Steven Greenberg

Lag B’Omer teaches the delights and dangers of Torah study

How did Rabbi Akiva's students have such disrespect for each other that they died for their arrogance? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's tale holds the key
An Haredi man watches a bonfire celebrating the Lag B'Omer holiday in May 2013. (Flash90/ File)
An Haredi man watches a bonfire celebrating the Lag B'Omer holiday in May 2013. (Flash90/ File)

My first Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the marathon of Torah study observed on the night of Shavuot, was at Telshe Yeshiva. The Orthodox rabbi who had drawn me into observance sent me from Columbus to Cleveland for the holiday. It was an incredible experience to learn all night amid the hum of hundreds of other boys deciphering and relitigating ancient arguments.

Since that Shavuot, I discovered that Torah study has many delightful moods. It can feel like a treasure hunt or solving a dizzying puzzle, like a playful romp or a wrestling match. It can generate a lightning bolt of moral clarity and then ask for the vulnerability of the analyst’s couch. There is an eroticism to learning. A text that, after much effort, reveals its hidden secrets can be wildly exhilarating. The Psalmist writes, “Were not Your Torah my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psalms 119:92).

However, while the period of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, promises these delights at its end, it begins with anxiety, sadness, and danger.

For the first 32 days of this period, there are customs of mourning that revolve around the lives of two of the most influential and creative sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. These two world-creating thinkers, one in law and the other in mysticism, are connected to the Omer by the dangers (and, may I add, very male dangers) inherent in the passions of traditional Torah study that made them great.

Akiva’s 24,00 students

Rabbi Akiva is one of the most charismatic, imaginative, and prolific sages of the Talmud. Despite his enormous popularity, we are told that a terrible plague took the lives of 24,000 of his students between Pesach and Shavuot (Yevamot 63b). The Talmud does not ordain any ongoing customs of mourning for this tragedy, but after the completion of the Talmud, the Geonim (800 -1000 CE) prohibited weddings, haircuts, and live music during the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot in commemoration of this enormous loss.

Later, some medieval halakhists report that the plague actually abated on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer (hence the holiday name Lag B’Omer, “lag” equaling 33 in the Hebrew numeric lettering system). Consequently, they marked that day as a day of joy. Medieval kabbalists had a parallel tradition that it was on the 33rd day of the Omer that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the claimed author of the Zohar died. On the day of his death, we are told that Shimon revealed his deepest secrets and urged his students to celebrate his passing yearly with bonfires, singing, music, and dance.

There is much to ponder in this strange mix of narratives and customs. First and foremost is the plague. Why did 24,000 students die? We are taught that they died because they did not behave respectfully toward one another. The number itself is curious because it appears in another story, the Talmud’s most romantic rabbinic tale about Rabbi Akiva and his wife, Rahel.

Akiva was a humble shepherd of the wealthy aristocrat, Kalba Savua. Kalba’s daughter, Rahel, had taken a liking to the young shepherd, and agreed to marry him, despite her father’s objections, if he would study Torah. Disinherited by her father, Rahel followed her heart. There are sweet accounts of Akiva picking the straw from Rahel’s hair after they slept on a mattress of straw due to their poverty. He famously promised her that someday he would give her a jeweled garland, a “Jerusalem of Gold.”

Following these depictions of intimacy and love, we learn that Akiva left her for 12 years to study Torah. When he came back to Rahel, accompanied now by 12,000 students, he overhears her saying that if it were up to her, he would continue learning for another 12 years. Without a moment’s hesitation, he returns to the yeshiva without a word between them. The indirectness of this communication is intentionally jarring. When Akiva finally returns a second time to Rahel, he arrives with 24,000 students. We are told that his students, not knowing who she was, did not treat her with respect, at which point he kisses her feet and shares with them that all that he and they possess is hers.

It is just these 24,000 students, the ones shaped by Akiva’s abandonment of his wife for 24 years, that are lost in a plague. We are told that they died as punishment for their lack of courtesy and deference to one another. The story is a shocking counter-testimony. How could Rabbi Akiva, a veritable hero of Torah study, produce such a huge crop of troubled fruit? Is his detachment from his “beloved” wife responsible for the plague? Moreover, if the esteemed Akiva is their teacher, then his erudition appears to have served his students very poorly, making them arrogant, opinionated, and unable to listen respectfully to each other.

