Leonard Grunstein
Leonard Grunstein

Respect, the Quintessential Theme of Lag B’Omer

The period of the Omer is associated with the observance of certain mourning practices[i] to mark the death of twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students in Talmudic times[ii].

However, the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag B’Omer[iii]) is an exception, because the dying stopped on that day[iv]. Lag B’Omer is also said to be the Yahrzeit[v] of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, an illustrious figure in the Talmud. He was one of Rabbi Akiva’s latter set of students, during the penultimate part of his life, who carried on with the mission of upholding[vi] and filling the Land of Israel[vii] with Torah. For these reasons, it is customary to observe Lag B’Omer as a semi-festival[viii].

What, though, was so special about these twenty-for thousand students and what did they do that was so egregiously wrong? There were so many others who died during the period of the Hadrianic persecutions and Bar Kochba rebellion against the oppressive Roman rule over Israel[ix]; why was this group so noteworthy? Indeed, consider, the Ten Martyrs, who included Rabbi Akiva himself, were not accorded a similar annual extended semi-mourning period[x].

The Talmud[xi] reports that Rabbi Akiva’s twelve thousand pairs[xii] of unnamed students, from a wide swath of the country, suffered from a disqualifying character flaw; they disrespected each other. The Midrash[xiii] describes the issue, using an idiomatic expression that may be loosely translated in Yiddish as ‘Nisht Fargining’ or in English as being begrudging or spiteful to one another[xiv]. As a result, it was Rabbi Akiva’s latter set of five named disciples[xv], including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who were able to transmit the Torah to future generations.

Affording others respect is not an inborn character trait. It must be learned and often earned. The most natural way to learn respect is to observe it being offered by one parent to another in a family setting. The learning process begins with imitation and is positively reinforced through reciprocal showings of respect, expressions of gratitude and otherwise rewarding the good behavior. Through this process of training, the according of respect to others becomes second nature. On the other hand, if an offer of respect is countered with a showing of disrespect, the reaction can be chilling and the negative effect is not easily undone. More insidious is a parent, teacher or other person, in a position of trust or authority, demanding respect, but cavalierly disrespecting others. Do as I say, but not as I do, is hardly an effective means of inculcating an essential life lesson.

Respect for others requires mindfulness. Consider, how easy it is casually to ignore the presence of another person and thereby functionally disrespect them. At the same time, it is important to recognize that fervid attempts at flattery are no substitute for genuine respect.

Respect is also a foundational element of good relationships and team building. Evincing a lack of respect is not only an extremely negative affectation, it also detracts from the willingness of others to work together and achieve common goals. It takes little energy to demean someone; just moving lips and shallow thinking. The effect is often infectious, drawing others into the web of disreputable behavior, thereby reinforcing the toxic atmosphere.

Why then do people act disrespectfully to others, when it serves no useful purpose? Does it make the mocker feel superior to those he or she mocks and is that a part of its attraction? Does this alone explain the attachment many have to disrespecting others or is there more to it?

The Bible[xvi] intimates that ritualized acts of disrespect can be addictive, in its depiction of one of the most notorious forms of idolatrous practice, known as the ‘Attachment to Ba’al Peor’. Many succumbed to its less than obvious charms. Indeed, the central feature of its worship was a lack of any respect, sanctity or decorum[xvii]. Instead of dressing up and bowing towards the idol as a sign of respect, the odious ritual called for uncovering, squatting backwards before the idol and defecating. Some shunned this repulsive conduct; but others tried it on a lark. They reasoned what harm could there be in ridiculing and showing such obvious disrespect to an idol? Yet, they became caught up in the display of extreme mockery and it took over their lives. The vile nature of these practices and their addictive quality are alluded to in the Bible[xviii], Prophets[xix] and Writings[xx] and described in the Mishna[xxi], Talmud[xxii] and Midrash[xxiii].

Kabbalists[xxiv] juxtapose and contrast the Biblical Zimri and his attachment to the cult of Ba’al Peor with Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud and his role in elevating people and preserving Judaism. They also link Zimri’s twenty-four thousand followers to Rabbi Akiva’s original set of twenty-four thousand students. The underlying theme is the vestigial elements of the obnoxious and destructive practices associated with Ba’al Peor that still infect society.

