Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Seder HaDoros mentions that Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great; and then adds that Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert. Although most of the Talmudic sages are referred to as X ben Y, Rabbi Akiba is very rarely called by his full name; Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.
To understand why Rabbi Akiba’s students were dying [300 in the version in Tanhuma; a few hundred to a few thousand every month in the better known sources] we must keep in mind that Rabbi Akiba was the son of Joseph the convert; plus the thousands of young men who had joined the army of Shimon bar Kochba to fight against the Romans who had been killed during the first three years of the war.
That is one of the reasons why war is not a good thing. That is why one should only go to war as a last resort.
But this was different. These students, unlike the students who, inspired by Rabbi Akiba’s support for Bar Kochba, had joined Bar Kochba’s army, were not dying in battle with the Romans.
These students of Rabbi Akiba were dying of a strange mysterious disease. And, even stranger, no one other than Rabbi Akiba’s students were dying of this disease.
The epidemic started during Hanukah, when Rabbi Yohanan ben Tortha, a Roman who had converted to Judaism, openly opposed Rabbi Akiba’s support for Bar Kochbah’s revolt, saying: ‘Akiba, grass will l grow in your cheeks (above your grave, and the Messiah) will still not have come!’ (Lamentations Rabbah II:4).
At first only a few of Akiba’s students died each day, and no one noticed it among all the deaths caused by the revolt. Then the numbers increased to dozens a day, and after Passover to hundreds a day.
The disease was unlike any other disease that people died from. First one’s tongue swelled up and turned bright blue. Then one was not able to talk or to eat.
Some soldiers said the disease was some kind of Roman secret weapon. A form of black magic. Most people felt it was just bad luck.
But Rabbi Akiba knew better. He knew that it is always easy to blame bad luck on other people when things do not go the way you want them to go.
And while that is sometimes the case, those who are wise also know that they have to look within their own conscious and within their own soul to see if they themselves did not play a role in what was happening.
Rabbi Akiba appointed his sharpest disciple, Rabbi Meir to investigate the situation.
Rabbi Meir discovered that many of Rabbi Akiba’s students did not respect each other.
Those students who did not leave their Yeshivahs to wage war against the Romans disrespected those who did.
Those who refused to withdraw from their battle positions when their leaders said to abandon one village in order go to protect another village, disrespected those who did withdraw.
Those who were more pious disrespected those who were less pious.
And Rabbi Meir found that all of those who had died in the mysterious epidemic, had expressed negative opinions about Jewish converts to Judaism, or the descendants of converts to Judaism, especially Greeks and Romans, like Rabbi Yohanan ben Tortha, who felt the disease was Rabbi Akiba’s fault for supporting Bar Kochbah’s revolt.
Rabbi Meir was shocked to learn that so many of Rabbi Akiba’s students disrespected each other. Rabbi Akiba had always taught his disciples that one of the most important principles in the Torah was, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”
Indeed, many of Akiba’s students used to sing a song when they sat around a campfire in the spring and summer, that proclaims: “Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is a major principle in the Torah.”
This principle applied not just to all of your neighbors, but also to your fellow students, the people you work with, and everyone else you know, whether Jew or Non-Jew.
Plus, there is another specific Mitsvah that says, “Love the stranger as much as you love yourself.” and this applies to non-Jews who become Jewish because they decided to convert to Judaism.
How sad it was then for Rabbi Meir, who himself was a descendant of converts to Judaism, to learn that many of the students of Akiba’s students had transgressed Rabbi Akiba’s teachings.
Did they not know that the full name of their great teacher was Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer: Rabbi Akiba son of Yosef the convert.
Perhaps they did not know because there was 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 became Jewish and whose descendants enriched the Jewish people for generations to come.
It meant you were 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 Jewish genes.
Rabbi Meir told Rabbi Akiba why the epidemic was killing his students, and suggested that they both pray that God would forgive the disrespectful students.
They did so but the epidemic did not end. They prayed again and again, but to no avail.
Then Rabbi Akiba went to his wife Rachel, who had walked away from her wealthy home to marry a poor, illiterate sheepherder, whose own father was a Roman army officer named Tiberius. Rabbi Akiba asked Rachel to pray on behalf of the disrespectful students.
Rachel said she would pray on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, because that was the day that Akiba promised her he would learn to read and study Torah, and she had agreed to marry him.
Log B’Omer was also the same date a few years later, when Akiba’s father Tiberius, inspired by Rachel, changed his name to Yosef and converted to Judaism.
She prayed on that day and new cases of the epidemic stopped, although those who were already stricken died until Shavuot.
Fourteen centuries later the followers of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the father of Lurianic Kabbalah, turned the day into one of celebration in honor of the death of Shimon Bar Yochai, whom most observant Jews believe wrote the Zohar.
Rachel was a gilgul of Mother Eve of whom it was said: It is better to live outside the garden with Eve than inside it without her. Blessed be the One who brought us near together and taught me to know the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her soul! Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.” Adapted from Mark Twain