Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Students
The Shulchan Aruch, basing himself on the language of Tur, writes in Orach Chaim 493:
סעיף א נוהגים שלא לישא אשה בין פסח לעצרת עד ל”ג לעומר, מפני שבאותו זמן מתו תלמידי רבי עקיבא; אבל לארס ולקדש, שפיר דמי, ונשואין נמי, מי שקפץ וכנס אין עונשין אותו. הגה: מיהו מל”ג בעומר ואילך הכל שרי (אבודרהם ב”י ומנהגים).
It is customary not to marry a woman between Pesach and Shavuot until Lag BaOmer, because in that time, the students of Rabbi Akiva died. However, to do “erusin” and “kiddushin” (engagement and betrothal) is fine. And even for “nisuin” (marriage), if someone did so, we do not punish him. Rema: however, from Lag Ba’Omer onwards, all this is permitted (Abudraham, Beit Yosef & Minhagim).
Later it is added that one does not cut one’s hair, as well. And this latter part would extend to shaving. Before getting into some of the practical aspects (notice that the Shulchan Aruch doesn’t mention music, for example), focus should be put on the reason, “the students of Rabbi Akiva died”.
What did they die of?
The Gemara in Yevomos 62B, and parallel texts, tell us that these 24,000 students died from a plague of askera (croup). The Gemara is of interest to the commentaries for several reasons. For one thing, instead of just saying 24,000 students died, it tells us that 12,000 pairs of students died. Also of note is the reason given–that they did not treat each other with respect.
I would like to focus on the a different point, however. Rabbi Sherira Goan writes in a letter that Rabbi Akiva’s students died as a result of religious persecution (shmad). This basically means that they were killed by the Romans, and more to the point, in a war. Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, arguably America’s most prominent Posek before the advent of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, writes in an essay (as recorded by Rabbi Hershel Schachter in this audio at the 1:08:00 mark) that when the Gemara says the students died in a plague it is because (verbatim rendition of Rabbi Schachter’s recollection of the Rabbi Henkin’s article in quotes) “the Rabbis in the Gemara were afraid to write the truth, so they wrote such a ridiculous version of the story that everybody knew that it is just a code…that they died in the Bar Kochba Revolt”.
The Bar Kochba Revolt
The Bar Kochba Revolt began in 132 AD, and ended, in 135 or 136. Initially, the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule was met with considerable success. Bar Kochba had managed to amass hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and was victorious in a number of battles. Such was Bar Kochba’s success that Jews from the diaspora were said to have traveled to Israel to fight under his banner, similar to how American and British Jews traveled to Israel in 1948 and in 1973 to participate in the wars. But perhaps the greatest indicator of Bar Kochba’s success is that fact that two Roman Legions–a legion comprising some 5,200 Roman troops and a sizeable, sometimes matching, force of auxiliary troops–may have been destroyed by the Jewish army during the course of the rebellion. The two legions are Legio IX Hispana (Spanish 9th Legion) and Legio vigesima secunda Deiotariana (“Deiotarus’ Twenty-Second Legion), and if indeed it is the case that both legions were annihilated by the Jews it would put the Roman battlefield defeats in the Bar Kochba Revolt on par with the disaster of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) in which three Roman legions were obliterated by the Germans.
Who is Bar Kochba, that he was capable of achieving such considerable feats?
Here is a part of the Jewish Encyclopedia entry on Bar Kochba
“…it is certain that the name Bar Kokba is only an epithet derived from R. Akiba’s application of the verse …even the meager data here presented are so uncertain that the very name of the hero is doubtful. Everything else pertaining to him is mythical. Like the slaveprince, “Eunus of Sicily,” he is said to have blown burning tow [Editor: hemp] from his mouth (Jerome, “Apol. ii. adv. Ruf.”); such was his strength that he was able to hurl back with his knees the stones discharged from the Roman ballistæ (Lam. R. ii. 2). Bar Kokba is said to have tested the valor of his soldiers by ordering each one to cut off a finger; and when the wise men beheld this, they objected to the self-mutilation involved, and advised him to issue an order to the effect that every horseman must show that he could tear a cedar of the Lebanon up by the roots while riding at full speed. In this way he eventually had 200,000 soldiers who passed the first ordeal, and 200,000 heroes who accomplished the latter feat (Yer. Ta’anit iv. 68d). It must have been during the war, when he had already performed miracles of valor, that R. Akiba said of him, “This is the King Messiah”…
What? Rabbi Akiva called Bar Kochba Moshiach? Indeed, the Gemara in Yerushalmi is explicit:
“Rav Shimon Ben Yochai taught: “Akiva my master would expound the verse a star will come from Jacob as ‘Koziba will come from Jacob.’ When Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziba he would say, ‘There is the King Messiah.'”” (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit chapter 4:5 page 68d)
Rambam takes it a couple of steps further, Melachim uMilchamot 11:3
ואל יעלה על דעתך שהמלך המשיח צריך לעשות אותות ומופתים ומחדש דברים בעולם או מחיה מתים וכיוצא בדברים אלו אין הדבר כך שהרי רבי עקיבא חכם גדול מחכמי משנה היה והוא היה נושא כליו של בן כוזיבא המלך והוא היה אומר עליו שהוא המלך המשיח ודימה הוא וכל חכמי דורו שהוא המלך המשיח עד שנהרג בעונות כיון שנהרג נודע להם שאינו ולא שאלו ממנו חכמים לא אות ולא מופת
One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.
