in which they would seek to surpass each other, in order to achieve the elusive attention from their remote Rebbe, Rabi Akiva. Rabi Akiva sought to create a Torah center of unparalleled quality and quantity[2] with this system and methodology. It is possible that Rabi Akiva even dreamed that he could mass produce Torah scholars of his own caliber with this system.

However, this system failed. Rabi Akiva was not able to properly monitor his Talmidim since he was spread so thin amongst his many Yeshivot and multitudes of students. The intense competition for the attention of Rabi Akiva led to the breakdown of respect to the extent that Hashem felt that the situation was intolerable. Rabi Akiva’s numerous Talmidim represented the new wave and next generation of Torah study. These Talmidim, though, no matter how accomplished in Torah study, represented a severe deviation from true Torah values.

Advance in Torah study without a concurrent advance in Middot, character development, may be acceptable in a secular academic environment, but certainly not in a Yeshiva. Hashem could not tolerate this new style of a rough-edged Talmid Chacham. Hashem could not allow the ancient Mesorah, tradition, of Torah scholars who excel in Torah study and possess sterling character traits to become eviscerated in the cauldron of intense competition among masses of students. Hashem had no choice other than to forcefully reject these Talmidim and make it very apparent that He was profoundly displeased with their conduct. Nothing less than the integrity and survival of proper Torah study and observance was at stake.

Rabi Akiva’s Methodology after the Tragedy

Rabi Akiva deeply understood and internalized this message. He knew that he could not continue as he did before. After the tragedy, he changed his educational paradigm and created a small Yeshiva that had only one location. In such an environment, the Talmidim could thrive and prosper not only intellectually, but as kind and thoughtful people as well. The fact that the new Talmidim survived proves that this new methodology succeeded. The fact that Rabi Akiva’s Talmidim surrounded him and engaged in thoughtful conversation at the time of his martyrdom (Berachot 61b) is a testament to the close relationship that Rabi Akiva forged with his newer Talmidim.

Moreover, it was only after the tragedy that Rabi Akiva began emphasizing the importance of high quality interpersonal interactions. Rabi Akiva began stressing that VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha is a most fundamental Torah principle only after the loss of his 24,000 students. Prior to the tragedy, Rabi Akiva was focused on intellectual achievement and a simple Pasuk of VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha was deemed too elementary for Rabi Akiva to emphasize to his students. After the tragedy, though, he realized the necessity to repeatedly emphasize (as noted by the Ramchal in his introduction to his Messilat Yesharim) central Torah themes no matter how obvious and basic they seem.

It is no coincidence that Rashi, who does not write an extraneous word in his commentaries, mentions that Rabi Akiva is the one who emphasized that VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha is a major Torah principle (VaYikra 19:18 s.v. VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha). I suggest that Rashi specifically mentions Rabi Akiva to allude to the fact that he was the sage who learned the lesson of the paramount importance of this Pasuk in a most painful manner.

Rabi Akiva Stresses Middot Tovot to His New Talmidim

We find that Rabi Akiva stresses the importance of interpersonal relationships. In Pirkei Avot (3:18), he is cited as frequently[3] saying how beloved all of the Jewish People as well as all of humanity are to Hashem (and consequently how precious humanity must be to us, who are required to follow in Hashem’s ways, as well). I suggest that Rabi Akiva adopted this as a mantra only after the tragedy.

The Gemara (Ta’anit 25b) relates:

Rabi Eliezer led the congregation in the lengthy Amidah prayer for fast days, but his prayers [for rain during a severe drought] were not answered. At that point, his student, Rabi Akiva, prayed for rain, and rain began to fall. When the rabbis present began to discuss why the student, Rabi Akiva, was successful, while Rabi Eliezer was not, a heavenly voice called out that it was not an issue of greatness; rather, Rabi Akiva was more relaxed and forgiving, while Rabi Eliezer was more exact and demanding. God responded to each of them according to his personality.

Again, I suggest that this personality trait became most evident only after the tragedy when Rabi Akiva adjusted his educational approach and priorities.

Finally, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:15) records that when Rabi Akiva died, Kavod HaTorah, honor and respect for Torah, ended; meaning that no later figure matched the extreme importance that Rabi Akiva attached in both word and deed to Kavod HaTorah. Rabi Akiva’s zeal for Kavod HaTorah is readily understood in light of his horrific experience with his first set of Talmidim.

 Conclusion—The Talmidim Died between Pesach and Shavu’ot

While we have answered all of the questions that we posed regarding the Gemara’s recounting of the death of Rabi Akiva’s Talmidim, we have yet to explain the significance of their dying between Pesach and Shavu’ot. An answer emerges from the fact that during this time, we emulate our ancestors’ post- Yetzi’at Mitzrayim spiritual preparation for Matan Torah at Sinai (see Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 273). During this time, the 24,000 Talmidim died since their behavior deemed them most unworthy to serve as the bearers and transmitters of the grand Mesorah from Sinai to subsequent generations.

Every year during this time period, we remember and mourn the students’ tragic deaths and, more importantly, we remember the reason for their terrible loss. As we renew and reinvigorate our commitment to Torah and its transmission during the period between Pesach and Shavu’ot , we are to internalize the lesson of the loss of the 24,000 students. We solemnly recall their deaths and remember that Hashem deems us worthy students and teachers of Torah only if we are as committed to character development as well as cerebral progress in Torah. 

[1] 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 concise 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 the importance of the seemingly unnecessary details presented by the Gemara.

[2] Note that in Rabi Akiva’s years as a Talmid. the debate raged as to whether to allow unlimited access to the Beit Midrash or limit entree to only the most exceptional students (see Berachot 27b-28a). Rabi Akiva enthusiastically embraced the inclusionary view of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah.

[3] This is how the phrase of, “Hu Hayah Omeir,” so characteristic of Pirkei Avot, is commonly explained. 

Iyov—A Model Servant of Hashem? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Rabi Akiva and His Talmidim – A Fresh Perspective: Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter