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Various sources say that "12,000 pairs" of Rabbi Akiva's students died between Pesach and Shavuos because they did not treat each other with respect. See Genesis Rabba 61:3, Ecclesiastes Rabba 11, Yalkut Shimoni Kohelet section 989, for parallel sources. Also see Tana Dbei Eliyahu Zuta chapter 22. This is cited in the Shulchan Aruch (493:1) as the reason why we observe a mourning period between the two holidays. But Rabbi Akiva was also known for his support for Bar Kochba, leading me to wonder whether -- not withstanding the statements otherwise in Midrashim (which sometimes aren't meant to be understood as the literal truth) -- Rabbi Akiva's students actually died fighting for Bar Kochba's unsuccessful revolt against the Romans. Are there any sources that support this? Is there any known sources that his students did fight for Bar Kochba?

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The Gemora (Yevamos 62b) also brings the story, and says they died from a sickness called "askera". –  Michoel Mar 6 '13 at 22:15
I vaguely recall hearing that a Hebrew University professor suggested that the term ask'ra used in this instance in fact alludes to what you discuss in your question. I think he speculated as you do and also suggested that as'kra is etymologically derived from the word for bleeding. –  Fred Mar 6 '13 at 23:02
A lot of people suggest this, outside of the Torah world. Note that Bar Kochba is never once mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, so the idea that they are subtly alluding to him is unlikely. –  Shimon bM Mar 6 '13 at 23:32
@ShimonbM: Bar Kochba, and Akiva's endorsement, are mentioned in the Yerushalmi Talmud Taanis 4:5-6 (68d-69a). See cojs.org/cojswiki/… –  Bruce James Mar 7 '13 at 0:32
See torahmusings.com/2013/05/audio-roundup-87 . Rabbi Hershel Schachter quotes R' Yosef Eliyahu Henkin as saying "they died of the plague" was their coded way of saying "the Romans killed them." –  Shalom May 10 '13 at 12:54

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Taken from this blog post (emphasis mine)

R. Eliezer Dunner, in his work Zichron Yosef Tzvi, offers a very novel reason for the celebration on Lag Ba-Omer. He says that we know that R. Akiva was a strong supporter of Bar Kochba. He suggests that R. Akiva students were soldiers in his army to fight the Romans and they died in this time period of Sefirah. During this time, on Lag Ba-Omer, the Jews were winning, that is why they turned this day into a great day of celebration.

ידענו כי ר' עקיבא היה הולך ונוסע ומלמד בכל תפוצת הארץ ובכל מקום היה לו תלמידים הרבה מאוד ועין שחושב לבר כוזבא כמשיח קרא כל תלמידיו להלחם בצד בר כוזבא ותחת רגליו נגד חיל האויבים... ואף על פי שבתחילה חלשו היהודים את אויביהם לפי חרב אחר כך גברו הרומיים ולכדו מישראל עיר ועיר ובאותה זמן היתה מלחמה בכל יום יום ובכל מלחמה נפלו ומתו הרבה אנשים מחיל בר כוזבא ובהן כמה תלמידי ר' עקיבא וכששקעה החמה בכל יום ויום פסקה המלחמה ואז נקברו כל המתים. ואפשר שבתוך כל המלחמות הללו שהיו יום יום ושבהם גברו האויביהם על ישראל היה יום אחד והוא ל"ג בעומר שגבר בו ישראל אותו יום שבו היה להם ישעות ה' בעת צרתם יום גבורה ותשועה אותו יום קבעו ליום שמחה לדור דורים וכמו כן שמעתי גם מפי הרב דק"ק פוזנא מוהר"ר זאב פיילכענפעלד ז"ל (זכרון יוסף צבי, סי' תצ"ג).

Translation of the bold parts: And since he (Rebbi Akiva) considered Bar Kosiba the Moshiach he called to his students to fight on the side of Bar Kosiba.

...And in each battle many soldiers of Bar Kosiba fell, among them students of Rebbi Akiva

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It is hard to choose between your answer and Jake's. Rabbi Dunner (and family) are very distinguished and unquestionably haredi. Therefore, if he is taking this position, I'm quite impressed. Apologies to Jake for changing my accepted answer. –  Bruce James Apr 29 '13 at 19:37
@BruceJames, No problem. If you read the post in the link, you'll see that Avraham Korman in his Pinu’ach Aggadot (pp. 190-210) cites others (not R. Dunner) that tie the death of the talmidim of R. Akiva to the rebellion of Bar Kochba and he goes further to explain the connection between this and Rashbi and other minhagim of Sefirah. I would be very interested to see what Rabbi Korman has to say, but his book seems to be not available online. –  jake Apr 30 '13 at 4:02
In this video Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, head of Machon Shilo, asserts exactly this version of events. –  Seth J May 20 '13 at 22:41

That's a very interesting suggestion, and I'm surprised I've never put two and two together here. After some searching, I've found that a similar suggestion was made by Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport (Shir) in the journal Kerem Chemed (vol. 7, p. 183).

He suggests that the Romans chased and killed the students of R' Akiva on the suspicion that they were involved in the Bar Kochba revolt, like R' Akiva himself was. He supports this with the description of the students' death in the Iggeres R' Sh'rira Gaon:

והוה שמדא על התלמידים של ר' עקיבא

He posits that "שמדא" was a term used to refer to the Roman persecution.

And even though the Talmud (Yevamos 62b) identifies their death as being though "אסכרה", which means something like "suffocating" or some type of disease, Shir suggests that since the students were forced to flee to the desert, they very well could have died of thirst or hunger or disease. [Incidentally, see this aish.com article n.9: The Talmud says that the students died from the croup which is the English word for askara, a term which denotes choking. The association with Bar Kochba may explain this term, as Bar Kochba's death is described as taking place when a snake (a symbol of his sins) choked him: Jerusalem Talmud Ta'anit 4:5, Midrash Rabbah – Eicha 2:4.]