Proof can be brought from the fact that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greater Sages of the Mishnah, was one of the supporters of King Bar Kozibah [literally: Rabbi Akiva carried the weapons of King Bar Kozibah] and would describe him as the Messianic king. He and all the Sages of his generation considered him to be the Messianic king until he was killed because of sins. Once he was killed, they realized that he was not the Mashiach. The Sages did not ask him for any signs or wonders.
The idea that, as the Rambam puts it, Bar Kochba had unanimous support from “all the sages of his generation” must be taken under advisement. In fact, the previously quoted Gemara in Yerushalmi tells us that there were Rabbis that dissented. “Rav Yochanan ben Torta said: “Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not come”.
In fact, as Rambam says, Bar Kochba’s death puts to rest any talk of the arrival of Moshiach. Hid death also signaled the end of the rebellion.
Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 AD) did eventually succeed in putting down the rebellion. In fact, Hadrian may have been the one to instigate the rebellion. But it is more complicated than that.
The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 64) tells us:
בימי רבי יהושע בן חנניה גזרה מלכות הרשעה שיבנה בית המקדש
In the days of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya the evil kingdom decreed that the Temple be rebuilt.
The Jewish Encyclopedia entry on Hadiran has more on this
“….statement of Epiphanius (“De Mensuris et Ponderibus,” § 14) that the emperor commissioned the proselyte Akylas (Aquila)—who, according to the rabbinical legend, was related to him—to supervise the building at Jerusalem, this of course referring to the city and not to the Temple. Other Christian sources, as Chrysostom, Cedrenus, and Nicephorus Callistus, say that the Jews had intended to build the Temple themselves; but a passage in the Epistle of Barnabas (xvi. 4)—though its interpretation is disputed among scholars—seems to indicate that the Jews expected the pagans to rebuild the Temple.”
(This was not the only time that a Roman emperor had offered to build the third Beis Hamikdash. Julian the Apostate (reigned from 361 to 363 AD) offered to build the third Beis Hamikdash and even appointed his friend and general, Alypius, to oversee the construction of the third Temple. Did the Jews take this seriously? Gregory of Nazianzus (circa 329 to 390) writes that the Jews “in large number and with great zeal set about the work”. Ephraem of Syria (circa. 306 to 373) writes that the Jews “raged and raved and sounded the trumpets”.)
Whatever talk there was of building the Temple soon faded, however, and Hadrian instead set about constructing a pagan Temple where the second Beis Hamikdash had been. There is some question as to when that happened though. Either it happened before the Bar-Kochba revolt, in which case the war was a response to the Emperor of Rome attempting to build a polytheistic monstrosity, or it was built after the war ended, in which case it was built to punish the Jews, and reinforce the Roman triumph in the war.
For a triumph in war it was, for the Romans. The Roman victory against the Jews was complete, and never again would be there a Jewish rebellion in the Holy Land against Roman rule. Convelsy, after the Bar-Kochba saga, the Jews would have to wait 18 centuries before they would field an army in the field.
The end of the Rebellion
After the initial Roman losses, Hadrian summoned his best general, Julius Severus, from Britain to put down the rebellion. Some say Hadrian himself commanded the Roman force. A mighty Roman host, with legions from afar afield as the Danube, descended on Israel. The Roman force sent to crush the rebellion was larger than the army commanded by Titus when he destroyed the second Beis Hamikdash in 70 AD. After many battles (some say around fifty) and sieges, the Romans conquered and subjugated Israel, killing untold numbers of people. The Roman historian Cassius Dio, puts the number of Jews who fell in battle at 580,000. The Gemara in Gittin (57B) that in the fall of city of Beitar alone, 4,000,000 (some say 40,000,000) Jews were killed. As a postscript to this, it should be noted that the events surrounding the Asarah Arugah Malchos were in the context of the Roman prosecution in this era.
Until recently, it was always a point of fact that the last time the Jews mustered troops on the battlefield was during the Bar Kochba Revolt close two millennium ago. But with the advent of Zionism, that is no longer true. The Jews, once again, have armies. And, unlike Bar Kochba’s armies, our armies have F-16’s, not to mention atom bombs.
I had planned on talking a little about the Halachic elements of Sefirah, but as this piece has stretched out longer than I had anticipated, I will leave that to another post.