The Bible[xxv] describes Zimri, as the head of the Tribe of Simon. He then embraced the abhorrent practices of Ba’al Peor, which led to his precipitous decline. His attachment to this cult manifested itself in his haughty self-important attitude, self-righteousness and shamelessness. This emboldened him to justify his intemperate actions, by mocking and disrespecting Moses in an effort to delegitimize Moses’ moral authority[xxvi]. He was also an extremely divisive figure and his misbehavior was infectious. It created an atmosphere where his followers felt free to mock and demonize Pinchas[xxvii].

Rabbi Akiva was a seminal figure in the aftermath of the tragic destruction of the Second Temple and during the Bar Kochba revolt and its devastating failure. Before he met his wife Rachel, he was unlearned[xxviii] and an iconoclast, who disrespected the Sages[xxix]. Rachel, though, recognized his inner virtues of modesty and refined character. At her insistence, he devoted himself to Torah[xxx] and developed into an extraordinary individual, who inspired so many others through the generations by his example. He was a paradigm of nobility and dignity. His manifold achievements included becoming a saintly, erudite and preeminent Sage[xxxi], material success[xxxii] and exceptional public service[xxxiii]. His broad-minded perspective on life is depicted in his famous dictum[xxxiv] that it is a fundamental principle of the Torah to love your neighbor like yourself[xxxv]. His positive attitude to life is well expressed in his teaching[xxxvi] that people must always accustom themselves to say everything that God does is for the best. He also lifted the spirits of his fellow Sages, enabling them to cope with the destruction of the Second Temple and carry-on[xxxvii]. In one of his final acts of courage and resolve, before his untimely and horrible death, he acted to assure the continuity of the Jewish people. He did this by ordaining his latter set of five principal students, who are credited with preserving Judaism[xxxviii].

Rabbi Akiva was the antidote[xxxix] to the loathsome behavior of Zimri ben Salu[xl]. However, his original set of twenty-four thousand students failed to fulfill their spiritual mission of correcting the sin of Zimri’s twenty-four thousand followers[xli]. Instead, they too became infected with the malady of disrespect[xlii] and similarly demoralized, it led to their malevolent behavior[xliii] and untimely demise.

How is it then that Rabbi Akiva was unable positively to affect the disreputable conduct of even one of his twenty-four thousand students? What changed to enable him to succeed magnificently with his latter disciples? Is there some defining characteristic or pedagogical technique that can help explain the astonishing difference in outcome?

The textual context of the discussion of Rabbi Akiva and his students in the Talmud[xliv] provides an important clue and insight into what may have been the cogent distinction that led to such divergent consequences. It discusses how one is required to accord greater respect to a spouse than oneself[xlv].

Witnessing this kind of a dynamic actually play out in the home is inspirational. It’s the way my dad Z’L treated my mom; always placing her needs ahead of his own. However, Rabbi Akiva’s original set of students did not have the privilege of directly observing Rabbi Akiva showing this kind of respect to his wife, Rachel. This is because, as the Talmud reports[xlvi], Rabbi Akiva did not live at home during the twenty-four years he taught them.

I note in passing, anecdotally, that in the Gerer Chassidic part of my family, they insist that their yeshiva boys come back home and live in the parents’ house for at least six months prior to dating and marrying. The intent is to wean them from any bad habits they may have developed while they were way from home studying in the Yeshiva and, most importantly, inculcate them with object lessons of how spouses respectfully interact and relate to each other, in the natural setting of the home.

No matter how well Rabbi Akiva may have espoused the principle of respect, the most potent teaching technique of regularly seeing it actually practiced, in the home, was missing from their syllabus. Indeed, it might be argued that they may even have learned the opposite lesson, because of the apparent precedence given to Torah study, in Rabbi Akiva’s personal life, over the needs of his spouse and family. There were special circumstances in Rabbi Akiva’s case[xlvii], because Rachel had insisted on this program of study, as a condition to marrying him. However, the students may not have known this. Moreover, in general, the Talmud[xlviii] does not view extended stays away from the marital home favorably.

The Mishna[xlix] records that Rav Eliezer states it is impermissible to be away from home for more than thirty days. The Talmud then provides a series of gripping examples of the untoward results that occurred to some, when the period of study away from home was extended for more than a month. The last case in the series involves Rabbi Akiva. It begins by describing how Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd in the employ of Kalba Savua. Avot D’Rav Natan[l] provides some additional details, reporting that Rabbi Akiva was age forty at the time and had not yet learned Torah[li].