While the Talmud does not make the accusation directly, how is this not an indictment of Rabbi Akiva and, by extension, the Torah that he taught? Is this perhaps the fundamental reason for the Gaonic tradition of mourning during the Omer? Is there a worry that while a rich legal tradition is required to ground a just society, there are dangers inherent in this male-dominated, combative tradition of argument that we need to recognize as we approach Shavuot? Rabbi Shimon’s story helps to underscore and expand the message.

‘Return to your cave!’

Three rabbis were sitting together when one of them commented on Roman civilization. Rabbi Yehudah said “How pleasant are the works of this nation [the Romans]: They build streets, bridges, and bathhouses.” Rabbi Yose was silent and Rabbi Shimon responded sharply: “All that they have done was in their own selfish interests. They build streets to put harlots on them, bathhouses for their pleasure, and bridges to collect tolls.” This conversation was heard and repeated to the authorities and “they decreed that Yehudah who exalted us will be exalted; Yose who was silent will be exiled, and Shimon who was critical will be executed.”

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar hid from the Roman authorities in a cave and studied Torah for 12 years, sustained by a nearby spring and a carob tree. When they finally were able to leave the cave they encountered people plowing fields and planting. The two sages are appalled by the peasants’ earthly concerns, “neglecting eternal life in order to engage in temporary life.” We are told that “whatever the pair set their eyes upon was immediately burnt.”

A heavenly voice then said to them, “Did you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave!” After another year in seclusion they emerge a second time, but this time something has changed. When they see a man carrying bundles of sweet-smelling myrtle branches in preparation for Shabbat they are comforted to see how precious the commandments are to the Jewish people.

Rabbi Shimon’s narrative begins with his biting critique of Roman technology and culture as naked self-interest. After 12 years of study in seclusion, his distemper worsens. By then he cannot even tolerate the human self-interests of the Jewish farmers he encounters outside the cave. God intervenes, sending him back to the cave to protect the world from the dangers of his intense Torah study. This last year in the cave imposed not by Caesar but by God has a profound impact on the rabbi. When Shimon emerges the second time, his gaze no longer burns, it heals.

The days of the Omer should have been joyous. The biblical farmer may have had anxieties regarding the success of the coming harvest, but the rabbis surely added an anxiety of their own. The Torah that will be received at the end of the Omer, is dangerous if approached improperly. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, what does it mean “This is the Torah that Moses put before them.” If they are worthy it becomes an elixir of life; if they are not worthy, it becomes a poison (BT Yoma 72b).

Torah can devalue human enterprises and relationships and fracture social cohesion. We learn that the scholastic acuity of 24,000 Torah scholars cannot protect them from their own arrogance. Intense Torah study can lead to contempt for the unlettered Jew and disrespect for contending learned opinions. These dangers have surely not abated, either broadly in the academy or more narrowly in the yeshiva. The rabbis openly admit that learning is no guarantee of character.

Both men eventually discover that Torah study can be healed of its potential dangers. Later in his life, Rabbi Shimon taught that “labor ennobles” (BT Nedarim 49b); that “helping one’s fellow Jew is how one helps God”; and that “no good ever comes of strife” (Exodus Rabbah 30:17). Rabbi Akiva lived long enough after the plague to provide the world with just a few students in whom he invested his time and energy, who treated each other with respect. And finally, it is Akiva who taught that the fundamental principle — the animating purpose of the whole Torah — is love (JT Nedarim 30b).

As the anxiety and mourning abates on Lag B’Omer, we can move toward Shavuot, with renewed passion for the sort of Torah study that preserves mutual respect and values diversity and explicitly includes women, a Torah study that sharpens minds but not tongues; that exhilarates in convictions, but restrains judgment; that honors both genius and kindness. Such a practice of learning can be an elixir of life, a medicine to heal the plague of certainty that undermines respect, stifles curiosity, and closes minds.

May all our learning this Shavuot fulfill the verse that resounds every time we stand before the closing ark to carry the Torah into life. “The Torah is a tree of life to those who hold fast, and those that uphold it are delighted. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its footpaths are peace” (Proverbs 3:18).

About the Author
Bio: Rabbi Steven Greenberg is the author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, (University of Wisconsin Press) for which he won the Koret Jewish Book Award for Philosophy and Thought in 2005. Rabbi Greenberg is presently the Founding Director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBTQ+ community support, education and advocacy organization and lives with his partner, Steven Goldstein, and daughter, Amalia, in Boston.
Related Topics
Related Posts