Counting the Omer with Respect

This past Monday evening, Jews around the world celebrated Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot.  The origin of this holiday is certainly disputed, and the reason for bonfires and cookouts is unclear, to say the least. Nonetheless,  when studying the history of this time period, between Passover and Shavuot, I came across something that was actually painfully relevant.  While there isn’t much said about Lag B’Omer in the Talmud, at least not directly, there is a story about Rabbi Akiva and his students for the time of the counting of the Omer.  The Talmud tells us the grim tale:

With regard to the 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Ḥama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria (Yevamot 62b).

Wouldn’t you know it?  A pandemic happened sometime during the Talmudic period and caused the death of 24,000 students studying under one of the greatest rabbis in history.  The Talmud tells us it was Diphtheria, a serious infection of the nose and throat that is now preventable by vaccine.  It spread by coughs or sneezes or sharing drinks.  According to history, the bacteria that causes Diphtheria spread through Spain, New England, California, and the UK  from 1613 to 1878, and major outbreaks occurred during both World Wars.  Unfortunately, the disease (while preventable with a vaccine) still exists today; luckily, however, due to vaccines and a clear understanding of the disease, the rates of infection are exceedingly small.

While we certainly cannot verify if this pandemic actually existed during Rabbi Akiva’s time, or if was just a tale told in the Talmud, or if it was truly Diphtheria or another unknown illness, what is clear is that COVID-19 was not for the first pandemic to between Passover and Shavuot to disrupt our lives or inflict death on the people we love. As such, the timelessness of our Jewish texts and lessons continues to this day. In fact, the Talmud continues the story of Rabbi Akiva’s student and states the following:

Rabbi Akiva says that the verse should be understood as follows: If one studied Torah in his youth he should study more Torah in his old age; if he had students in his youth he should have additional students in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, etc.” They said by way of example that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect (Yevamot 62b)

This text obviously deserves some historical distance, as we no longer understand death and disease to be the results of good or bad behavior.  This idea, however, Deuteronomic in nature, was strong in the minds of the sages, and it makes sense that they attempted to provide a reason for the senseless death of 24,000 righteous scholars.  But, this Talmudic tale struck me because while we no longer pray for the rain to fall, or believe our divine fates are determined by our behavior, there is another way to interpret the cause of death of the students that is more modern.  What would it mean that they “did not treat each other with respect,” during a pandemic?  The Talmudic historical distance would try to tell us that the pandemic was caused by the lack of respect, but our scientific 2020 eyes should see something different.  It is just as likely that a pandemic was occurring around the Akiva’s students, and their deaths were due to the lack of respect of another sort.  Certainly, we all await with trepidation the results of the experiment to “reopen” the country again during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Cases are rising, not decreasing, and we are 39th in the world for testing rates so our true number of cases is actually unknown. Further, we see new science coming out that shows people can be infectious and contagious for weeks without showing symptoms, and that the disease can cause heart attacks, strokes, and many other issues beside the common symptoms of respiratory distress.

So in light of all that, what would it mean to show respect to one another? There are those that openly and proudly refuse to wear masks, which are a preventable measure for spreading the disease to others.  There are those that refuse to social distance or comply with stay-at-home orders, citing the disease as overblown or a hoax.  There are those who block doctors and ambulances from reaching hospital wards. In each of these cases, we are seeing the numbers of COVID-19 rise, not fall.  Outbreaks occur after protests, or when businesses reopen.  There is, as the sages would say, an inherent lack of respect for humanity and the safety of others, and the Talmud teaches us that it will lead to death.

Perhaps the righteous students of Akiva, who felt they were doing the right thing by attempting to continue to study together rather than separate, fell victim to the pandemic because of this reason. This Talmudic tale, of the pandemic between Pesach and Shavuot, teaches us a valuable lesson during these uncertain times.  We must show respect to ourselves and to others by wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and practicing social distancing.  The pandemic still rages in our country and elsewhere; it’s not going anywhere.  It is my sincere hope that we can learn from the mistakes of Akiva’s students, and show respect to one another, respect to the danger of this pandemic, and stay safe.

As Rabbi Hillel said to one asking for the central meanings of Judaism, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”  May we carry this value through the Counting of the Omer.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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