Rachel, Kalba Savua’s daughter, noticed how Rabbi Akiva, despite his lack of a formal Torah education, was a modest man, with a refined character. She offered that if he would go to Yeshiva and become a Torah scholar, then she would marry him. He agreed, they married in secret and she sent him away to Yeshiva to study Torah. Her father became aware of what had occurred. He became enraged and threw her out of his home. He also made a vow prohibiting her from benefiting from his property[lii].

Rabbi Akiva studied for twelve years in the Yeshiva. When he returned home, he brought with him twelve thousand students. It was then that he overheard a man remonstrate his wife Rachel; as to how long she would lead a life of virtual widowhood (because she was, in effect, separated from her husband while he was away studying in Yeshiva). She responded, in kind, that if she had her way, he would sit and learn Torah for another twelve years. Rabbi Akiva took this to mean, his wife had given him permission to study Torah for another twelve years, away from home, and, hence, he returned to the Yeshiva.

I can’t help but wonder, what might have occurred had he chosen instead to intervene and remonstrate the man for his callous and hurtful remarks to his beloved wife Rachel? Imagine, if he had then set up shop in the vicinity of his home with Rachel. After all, he had already achieved more than a modicum of success; why not relocate the Yeshiva and students to his hometown? How did the continuing and extended separation enhance the spread Torah? Given the ultimate outcome and in line with the other examples in the Talmudic text, it seems not well at all.

In any event, Rabbi Akiva finally did return home twelve years later and this time he had twenty-four thousand students with him. Upon his triumphant return, Rachel came to him and kissed his feet; but the students attending to Rabbi Akiva didn’t know who she was and they pushed her away. The scene depicted is not pretty. It was Rabbi Akiva, who came to her defense and instructed she be left alone. He announced to the students that both his Torah and theirs actually belonged to his wife Rachel, in essence, because it was her sacrifices that enabled it[1]. Nevertheless, the students initially treated Rachel shabbily in this first encounter and, perhaps, it was another example of their disrespectful disposition.

It is interesting to note that the Talmud does not praise Rabbi Akiva’s sojourn away from home. Given, the prior examples in this Talmudic text, of the deleterious consequences of substantially shorter stays away from home (of no more than twelve years) for studying Torah, it is likely that the example of twenty-four years was also not viewed positively. Indeed, as noted above[liii], the story of Rabbi Akiva and these twenty-four thousand students also does not end well; all of them meet an untimely demise.

Rabbi Akiva did not make the same mistake of living apart from his wife, when he taught his latter set of five students[liv]. They were, thus, able to observe a complete Torah lifestyle, which combined Torah, home-life and family responsibility, as well as, the demands of earning a living. These were real life-lessons, not just pious platitudes. Perhaps, this was an essential part of the antidote to the baseless hatred that infected his prior set of students.

The Talmud in Nedarim[lv], in contrast to the one in Ketubot noted above, presents a markedly different and dare I say romantic view of Rabbi Akiva and his life with Rachel. When they married, they initially lived in poverty. As they slept on straw, Rabbi Akiva would pick straw from her hair. He said if he had the means then he would place a Jerusalem of Gold tiara on her head, which he eventually did, as noted below. It is reported that Elijah appeared in the guise of a person seeking a little straw for his wife who just gave birth and had nothing to lie on. Rabbi Akiva remarked to his wife Rachel that there were less fortunate people than they, who didn’t even have straw.

Rabbi Akiva went on to became wealthy, including in the course of his wood business, in which he collected and sold driftwood. One day, he found a figurehead on the seashore and inside there was hidden treasure. He also purchased an old sea chest from some sailors, which turned out to be filled with gold coins. Avot D’Rav Natan[lvi] reports that by the end of his life he had tables of silver and gold and steps of gold to ascend to his bed. His students said they were put to shame by the regal manner in which Rabbi Akiva treated his wife. Rabbi Akiva responded that she had endured much hardship with him, for the sake of Torah.

The Jerusalem Talmud[lvii] amplifies this last point and relates the story of Rabbi Akiva giving his wife a Jerusalem of Gold tiara. Rabbi Gamliel’s wife is reported to have complained to him, why he had not given her such a splendid gift. He retorted, Rachel had sold her hair to provide needed funding for Rabbi Akiva to study Torah; had she done the same for him, then she too would have merited such a gift.

The pernicious disease of disrespect continues to infect our times. Disdain of others can also lead to demonization and baseless hatred of the sort that led to the destruction of the Second Temple[lviii].

