My April 24 d’var Torah, “Music during the Omer,” elicited many overwhelmingly positive responses. A couple of people, however, registered their dissatisfaction, and felt that I was dismissing a time-honored custom based primarily on sentiments driven by a biased agenda. In fact, I did not dismiss the custom, but seeing that many people are raising the issue I thought it would be important to examine carefully the subject and let the sources speak for themselves.
It seems that my assertion “…it’s grotesque to pretend to mourn those [24,000] students [of Rabbi Akiba] who lived 2,000 years ago…” was misunderstood. I carefully chose the word ‘grotesque’; it was not disrespectful. It is too painful to quote the very sad stories at Moed Katan 27b. Nevertheless, the obvious point of the Talmud in telling them was to teach that it is sinful to continue to mourn beyond the prescribed time (30 days, and children may not mourn beyond one year for a parent). Disregarding the limits placed upon mourning is likened to blasphemy, and ‘grotesque’ is an appropriate word to describe the situation. No family member of Rabbi Akiva’s students would have been allowed to mourn in excess of the appropriate period.
True, the Geonim seem to believe that mourning for the students was observed in talmudic times. If some pious individuals did have such a practice, the Talmud goes out of its way to ensure that this private ritual would not be observed by the community. They would have said so if they wanted mourning for the students. It is clear that the Sages who told the story (at Yevamot 62b) did not institute a day or period of time to commemorate their deaths.
Moreover, any observance of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s students during his lifetime could not have taken place because the decrees of Megillat Ta’anit were still in force: the 7th, 23rd and 27th of Iyyar could never have been days on which mourning took place. We can be certain that if the rabbis had intended to introduce during the Omer, days – let alone many weeks – of mourning for his 24,000 students, they would have had to say that the halachic requirements of Megillat Ta’anit were not to be held in force for this specific issue.
If one wants to say that after Megillat Ta’anit they wanted to mourn for the students, we do not know the exact date when it was abolished. In fact, they were adding to Megillat Ta’anit during the time of Rabbi Akiva, and it was still being augmented in the days of Yehudah bar Shemu’a [Rosh Hashanah 19a] who was a student of Rabbi Meir. Now, Rabbi Meir only became a student of Rabbi Akiva after the deaths of the 24,000 students. It even seems that there was a gap of some years (‘UBASOF’; Gen.Rabbah 61:3) before Rabbi Akiva began teaching those students, including Rabbi Meir.
Incidentally, this puts a great question mark on the theory of some modern scholars who proposed that the students were in fact warriors who died in the Bar Kokhba debacle. For the war with the Romans occurred at the very end of Rabbi Akiva’s life, after which he was arrested and imprisoned. Whereas the 24,000 students had expired before that very important latter phase of his life when he was imparting Torah to Rabbis Meir, Yehudah, Yose, Shimon, and Elazar.
One respondent wrote to me, “Contrary to your assertion, Tisha B’Av is ONLY [sic] about mourning. There is nothing about the day that suggests it is a day of Teshuva.” If one looks, however, at Maimonides’ Yad ha-Hazakah, one sees that Rambam states unequivocally that Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting “in order to awaken the heart to open paths of repentance” (Hilkhoth Ta’aniot 5:1), and the Torah authority for days of fasting as days of teshuvah is derived from a single verse of scripture. Now, there is one source in the Talmud (Ta’anit 30a) where an equation is made between mourning and the Ninth of Av (namely, that a mourner is forbidden to eat and drink), with which Rashi has obvious difficulty.
Many plagues occurred during the 40 years of wandering in the desert – episodes of death with very large numbers – but neither Moses nor the Sages instituted perpetual mourning for them. The Talmud tells us that the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished by dying in a plague, not through human hands. And what about the half-million Israelites who fell in battle, in the most terrible, cruelest war in the Bible (2 Chron.13)? Prior to the Shoah we never hear of humans being killed in numbers like that in such a short period of time. And we do not hear of mourning decreed for everlasting commemoration of those Israelites
The Omer customs we cherish, but Maran Beit Yosef did not give us any but restrictions on haircutting and marriage.