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The Gemara Yevamos (62b) records

שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה - Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.

The Midrash Bereishis Rabbah (61:3) writes

אָמַר לָהֶם בָּנַי, הָרִאשׁוֹנִים לֹא מֵתוּ אֶלָּא שֶׁהָיְתָה עֵינֵיהֶם צָרָה אֵלּוּ לְאֵלּוּ תְּנוּ דַּעְתְּכֶם שֶׁלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ כְמַעֲשֵׂיהֶם - Rebbi Akiva told his new students, "My sons, the first ones only died because they had a narrow perspective with one another, but you should focus your attention not to do as they did."

which seems to parallel a very similar Midrash Koheles Rabba (11:6) here

אָמַר לָהֶם הָרִאשׁוֹנִים לֹא מֵתוּ אֶלָּא מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיְתָה עֵינֵיהֶם צָרָה בַּתּוֹרָה זֶה לָזֶה, אַתֶּם לֹא תִהְיוּ כֵן - Rebbi Akiva told his students, "The first ones only died because they had a narrow perspective with one another in Torah, but you should not do that."

Recognizing that these are individuals on a lofty level who were Rebbi Akiva's students, what precisely does "not respecting" each other mean?

(i.e. Were they insulting one another? Making fun of their chavrusah's pshat in learning? I once heard they continued respecting each other as they always did, but after everyone grew to great levels that initial respect was found to be lacking, but I'm looking for any sourced answer identifying what the students were actually doing)

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  • שֶׁלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ כְמַעֲשֵׂיהֶם is mashma that this was a shittah.
    – The GRAPKE
    Apr 16 at 13:00
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The source for the parenthetical remark you made possibly comes from the Shem Mishmuel. He says that it would have to be that people on this level couldn't have had such a low level of middos. They were (1) at an extremely high level of development and (2) were like a single unit, ish echad b'lev echad. They could only see themselves as part of the unit, but not as individuals. That being the case, just like in a single body the overvaluation of certain parts over others is moot (which reminds me of this Midrash), so too, they were all at such a high level that they couldn't introspect and see the positives of the other talmidim and give each other kavod.

I also found in this sefer, he quotes R' Kanievsky saying that R' Akiva didn't know exactly why, and it was only a speculation that it was because of the lack of kavod or tzarah. However, when he taught his new small batch of students that it was because of the tzarah, the "narrow perspective", it appeared to be mesaken something when they changed their behavior, because Eretz Yisroel became filled with Torah. I wonder (based on this) that maybe it was because the talmidim realized they categorically needed to go beyond the letter of the law bein adam l'chavero in order to give Kavod to the Torah.

R' Aharon Kotlar suggests in the Mishnas Rebbi Aharon (of which I couldn't find the actual page and text which is in my Mesivta Yevamos - Kaftor b'Perach). He says that regarding being l'chaf zchus, it's not just in the actions that someone does, but even in their reasoning and logic that they make. That in the midst of their learning, "svora", and not personal treatment, they had faltered when being dan l'chaf zchus. Another possibility, he says, is that they really were lacking demonstrating the parallel conduct of "ohev es haMakom, ohev es habrios," loving Hashem loving his people. Because they detracted in their love during this period, at a time when we have to be preparing and strengthening ourselves until Kabalas and Kinyan haTorah, they weren't fit and zoche to be the one's to pass Torah to the next generation.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe provides yet another insight into the matter. He asks how it was possible that the students of R' Akiva, who motto was "love your fellow as yourself", could lack kavod for each other? It happened to be that R' Akiva's teachings were extremely personalized to each student, and when the students compared what they had learned, they thought their colleagues had learned incorrectly, not like the halachah! That being the case, it was davka because of their feeling of "love your fellow as yourself" that they felt they needed to educate their fellows to understand the Truth; but either side couldn't be swayed in their conviction. Therefore, they couldn't give each other kavod.

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The Talmud [Yevamot 62b] says that the 24,000 students died of askerah, which Rashi interprets to be diphtheria [on Shabbat 33a]. The Maharal adds that the disease blocked the power of speech, a punishment he deems fitting to the crime. The Midrash adds that they practiced stinginess [of spirit]. [Bereshit Rabbah 61:3] They felt that another student’s success in Torah study diminished them. [Sifsei Chayyim 3, 44-48]. I don't believe the sources are more specific than that.

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    This does not really seem to answer the question of, "Hayitachen that tannaim practiced such obviously retrograde interpersonal behaviour?"
    – The GRAPKE
    Apr 16 at 14:36
  • They weren't actual tannaim though.
    – N.T.
    Apr 16 at 21:10

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