Let’s join together to cure the problem. As Rav Kook[lix] counseled[lx], true and pure saints don’t curse evil, rather, they increase noble behavior; don’t decry atheism, but instead occupy themselves with increasing faith; and don’t condemn crudeness, but instead increase wisdom. They thereby encourage good behavior.

It’s time to focus our efforts on doing good deeds together and respecting others, even if with disagree with them. Working together to achieve positive and shared goals will also help overcome the issues that appear to divide us and reinforce mutual respect. We owe it to our children and ourselves to try. Am Yisrael Chai.

[1] See Rashi on BT Ketubot 63a.

[i] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493:1-2.

[ii] BT Yevamot 62b and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 11:6.

[iii] Lag being a contraction, composed of the Hebrew letters ‘lamed’, the symbol for the number ‘30’ and ‘gimmel’, the symbol for the number ‘3’.

[iv] Meiri commentary on BT Yevamot 62b.

[v] Chida, Birchei Yosef, Orach Chaim 493:4.

[vi] BT Yevamot 62b.

[vii] Genesis Rabbah 11:6 and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 11:6.

[viii] Rema glosses on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493:2. See also Zohar, Volume 3, 297:1:7.

[ix] See Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon 1:9, which refers to the fact that there was a decree of religious persecution against them. See also JT Ta’anit 24b.

[x] Eleh Eskara, describing their fate is recited on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av; but the actual days they were each horrifically murdered are not marked with any special observance.

[xi] BT Yevamot 62b.

[xii] Pair (2) x 12,000=24,000 students.

[xiii] Genesis Rabbah 61:3 and Ecclesiastes 11:6 list seven disciples.

[xiv] The Hebrew expression is SheHoita Einayim Zara Elu B’Elu (literally, they had narrow eyes one for the other).

[xv] BT Yevamot 62b.

[xvi] Numbers 25:3.

[xvii] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Numbers 25:3, interprets the term ‘Peor’ to mean shamelessness.

[xviii] Numbers 25:3 and 31:15, as well as, Deuteronomy 4:3.

[xix] Joshua 22:17 and Hosea 9:10.

[xx] Psalms 106:28.

[xxi] Mishna, Sanhedrin 7:6.

[xxii] BT Sanhedrin 64a and 106a.

[xxiii] Sifrei, Numbers 131:2 and Numbers Rabbah 20:13.

[xxiv] See Sefer Gilgalei Neshamos (at page 30, Section 76, under the heading Kozbi), by Rabbi Menachem Azariah Fano, a 16th century Kabbalist; Sefer Hagilgulim (Chapter 67, at page 91, under the heading Pinchas), by Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Arizal), a 16th century Kabbalist; and Chesed L’Avraham (Section 5, Chapter 25, at page 59), by Rabbi Abraham Azulai, a 16th Century Kabbalist. See also Seder Hadoros (at page 155, corresponding to English pagination of page 310), by Rabbi Yechiel Heilprin, a 17th century Kabbalist and historian and Yaarot Devash I, 2:11, by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeshitz, an 18th century Talmudic Scholar, Halachic expert and Kabbalist.

[xxv] Numbers 25:14.

[xxvi] See Targum Jonathan on Numbers 25:6

[xxvii] BT Sanhedrin 82b.

[xxviii] Ibid and see Avot D’Rav Natan 6:2.

[xxix] BT Ketubot 62b and Tosafot commentary thereon.

[xxx] BT Ketubot 62b and Nedarim 50a.

[xxxi] Even Moses marveled at his brilliance (See BT Menachot 29b).

[xxxii] BT Nedarim 50a-b.

[xxxiii] See, for example, BT Kiddushin 27a; Mishna Maaser Sheni 5:9; Tosefta Brachot 1:4; and Sifrie, Deuteronomy 43:12.

[xxxiv] See JT Nedarim 30b, based on Leviticus 19:18 and Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4:12.

[xxxv] It should be noted that Hillel restated this principle as, don’t do unto others that which is despicable to you, which he described as the essence of the Torah (See BT Shabbos 31a).

[xxxvi] BT Brachot 61a.

[xxxvii] BT Makot 24b.

[xxxviii] BT Yevamot 62b.

[xxxix] In this regard it should be noted that Zimri chased after Cosbi, touting his own prestige (Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Numbers 25:6). In striking contrast, Rabbi Akiva resisted the seductive charms of the wife of Turnus Rufus (Rashi, Tosafot and Ran commentaries on BT Nedarim 50b and see also Avoda Zara 20a). He also deferred to the younger and less experienced Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah to take over the prestigious position of Nasi, when Rabban Gamliel was removed (BT Brachot 27b).

