Counting the sefirah days is a biblical mandate and it is understandable, but the mourning period associated with it is neither biblical nor easily understandable.
Let’s examine the sources:
First, in the Talmud, Yevamot 62b, we are told:
“Twelve thousand pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva died, and all perished in the same (segment of) time. This because they did not conduct respectfully each with one another. So then the world became desolate, until R Akiva (40-137 C.E.) came and taught them (the subsequent students)…. They had died from the time of Pesach until Atzeret (Shavuot); they died a bad death, from (that disease of) ‘askara.'” This explained, moreover, the cessation of mourning on Lag b’Omer, as it was the day the plague finally stopped, as recorded by Menachem HaMeiri (1249 to 1310).
Second, the next basic text is the Midrash, from Breishit Rabbah, section 61a, which tells us:
“Twelve thousand students (not pairs) of Rabbi Akiva, died, and all perished in the same (segment of) time. This because they sorely rivaled with each other (‘she-hay’eta eineihen tzarah eilu b’eilu’). It was said then the earlier ones died (for this reason). So, set your minds not to conduct yourselves that way; stand up and fill all Israel with Torah.”
A third version of events was offered by Maharsha (Morenu Harav Shmuel Eidels, who died in 1631). He regarded again the fact that (the students) “did not conduct respectfully with one another” and (therefore) died from a plague or “askara.” For, he suggested, the students all indulged in lashon ha-ra, as they all spoke against one another. The commentator even saw a providential connection between lashon ha-ra and “askara,” wherein one leads to the other.
Wait a minute. Could the students have so defaulted from the noble example of R. Akiva?
The essential response was offered in Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon (906-1006), from his authority in Babylonia: In his historic missive, (Part 1, Chapter 1) Rav Sherira Gaon explained what the Talmud meant had happened to the students of R. Akiva. He pointed out that this was a case of sh’mad (forced conversion), wherefrom the students died.
A refreshingly novel interpretation can be found in a volume named Yesodot HaTefilah, written by Rav Eliezer Levi. Its subject, as its title suggests, is the foundation, the history, and the culture of the prayer book. The author died in 1964, when his final edition was submitted. His writings also include Torah Meforeshet, Mishnah Meforeshet, Yesodot HaHalakhah, and Tzei ULemad. One of his titles was officially endorsed by no less than Chief Rabbi Isar Yehudah Unterman.
Eliezer Levi took hold proudly of the perspective associated with Sherira Gaon. It was clear to him that the students of Rabbi Akiva could not possibly have been guilty of wholesale “disrespect” against thousands of each other. They could not, simultaneously, slip into such moral laxity, whose defection also could not be allowed to lead actually to fatal consequences. For Rav Sherira Gaon it was clear that shmad, forced apostasy, which they heroically resisted, brought the people to die “al kiddush HaShem,” for the sanctification of the Name. An awareness of historical context is necessary. They were part of the rebellion of Shimon Bar Kochba (died 135 C.E.), which had been supported steadfastly by R. Akiva. Eliezer Levi endorsed that view alone, and thus helped us remain faithful to the honor of the students.
This interpretation understands the Talmud to be employing “lashon saggi nahor,” euphemistic language often used to avoid terminology which may be coarse, offensive, or otherwise inappropriate. As a rule, “saggi nahor” (literally “abundant light,” which is the Talmudic term for a blind person) language is the exact opposite of its intended meaning. This way, the understanding should be clear without having to use objectionable phrasing. In this case, the concern was offending the Roman authorities by celebrating the rebellion.
This bold interpretation, if it is to be sustained, liberates the students from the harsh implication of guilt and restores to them their integrity and rectitude. Listen to an example of Eliezer Levi’s reading of the text: “The students conducted respectfully among themselves,” not they “did not conduct respectfully.” And “they cooperated properly” – not “they sorely rivaled.” And, best of all, not that they concluded “t’nu da’atchem shelo ta’asu kamohu,” ““ not “Set your minds” to avoid this, but rather “Set your minds” to assure this positive outcome. Moreover, Levi did not forget to mention that the deaths were, accordingly, al kiddush HaShem.
“This premise is buttressed,” Eliezer Levi maintained, by the fact “that the Talmud gives us political ideas “bi-re’mizah” – “with a hint.” For example, we are told (in Sanhedrin 12a) that “t’faso nesher” – “the Eagle has taken over.” Which really means that “Rome has seized us.” Similarly, we acknowledge this “wink,” which allows the double meaning, and admits a new and charitable understanding.
Historically, the mourning during the Sefirah days has been associated with victims of anti-Semitic aggression. In light of Levi’s interpretation, Rabbi Akiva’s students can assume their rightful place at the head of the list of heroic Jewish martyrs.
We pray to God that we be allowed to celebrate moments of Lag b’Omer with greater power, fuller joy, and messianic prospect.
Dr. David Feldman is rabbi emeritus of the Teaneck Jewish Center.