Author Topic: How did Rabbi Akiva's Students Die?  (Read 2738 times)

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How did Rabbi Akiva's Students Die?
« on: May 04, 2007, 09:46:50 AM »
How did Rabbi Akiva's Students Die?

It says in Trachtate Yibamot (62) that "Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, from Gvat to Antipras, and all of them died in the same period because they did not show respect for one another ...they all died a difficult death. What was it? Rav Nachman says: 'ascara' ".

Ascara is mentioned in several places in the Talmud as an illness which causes suffocation. This is the source of the widespread assumption that they all died in a plague.
Despite this, Rav Shrira HaGaon (the period of the “Gaonim” directly followed that of the Talmud, and their opinions concerning  these subjects carry great weight), in commenting on that very same passage in the Talmud states that the students of Rabbi Akiva died from “shmad”. Elsewhere, he writes that they died from “decrees”. “Shmad”, too, usually connotes evil decrees that are decreed by a wicked regime.

To reconcile the differing opinions between the rabbis of the Talmud and the Gaonim, we must realize that each had its own approach and emphasis in what they wanted to convey. The primary function of our sages is to teach us the moral lesson that “the students of Rabbi Akiva did not show respect for one another.”  On the other hand, it says in the Talmud that “they died from Gvat until Antpras”? Why should the location interest us? Perhaps this is a hint to a specific event which occurred in this region? Is it a coincidence that this was precisely the location where the Bar-Cochba rebellion took place, in northern Yehuda?

In addition, sometimes the word "students" connotes "fighters" (Agadat Shir HaShirim, P 41, Shechter edition, see comment by Menachem Eliezer there). Regarding the word "ascara", there are several commentators who compare it to the word for "soldier", by way of linguistic  inferences. For sure, this is not conclusive proof, but it is clear that Rav Shriria does not hold like Rav Nachman.

The Rambam's Approach
The Rambam writes that Rabbi Akiva was Bar-Cocba’s “arms bearer” (Hilchot Milachim, 11, and Hilchot Taaniot, 5), something which goes totally unmentioned by the rabbis of the Talmud. The Rambam writes that Rabbi Akiva, the head rabbi of Israel, saw Bar-Cochba as no less than the Messiah! If so, is it not reasonable that his students took an active part in the rebellion, especially when they see it as the way to bring the final redemption? Is it not appropriate that God’s wars would be fought by those who fear Him? And not only Rabbi Akiva thought Bar-Cochba was Messiah, but “all the rabbis of that generation” agreed (Rambam).

Indeed, without the “hechsher” from the rabbis, it would have been impossible to launch a rebellion on a such a large scale, just a few years after the destruction of the Temple. The words of our sages were not spoken in a vacuum. From a historical point of view, to ignore the Bar-Cochba rebellion would be equivalent to ignoring an event like the Holocaust. This does not present a problem for the Talmud. Again, their job is not to give history lessons, but rather to stress what is truly important:  the moral lesson which lies behind the scenes, which is eternal. In any case, their words are laced with historical hints.

All this has been written to understand the words of Rav Shrira Gaon, whose approach is no less legitimate than any other. May Hashem enlighten us so that we will strive only for truth.