[xl] Numbers 25:14.

[xli] Numbers 25:9, which records 24,000 died in the plague that resulted form the sin of Ba’al Peor.

[xlii] BT Yevamot 62b speaks of the failure to show each other mutual respect. Genesis Rabbah (Chapter 61) describes the condition as having a malevolent (narrow or in modern vernacular crooked eye) disposition towards one another. The Talmud reports that the students were stricken with askara (diptheria), which constricts the mouth and throat. The Maharsha (on Yevamot 62b) explains that, in essence, the mouth and throat that acted as the vehicle for expressing the mockery were effectively shut down, in an example of ‘Middah K’Neged Middah’ (measure for measure) justice.

[xliii] Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 4:5) focuses in on the addictive nature of speaking ill of others, gossip and other inappropriate speech, indignation, bad intentions and scheming, as well as, consorting with the wicked. He observes that these negative activities become ingrained in the heart and it is particularly difficult to correct these kinds of habitual behavior. Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz, a 16th century Talmudic scholar, known as the Shelah (an acronym based on the first letters of the title of his work, Shenei Luchot HaBrit), adds to this habit-forming mix the propensity of a person to elevate his or her self-esteem and position by demeaning or casting aspersions on others and then justify this abusive conduct (Shenei Luchot HaBrit, Aseret HaDibrot, Rosh Hashanah, Derech Chaim 71).

[xliv] BT Yevamot 62b.

[xlv] Mishna Avot 2:10 notes the need to respect all people as dearly as oneself. (See also Sefer HaTashbetz, Part I, 178:2.)

[xlvi] BT Ketubot 62b-63a.

[xlvii] BT Ketubot 61b-63a discusses the matter of leaving the marital abode to study Torah for more than 30 days, even with a spouses’ consent. Rav says may do a rotation, where go away for one month to the academy and then return home for a month. He bases this on the Verse in Chronicles I (27:1), relating to military service under King David and the extra phrase “month to month” which he interprets to apply to Torah students. Rabbi Yochanan says one month away at school and two months home. He bases this on the Verse in Kings I (5:28), which describes how the levy under King Solomon was for one month in Lebanon and them two months at home. There is, however, the matter of whether the consent is truly voluntary. Thus, Rashi on the text says that even if can convince a wife to permit a longer period of stay away in Yeshiva to study Torah it is a sin to request it. Tosafot adds that a wife could hardly say no to a husband’s request to study Torah and, therefore, a kind of situational condition of duress is created, which makes it impossible to obtain a true bona-fide consent. The case of Rabbi Akiva can be distinguished, in terms of the validity of the wife’s consent, because in that case it was Rachel’s inspiration for him to go away and study in the academy and she made it a pre-nuptial condition (see Tosafot s.v. Eleh Urcha D’Miltza Kama on BT Ketubot 62a). She was only willing to marry him if he went away to study and became a Torah scholar. It should be noted that the Ri includes going away to work, in order to earn a living, not just to study Torah in the academy, in this discussion.

[xlviii] BT Ketubot 61b-63a.

[xlix] BT Ketubot 61b.

[l] Avot D’Rav Natan 6:2.

[li] It appears Rabbi Akiva had been previously married and had a son from that first marriage. He eventually attended Yeshiva with this son and, together, they studied the Hebrew alphabet for the first time.

[lii] Kalba Savua eventually recanted his vow, when he saw the marvelous way his son-in-law Rabbi Akiva turned out. His vow was eventually annulled and he then gave Rabbi Akiva one-half of his property.

[liii] BT Yevamot 62b.

[liv] The names of the students are Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. Genesis Rabbah 61:3 notes there were seven students and their identities are the subject of some disagreement. However, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is included on all of the lists.

[lv] BT Nedarim 50a-b. See also BT Ketubot 62b-63a for a similar recitation.

[lvi] Avot D’Rav Natan 6:2.

[lvii] JT Shabbos 6:1, page 20a of the Zhitomer Edition.

[lviii] BT Yoma 9b. (CF BT Gittin at 55b-56a, which describes other proximate causes for the destruction, although the narrative of Kamtza and bar Kamtza provides a graphic example of hatred and the ensuing negative results.)

[lix] Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, a 20th century sage and the first Chief Rabbi of Israel in modern times.

[lx] Arpelei Tohar, on page 20 of PDF version, online at Daat.ac.il, Sifriah Virtualit.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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