Why did 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba die?

Why did 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba die [1]?

This is a question that has always fascinated me since the days I was a young rabbinical student in Israel. According to rabbinical tradition, it is because R. Akiba’s students failed to display proper respect to one another. Another tradition claims that R. Akiba’s students died because of a plague that took place during the the first day of the Omer [barley offering that began on the second  day of Passover], ca. 130 CE.

Of all the explanations that seems to make the most amount of sense, Rabbi Akiba not only offered moral support to Bar Kochba, a man he believed to be the Messiah, he also encouraged his vast number of students to join in the apocalyptic battle against the Evil Empire of his day—Rome, as was first suggested by Rav Hai Gaon back in the 9th century C.E.

Recently, R. Shlomo Riskin compared this struggle as a “war of independence,” that failed—and failed miserably it did. R. Riskin is not the first to make that argument; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote about this in a famous letter he composed to the B’nei Akiva youth movement, which he named in honor of Rabbi Akiba.

“… As the Redemption blossoms, there is a special quality of Rabbi Akiva that is returning to the People of Israel. Enthusiasm devotion to the vision of Redemption and Rejuvenation of the Nation and of the Land of Israel are essential. This vision is coming back to life to guide us once again today. Once our forbearers lost this vision, it was then Bar Kochba lost the war, and Israel its independence. Are we confident that the True Torah of that Holy Mouth will have its hour of truth? That hour is fast approaching; we shall not fail the second time. There is a good reason why the Nation of Israel has been fighting for its existence throughout all generations until now.” [3]

Let’s deconstruct this story from a different perspective. Roman leaders hunted the rabbis, especially Rabbi Akiba since he was in their eyes, the chief instigator of the revolt. To put this in more contemporary terms, the ancient Romans regarded Rabbi Akiba and his rabbinic cohorts much like we view Bin Laden today.

Could the rabbinic claim that “R. Akiba’s scholars failed to treat one another with respect” be factually true? Considering the factionalism that existed during the years that led to the destruction of the Second Temple, it stands to reason that Bar Kochba had both his admirers and his detractors; political differences within Bar Kochba’s ranks may have contributed toward the failed revolt against Rome.

Perhaps the above historical tragedy may also serve as a grim reminder that religious leaders within the Jewish community should never have tried to politically or militarily realize their fantasies about the Messiah.

Talmudic wisdom learned some hard lessons from Jewish history, and offers some very practical advice, “There are three things that come to a person unexpectedly: finding a lost object; getting stung by a scorpion, and the arrival of the Messiah.” [2] This latter rabbinic proverb may have been directed at all future leaders who might attempt to force the hand of God, in forcing the Divine to magically produce the Messiah. It may also be seen as a gentle reprimand to Rabbi Akiba. Some Jewish thinkers tend to gloss over the consequences of the failed rebellion against Rome, but many people died as a result of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiba.

Historically, all human efforts to predict the arrival of the son of David are ultimately doomed to failure. Despite numerous predictions made about his “alleged arrival”– he has yet to appear and finish the job assigned to him by the prophets. However, we have had a lot of pretenders and failed messiahs, but all they have caused is nothing but grief to the people who believed in him.

And now you know the rest of the story ….

[1] T.B. Yebamoth 62b

[2] T.B. Sanhedrin 97a.

[3] Rabbi A. I. Kook, Ma’marei Re’iyah 202-203.

[4]  The article on Bar Kochba in Wikepedia points out:

“According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews were killed, and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed …. Hadrian attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions. He prohibited the Torah law, the Hebrew calendar and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremoniously burned on the Temple Mount. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews; previously similar terms had been used to describe only the (smaller) former Philistine homeland to the west of Judaea. Since then, the land has been referred to as “Palestine,” which supplanted earlier terms such as “Iudaea” (Judaea) and the antiquated “Canaan.” Similarly, he re-established Jerusalem as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it.”