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 (OC 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?

  • 4
    The Gemora (Yevamos 62b) also brings the story, and says they died from a sickness called "askera".
    – Michoel
    Mar 6, 2013 at 22:15
  • 2
    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, 2013 at 23:32
  • 1
    @ShimonbM: Bar Kochba, and Akiva's endorsement, are mentioned in the Yerushalmi Talmud Taanis 4:5-6 (68d-69a). See cojs.org/cojswiki/… Mar 7, 2013 at 0:32
  • 7
    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, 2013 at 12:54
  • 2
    For those interested in the "Audio Roundup" in @Shalom's comment, I found an updated link on TorahMusings.com here, which links to Rav Schachter's shi'ur here.
    – Lee
    May 3, 2015 at 7:03

11 Answers 11


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.

  • 1
    Excellent answer.
    – Double AA
    Mar 6, 2013 at 23:17
  • 2
    R' Akiva had students before the churban?
    – Fred
    Mar 6, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 0:11
  • @jake, if he was 30 before the Hurban, and he started learning Torah at the age of 40, how would he have had 24,000 students before the Hurban?
    – Seth J
    Apr 25, 2013 at 18:22

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

  • 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. Apr 29, 2013 at 19:37
  • 1
    @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, 2013 at 4:02
  • 4
    In this video Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, head of Machon Shilo, asserts exactly this version of events.
    – Seth J
    May 20, 2013 at 22:41
  • 1
    In volume 2 of his work The Sages Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau makes the same argument and cites many of the same sources as are found in this answer and the next. It seems that this is a popular theory in current academic scholarship. I'm not sure how it relates to the cessation of death on the 33rd day of the omer. Apr 13, 2015 at 1:13

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?

  • 1
    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, 2013 at 7:24

R' Hershel Schachter quotes R' Yosef Eliyahu Henkin who wrote in one of his essays that Rebbe Akiva's students were in fact killed in the Bar Kochba revolt. The Talmud hid this fact by mentioning their cause of death as being something ridiculously impossible. Namely, how can Rebbe Akiva who popularized loving one's fellow as much as himself, have all his students die from a lack of this behavior?

The shiur can be heard here. Listen at minute 8:55.

  • I had actually heard this a few times in the name of Rav Shechter as an oral tradition from Rabbi Y.Y.H. but this is the first time I heard it from his mouth. And he clearly says it's from an essay.
    – user6591
    May 24, 2016 at 19:04
  • note shalom's comment on the question judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/26881/…
    – Double AA
    May 24, 2016 at 19:17
  • Ah k. Had I seen that before I bothered writing up an answer... Oh wait, I thought answers were for answering questions and comments were for clarifying the OP's intent?
    – user6591
    May 24, 2016 at 19:23
  • See Teshuvot Ivra 2, p. 212
    – wfb
    May 3, 2018 at 17:58
  • @wfb is that available online somewhere?
    – user6591
    May 3, 2018 at 22:33

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'. He makes a similar statement in Koheles Rabba 11, saying they died in Bar Kuzivas war. These lines were previously censored out.

It is questionable though, 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.

In support of assuming they died in a war against Rome is the Gemara having said they died of Askara, a type of asphyxiation. Although this is sometimes viewed as a question on this approach, I recently became aware that this would actually fit very well within the understanding of how the Roman method of crucifixion killed it's victims, often political prisoners, in the thousands at a time.

(see this link)

"Without any supplementary body support, the victim would die from muscular spasms and asphyxia in a very short time, certainly within two or three hours. Shortly after being raised on the cross, breathing would become difficult; to get his breath, the victim would attempt to draw himself up on his arms. Initially he would be able to hold himself up for 30 to 60 seconds, but this movement would quickly become increasingly difficult. As he became weaker, the victim would be unable to pull himself up and death would ensue within a few hours."

What always caught my attention with this approach 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!


The use of 12,000 pairs in the mentioned in Yevamos 62b is interesting; if the counting was for purposes of the army, as posited by R Abramchik, why say 12,000 pairs (Zugim) instead of 24,000 people? It seems that pairs really does imply actual chavrusahs (paired students learning together and asking and answering each other's questions and generally assisting in each other's study) learning together, and then the question is where/how was this yeshiva run with so many students and one rabbi/leader being considered their true teacher? Alternatively, it could be that pairs were needed in Bar Kochbas army, perhaps for working together on chariots (one holds reins and the other shoots arrows/throws spears/uses sword)? Iirc there are sources in the Talmud about bar kochva's army and that the soldiers were very mighty and used horses, but it appeared as loners.