However, R' Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Rabinowitz in Doros HaRishonim (v.4, ch.31) disputes this idea by refuting the "proof" from R' Sh'rira's letter, and citing the above gemara in it's literal sense (i.e. they died in a plague). Rabinowitz also concludes that the incident with the 24,000 students actually happened before the destruction of the second Temple (by comparing with Talmud Bavli Nedarim 50a), in which case their deaths could of course not have been associated with Bar Kochba at all.

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Excellent answer. –  Double AA Mar 6 '13 at 23:17
@DoubleAA, Thank you. –  jake Mar 6 '13 at 23:19
R' Akiva had students before the churban? –  Fred Mar 6 '13 at 23:36
@Fred, See Doros HaRoshonim v.4 ch.7, where he discusses this is greater detail (particularly pp. 459-460). –  jake Mar 6 '13 at 23:47
@jake I read the first several pages so far. It's an interesting read, though I'm not totally convinced by his arguments that the students were pre-churban. +1 on the answer. –  Fred Mar 7 '13 at 0:11

The students mentioned in yevamoth could not have died in the times of Bar-Kochba. Firstly the talmud speaks of students in his (R. Akiba's) youth and students in his old age - so there had to be a respectable amount of time between the death of his first students and the studies with his latter students.

Secondly, R. Akiba was arrested in tishre after the fall of Betar and was killed two years later (137 or 138). He spent those two years in jail. (The five students were meanwhile getting ordained by R Yehuda ben Babba (Sanhedrin 14a), and then fleeing the land of Israel.) There was no time for R. Akiva to "go south" to teach the 5.(Anyway after Bar-Kochba the south was totally destroyed (see para 14 ) . Also R. Meir came first to R. Akiba but didn't have the pre-requisites so he studied with R. Yishmael and then returned to R. Akiba. R. Yishmael was killed in the beginning of the war...

So the first students would have had to die earlier. I guess there are maybe two other possibilites: they died during the Hurban or they died during the Kitos War?

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Can you source the following statements: 1) R. Akiba was arrested in tishre after the fall of Betar and was killed two years later_ 2) He spent those two years in jail 3) R. Meir came first to R. Akiba 4) R. Yishmael was killed in the beginning of the war... –  Menachem Jul 22 '13 at 7:24

According to the information in the gemara and other places Rabbi Akiva was born in the year "0" and lived for 120 years, to the beginning of the Bar Kochba period under the first of the three people of that dynasty (father, son and grandson). He was 40 years old when he began studying (40 CE), so presumably he did not have students for a while after studying under R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus. So if he began having students after the death of R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai, he was approximately 70-72 years old (72 CE).

It is difficult to imagine that 24,000 people were his direct students, as opposed to the idea that they followed his psakim. And then if he had to have had enough time to teach his later 5 students who replaced the 24,000 before he was killed in 120 CE, then he must have taught those five from around 100 or 110 CE. Of course we know that Rabbi Akiva came home to his wife and father in law Kalba Savua who was alive until the chorban. So according to this, Rabbi Akiva made his talmidim during his first 24 years of learning Torah.

But WHY do our sources not discuss the implications of such a major inyan of so many talmidei chachamim being lost at one time as they do other events after the chorban? And if it involved two SEPARATE events in the life of R. Akiva, what are the sources describing these two events? Thanks.

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I thought there is no year 0. It goes 31 December 1 BCE to 1 January 1 CE. –  Double AA Apr 25 '13 at 16:35
It was also my impression that we generally agre he was killed around 138 CE (end of the revolt), whihc puts his birth at 18 CE, and thus he was about 60 when the Second Temple was destroyed. –  gt6989b Apr 25 '13 at 18:21
Information I've seen has his birth around the year 40-50CE. What are your sources that lead to your conclusion that he was born in the year "0"? –  Seth J Apr 25 '13 at 19:02
S. Freiman's "Who's Who in the Talmud" (Jason Aronson, Inc. 1995), cites the Sif. Beracha end 36 for the proposition that he was born approximately 50 years before the destruction of the 2nd Temple and lived for 120 years. The Bar Kokchba revolt started in 132. Assuming Freiman is right, that would make Akiva 112 at the beginning of the revolt, eight years before his death. And since the Yerusahalmi says he supported Bar Kochba, I'm assuming he must have been alive. –  Bruce James Apr 28 '13 at 20:53

The Eitz Yosef in the new Moznayim print of Medrash Rabba in Bereishis 61 does say that they died `in one period between Pesach and Atzeres in milchamas beitar'.

One can wonder if these last words were edited out of the old print or simply lost, being that it was at the bottom of the page in the old standard print.

Also questionable is how to reconcile this historically in light of the medrashim that detail the fall of Beitar on the ninth of Av. We know Bar Cochba had a trained army and was catching bombardment and sending them back so apparently there was engagement before the wall was breached.

What always caught my attention from this pshat is that every day when we bentch and say the bracha of hatov vihameitiv which was nisaken on the Harugei Beitar who didn't rot and were buried, we are commemorating the students of Rabbi Akiva among them. Way to bring tisha b'av, sefira, and birchas hamazon all together!

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Also in kohelles rabba 11 the moznayim print adds in a missing peice in the eitz yosef stating that he found that they died in bar cuzba's war. I guess its conclusive that it was edited out. Moznayim like to reprint with the censured remarks reinstated, as they did in their printing of shaas. Little strange to edit this though. –  user6591 Jun 12 '14 at 18:30

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