I have genuine sympathy for Rabbi Steve Golden, Judaic director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and for so many others, as I witness their valiant struggle to justify the connection between mourning practices of the S’firat HaOmer days, and the death of “the students of Rabbi Akiva.” He writes eloquently, in his April 24 d’var Torah, of the difficulty we all have in assigning sinfulness to these students, namely “a failure to respect one another.” (This would render it a capitally-liable sinfulness, with thousands of students uniformly guilty.) Trying to explain why we would then mourn for them is not simple, either.
Thankfully, we have an alternative theory. The “students” of Rabbi Akiva were actually soldiers, inspired by him to join in battle against the Roman oppressors. They died in that battle, until Lag BaOmer came, bringing some (unclear) event of great relief which made that day into a holiday. They were heroes, not sinners.
What would allow us to prefer this understanding of the talmudic narrative? I wrote a comprehensive article on the subject several years ago, which, unfortunately, is no longer in print. But the history books describing the background of the Bar Kocheva rebellion against Rome, and Rabbi Akiva’s sponsorship thereof, are very much available. A key source stands out, which is by no means alone: Sefer Y’sodot HaT’fillah of Rabbi Eliezer Levi (page 232). He makes his point as he describes Roman censorship of the Talmud. To circumvent this censorship, the Rabbis used code language to avoid provocative triumphalism in reporting what happened. In this example, they substituted “l’shon saggi nahor” (a kind of euphemism), and wrote “lo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh” when they meant the opposite “nahagu kavod zeh lazeh.”
This line of thinking connects the mourning to their defeat in battle, and more importantly explains why so many sources, medieval and modern, attribute it to something else entirely, such as the Crusades and massacres at this time of the year. The kabbalists, beginning with Sefer Chemdat Yamim of the Lurianic School (which 17th-century book anticipated our questioning the ascribed reason for mourning), regard the S’firah days as a time of earnest spiritual preparation for the giving of the Torah.
It’s good to exonerate the pupils of Rabbi Akiva and to remove a strain on credibility.