Allen S. Maller

Log B’Omer: Rachel ends the epidemic killing Rabbi Akiba’s students

According to the Talmud (Yebamot 62b) “Rabbi Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, and they all died in during one period because of their failure to treat each other respectfully.”

The first twelve thousand of Rabbi Akiba’s students to die, were the young men who, inspired by Akiba’s support for Bar Kokhba’s revolt, joined the army of Shimon bar Kokhba to fight against the Romans.

But now things were different. The new student deaths, were not due to fighting with the Romans.

These students were dying of a strange mysterious disease. According to Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, perhaps Rabbi Chiyya bar Abin: “All of them (the second twelve thousand) died a cruel death.”

Even stranger, no one else except the disciples, and the disciples of the disciples of Rabbi Akiba, were dying of this disease.

The epidemic had started during the last Passover of the revolt against the Romans. Three to four hundred of Akiba’s students died daily.

The disease was unlike any other disease that people had ever died from. First one’s tongue swelled up and turned bright blue. Then one had great difficulty talking, eating and finally breathing.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta who had opposed Akiba’s proclaiming Bar Kokhba the Messiah saying, “Akiba, grass will come up between your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.”(Talmud Yerushalmi: Ta’anit 4:8/27) felt the first twelve thousand were due to Rabbi Akiba’s messianic illusions.

But Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta had no explanation for the second twelve thousand.

Others thought 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 or 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 two of his sharpest and most insightful disciples, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, 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 Yeshivot 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 Shimon bar Yohai found that all of those who had died in the mysterious epidemic, had expressed negative opinions about Jews who had converted to Judaism. or who were the descendants of non-Jews, especially Greeks and Romans, who had become Jewish in previous generations.

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai were 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; Jew or Non-Jew alike.

Plus, there is another specific Mitsvah that says, “Love the stranger as much as you love yourself.” This applies to non-Jews in general and to non-Jews who become Jewish in particular.

How sad it was then for Rabbi Meir, who himself was a descendant of converts to Judaism, to learn how 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.

But 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 Jewish genes.

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, told Rabbi Akiba why the epidemic was killing his students, and suggested that they pray that God would forgive the disrespectful students.

They did, but the epidemic did not end. They prayed again and again, but to no avail.

Then Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai suggested to Rabbi Akiba that he go to his wife Rachel, who had walked away from her wealthy father’s home to marry a poor illiterate sheepherder, whose own father was a Roman army officer named Tiberius.

Rabbi Akiba himself attributed all of his learning to Rachel his wife; because she had made him learn to read and then directed him to study Torah with the sages.

He asked her to pray on behalf of the disrespectful students.

Rachel said she would pray on the 33 day of the counting of the Omer, because that was the day when 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 Log B’Omer, and new cases of the epidemic stopped, although those students who were already stricken, died until Atzeret.

Fifteen centuries later, Rabbi Isaac Luria, father of Lurianic Kabbalah, and an expert in perceiving converts to Judaism who had reincarnated Jewish souls, added to the celebration of Log B’Omer, the yahrzeit of Shimon Ban Yohai, who played an important role in uncovering one of the most important reasons for the plague that killed so many of the disrespectful students of Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.