  • Welcome Michael. can you explain a little more your answer?
    – kouty
    May 24, 2016 at 7:21

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.

  • 3
    I thought there is no year 0. It goes 31 December 1 BCE to 1 January 1 CE.
    – Double AA
    Apr 25, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 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. Apr 28, 2013 at 20:53

the fact that the sources say he had 24000 students leads me to speculate that this number was known because of a count taken as they enrolled as part of bar kochba army- there a count would be taken-otherwise at that time there were no needs or practice of counting students---second rabbi chaim kolitz in his book rabbi akiva-says the wording pairs of pupils refers to going forth for military service

  • maybe the number is just a big estimate; or exaggeration.
    – mevaqesh
    May 25, 2016 at 17:20

In Tractate Peah in the Yerushalmi it states that the difference between King Achav's (who was regarded as a 'Rasha', a wicked person) army, and King David's army in that King Achav's army lost no men in battle as compared to the army of Kind David who was a 'Tzadik', a righteous person, who lost men in battle. That reason being people in King David's time spoke Lashon Hara and the people in King Achav's time did not. It is interesting to note that the reason stated in the Gemara for the death of Rabbi Akiva's students is they exhibited base-less hatred toward one another. We know this is the reason for the destruction of the second Temple with that story being found in Tractate Tannis. So putting these two stories together makes sense if they were in fact in battle and the reason for their death. Also usually death is not given in such cases only in cases brought before a Sanhedrin but if someone had a Rabbi who taught loving his fellow Jew and the student did go into battle and was not doing this then this would be the reason why he in fact he was killed in battle. Would the Gemara hide the fact that the students of Rabbi Akiva died in battle on purpose? Or were we just supposed to know that this was in fact the real reason why they did die in battle. Baseless hatred as I was taught was any reason that I personally think is a viable reason to hate...is baseless.


There's no known direct evidence that shows that the students of Rabbi Akiva fought in Bar Kochva's army. The meaning of the term "שמדא" in Iggeret Rav Shrirah Gaon is debatable, although quite a few scholars have accepted SHiR's conclusion (for a well-argued opposing position, see here).

With that said, last year I collected for a project sources that suggest the warriors of Bar Kochva followed Rabbi Akiva's opinion on various halachic and hashkafic matters. In this sense, they could be seen as spiritual followers of Rabbi Akiva, even if they didn't necessarily sit in his classes in the Beit Midrash.

