Everyone knows the very important mitzvah to: “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18). But few know that thousands of Rabbi Akiba’s students died, because they failed to follow the equally important mitzvah that appears just 15 verses later: “‘When a foreigner (Ger) resides among you in your land, do not mistreat him. The foreigner residing among you (a Ger Toshav) must be treated like your native-born (Jew). Love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-4)
The Babylonian Talmud records that: “Rabbi Akiba had 12,000 pairs of disciples, who died between Pesach and Shavuot because they didn’t treat each other with respect.” (Yevamot 62b) How do we know that Akiba’s students died because they disrespect their fellow students whose parents were converts to Judaism, and whose conversion process they judged negatively.
Rav Sherira Gaon, the tenth century leader of the Babylonian Talmudic Academy in Pumbedita, explained that Akiba’s students did not die in a plague, but in a “shamda,” a government-sponsored persecution, (shamda appears in the Spanish versions of Yevamot 62b).
By being very suspicious, restrictive and unwelcoming of almost all converts converted by ‘other” rabbis; they alienated thousands of Gentile families, who felt that Jews were clannish, exclusive, and looked down on all non-Jews. So these thousands of non-Jews who would have opposed the shamda because it hurt one of their own family members; instead supported it.
Did Rabbi Akiba’s students not know that the full name of their great teacher was Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer: Rabbi Akiba son of Yosef the convert. Yet even today most Jews are ignorant of this fact.
It is stated in Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Seder HaDorot that Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.
Although most of the Talmudic sages are referred to as X ben Y; Rabbi Akiba is never quoted by his full name: Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.
Perhaps Rabbi Akiba’s students did not know Rabbi Akiba’s father was a convert because there is a tradition that one should not bring up a convert’s non-Jewish past.
This did not mean that you should not be proud of the many people who become Jewish, and whose descendants enrich the Jewish people for generations to come.
It meant only that you are not to refer to a convert’s past in a negative way, or to think that a person born to Jewish parents was a better Jew, than a Jew who had no, or only some, Jewish genes.
This is why the shamda stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer. A day that falls just before or after the weekly Torah reading,depending on if it is a leap year or not, that contains the two very important commandments to love your ‘brothers’ and the “non-Jews who live within the Jewish community.