1. Focus on R. Akiva
2. The Spokesman
3. Who Were the "Students"?
4. His Greatness
Focus on R. Akiva
The noted Tannaitic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is the central focus of modern Lag Ba’omer celebrations; each year, thousands flock to his grave in the northern Israeli town of Meron. In halacha (Jewish law) the solemn "Tachanun" prayer is not recited on Lag Ba’omer; until this day, we are also accustomed to follow mourning practices in memory of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died during this period of time some two thousand years ago. According to tradition, the deaths ceased occurring on Lag Ba’omer.
Rather surprisingly, the halacha does not refer to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as having a specific link to Lag Ba’omer. When Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook would speak to students about the significance of the day, he would always stress Rabbi Akiva and the tragic deaths of his students. Rav Tzvi Yehuda would say that Rabbi Shimon - Rabbi Akiva's student - most strongly symbolized the continuation of Rabbi Akiva.
Maimonedes (Rambam) in the fourteenth chapter of the Laws of Kings writes:
"You should not begin to even think that the Messianic king must perform supernatural signs and wonders or introduce any new phenomenon to the world or resuscitate the dead... [When Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda would read this Rambam, he would add "as the fools think." I asked him why he would always say that. One of the students said that he added these words himself. Later, I received the uncensored edition of the Rambam, only to discover that these are the very words of the Rambam himself. He was referring to various confused perspectives that claimed that the Mashiach must perform miraculous signs and wonders in order to prove himself as the Mashiach.]
Rabbi Akiva was a great Mishnaic scholar. He would "carry the vessels" of Bar Kochba. According to Ravi Tzvi Yehuda, this term is also used in reference to the commentators on the Rambam in his epic work, Mishneh Torah. Rabbi Akiva performed the same function for Bar Kochba as Rambam’s commentators did for Rambam. In other words, just as the "vessel carriers" of the Rambam elucidated the logic of the Rambam, Rabbi Akiva presented Bar Kochba’s views to the public; put another way, Rabbi Akiva was the rebellion’s ideologue. He gave the movement its spiritual stamp of legitimacy.
Who Were the "Students"?
The historian Graetz writes that the term "the students of Rabbi Akiva" does not literally refer to the students of his Torah, but the ones who fought alongside him in the rebellion. Another historian says that the group referred to is that of actual students who sat in yeshiva and learned under Rabbi Akiva. Rav Tzvi Yehuda noted that there is truth in both approaches: these men were indeed yeshiva students, but they also actively participated in Bar Kochba’s rebellion, the goal of which was to maintain the Jewish hold on Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda would note that Rambam's view that the Mashiach need not be a performer of miracles - derived from Rabbi Akiva's relationship to Bar Kochba, and his dedication to the role of the ideologue of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The Mashiach must be somebody with national leadership qualities. Bar Kochba was perceived to be the Mashiach until he was killed, and when that happened, it became clear that he was not the Mashiach. None of the scholars of the time ever asked Bar Kochba for any sort of outward sign that he was the Mashiach.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda would also point to Lag Ba’omer as the memorial day for all those Jews who sacrificed their lives throughout the generations, from the students of Rabbi Akiva, to the young people of our generation. It is possible to say, in essence, that the Bar Kochba rebellion never really ended, and that today we are still experiencing its continuation.
Let’s expound a little more on the greatness of Rabbi Akiva: The Talmud in Menachot states: "Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe Rabeinu 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?’ [The Maharsha explains that Moshe received the entire Torah on Mt. Sinai - including everything that a skilled student would eventually clarify. All of a sudden, Moshe sees "crowns" on the letters, representing another layer of Torah truth, its greatest secrets. So he asks Hashem: ‘Who prevented You [from revealing these secrets to man in the basic text of the Torah that You have to add on information through the addition of such crowns - (Rashi)? What's more, You wrote the Torah in order to reveal it to man. These secrets are beyond man’s comprehension and therefore seem superfluous".]
"God 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.' (This is a difficult statement. Moshe Rabeinu is speaking to God face to face and yet when he is about to meet Rabbi Akiva, he is told to "move back") Moshe thereupon went and sat at the back of the eighth row - and when he listened to Rabbi Akiva’s class, he did not understand the content of what was being discussed. He became exasperated. At one point during the class, however, a student asked Rabbi Akiva: 'What is the source for that law?' To which the teacher responded: 'It’s a halacha transmitted from Moshe on Mt. Sinai.' Moshe was relieved." (He understood that the apparently "new"ideas being conveyed by Rabbi Akiva were in fact a continuation of the very Torah that he taught Israel.)
"Moshe responded: 'Master of the Universe - You have shown me his Torah - now please show me his reward'...Moshe was then presented with an image of the Romans raking Rabbi Akiva’s flesh with hot combs...Moshe said: 'Master of the Universe - this is Torah and its reward?' God responded: 'Be silent, this is what I have decided to do!' (There are events in Jewish life that are above human comprehension - even beyond the comprehension of Moshe Rabeinu!)
The Talmud says: Nobody can come close to the spiritual level of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, who died "Al Kiddush Hashem" - while sanctifying God's name. Lag Ba’omer allows us to reflect upon and appreciate all of those Jews who, such as Rabbi Akiva and his students, sacrificed their lives on behalf of the Jewish people.