The Bar Kochva Revolt and aliba de'Rabbi Akiva in Halacha

  1. Daniel Sperber, "עיונים במטבעות בר כוכבא", Sinai 55 (1964), pp. 37-41 was the first to argue that the 4 minim on the Bar Kochva coins follow Rabbi Akiva's opinion regarding the need to have only one of each species. Furthermore, the lulav is held in a small basket. This is a tradition that belonged to the people of Yerushalayim before the destruction of the Temple, and is brought by Rabbi Meir. Since Rabbi Meir was born long after the destruction, it's reasonable to conclude that he heard of this from Rabbi Akiva. Some coins also featured a star above the image of the Temple. It's possible that this star symbolizes the "Kochva" part of Bar Kochva's name, which was given to him under the influence of Rabbi Akiva's announcement that the verse "דרך כוכב מיעקב" prophesied Bar Kochva (whose real name was Shimon ben Kosiba).
  2. Rabbi Shaul Lieberman, Tosefta Kipshuta on Sotah, pp. 693-694 noted that Rabbi Akiva stated in Tosefta Sotah 7:21 that even rachmanim (compassionate men) return home from the army, yet this is not stated in the list of returnees in the Torah. Rabbi Lieberman suggested that this halacha was created during the Bar Kochva Revolt to ensure that the warriors who stayed were brave enough and would not hold other warriors back.
  3. Pinchas Peli, "The Havurot that were in Jerusalem", HUCA 55, pp. 55-74 and in particular 59-60 argued that the 'kupot' (ossuaries according to Peli) of bones brought from Kfar Tovya (Tosefta Ohalot 4:2) were of fallen Bar Kochva warriors. This was the reason that Rabbi Akiva reversed his position regarding their burial.
  4. According to Zeev Safrai, "שמירת ההלכה במסמכי מדבר יהודה", in: חידושים בחקר מרד בר כוכבא: דברי הכנס השנתי העשרים ואחד של המחלקה ללימודי ארץ-ישראל ע"ש מרטין (זוס), pp. 113-137 and in particular 127-129 the people of En Gedi, who were associated with Bar Kochva, likely made use of non-Jewish courts, which is in line with Rabbi Akiva's heter to use non-Jewish courts (Tosefta Gittin 1:9).
  5. Ranon Katzoff, "P. Yadin 21 and Rabbinic Law on Widows’ Rights", Jewish Quarterly Review 97 (2007), pp. 545-575 argued that some of Babatha's transaction documents reflect an upholding of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehudah's views on transactions (for example, Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:5, see more sources on p. 564 and nn. 64-65).
  6. Emmanuel Tov, "נוסח המקרא בבתי הכנסת הקדומים: עיונים בעקבות מגילות מדבר יהודה", Megillot 1 (2003), pp. 185-201 and in particular 196-197 pointed out that the Bar Kochva rebels used meticulously copied scrolls which he posited would have been regarded by Chazal as "corrected texts" (ספרים מוגהים, ספר מוגה), such as mentioned in Bavli Pesachim 112a. In that source, Rabbi Akiva taught Rashbi to always study from a corrected text, so it seems that the rebels also followed Rabbi Akiva's teaching on this. For more information on the meticulous manner in which the rebels prepared their scrolls, see Yosi Baruchi, "שרידי ספרי המקרא ממערות המפלט מזמן מרד בר-כוכבא" as well as his Hebrew lecture on the topic here.
  7. Rabbi Ari Shevat and Netanel Shevat, "שש הערות בענייני רבי עקיבא ומרד בר כוכבא", Hamaayan 229, pp. 31-35 and in particular p. 34 pointed out that the decision to count the number of people killed in Betar based on their tefillin (Bavli Gittin 58a) may be based on Rabbi Akiva's opinion that tefillin must be worn all day long (for example: Bavli Eruvin 96a).

The Bar Kochva Revolt and aliba de'Rabbi Akiva in Hashkafa

  1. Baruch Kanael in his paper "למניין השנים בעת מרד בר-כוכבא", in: ספר השנה למדעי היהדות והרוח של אוניברסיטת בר-אילן, vol. 1, pp. 149-155 argued that the reason that only Year 1 Bar Kochva coins feature the messages 'לגאולת ישראל' (for the redemption of Yisrael) and the title 'הנשיא', 'נשיא ישראל' after the name Shimon is because in the first year Shimon Bar Kochva was moved by Rabbi Akiva's support for him and his announcement that Bar Kochva was the Mashiach, and so used the title 'nasi', reserved for the legitimate leaders of Yisrael. In later years he dropped these two messages from the official coinage because that was a compromise he had reached with sages who denied his messianic status, but were willing to support him if he deemphasized this notion in his campaign. However, his men still used these titles in the documents found in the Judean Desert, apparently remaining loyal to Rabbi Akiva's view.
  2. Brock W. R. Pearson, "The Book of the Twelve, Aqiba's Messianic Interpretations, and the Refuge Caves of the Second Jewish War", in: The Scrolls and the Scriptures: Qumran Fifty Years After, pp. 221-239 suggested that the existence of multiple copies Trei Asar scrolls in Bar Kochva refuge caves may be tied to Rabbi Akiva's views that the secrets of the messianic age are hidden specifically in Trei Asar (most notably: A very hopeful prediction based on Chaggai in Bavli Sanhedrin 97b).

It is an odd assumption that we would be celebrating a failed revolution of Lag Baomer.

Another point. There is actually no need for the Talmud Bavli to hide anything negative said of the Romans. Their Parthian hosts would be more than happy to hear such stuff. And in fact they didn't hide negative statements about Romans.

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    – Scimonster
    Apr 11, 2015 at 18:05
  • 1
    It is odd in general that anything is celebrated on Lag Baomer. It's not an early holiday so the fact that some later people decided to celebrate on it doesn't really indicate anything about R Akiva.
    – Double AA
    May 25, 2016 at 13:20

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