The period between Pesach and Shavuot is commemorated in the Torah as the seven weeks that start the new harvest. The first crop – the omer – is offered up on the second day of Pesach, then every day is counted for seven weeks, until the ‘Festival of Weeks’, Shavuot.
It is a time of renewal and joy. Originally, according to Ramban, those seven weeks were meant to build a bridge between the two festivals, turning them into one long super-festival. As Sukkot has a festival at the beginning and a festival at the end with seven days between the two, so too this time of the year has a festival at the beginning, a festival at the end, and an intervening seven weeks.
That is not, however, the experience of the Jew nowadays. The majority of the omer period is one in which there is national mourning. The Talmud records the story:
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students…and they all died in one period, because they did not treat each other with respect.
...all of them died between Passover and Shavuot.
Rabbi Menachem Meiri in his commentary to the Talmud articulates the long-standing tradition that the deaths occurred for the first 32 days of the omer, meaning that by the 33rd day of the omer, known as Lag Ba’Omer the tragedy had abated.
Whilst that would explain why we traditionally undertake some of the practices of mourning for the first 32 days, and go back to normal on the 33rd, it does not explain the celebratory element of Lag Ba’Omer. Nobody would think of celebrating the end of any other major tragedy in Jewish history, such as the end of the crusades or end of the Holocaust.
Worse, it seems that the main reason that the deaths stop is simply because there were no more students to die – all of them had been killed. After all the Talmud cited above refers to ‘twelve thousand pairs of students’ – i.e. 24,000 student who died. But elsewhere the Talmud seems to tell us that Rabbi Akiva’s entire network of students was indeed 24,000. In other words, they all died.
The Talmud records that after Rabbi Akiva’s students died, he went to the south of the country and found a handful more students. One of those was Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. The Kabbalistic Midrash – the Zohar – tells us that on the last day of Rabbi Shimon’s life he gathered his students into a circle around him and began to teach the great secrets and deeper layers of Torah until eventually his soul left the world. According to the great expounder of the Zohar’s teachings, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal) this event occurred on Lag Ba’Omer.
It turns out that the two have a deep link.
It is not easy for us to imagine the state of mind of Rabbi Akiva the day of the death of his last student.
We are told much about his life in the Talmud and Midrash. Piecing the sources together we read of someone who had been an ignorant Jew, and even angry against the Rabbis of his time. The Temple had been destroyed. The dreams of the Jewish people shattered. He had found himself a job as a shepherd of one of the wealthiest Jews alive – Bar Kalba Savua. It was the latter’s daughter, Rachel, who saw something in him. The Jewish people were in desperate need of a great leader, and he had the potential to be that leader. She offered herself to him in marriage on condition that he go to study Torah. Her father was so shocked at the suggestion, perhaps assuming that the charismatic shepherd had seduced her for the family money, that he promised to cut the couple off financially, and left them with nothing. Yet Rachel pushed Akiva to go and study, then to teach, then to expand the network, sacrificing everything. After decades he had succeeded. The dream had come true. There were networks of tens of thousands of young Jews studying and teaching Torah. The spiritual awakening was followed by a national reawakening in the Bar Kochba revolt against roman rule. For three years Judea achieved independence and it felt like Rachel and Rabbi Akiva’s work had produced nothing short of the days of Mashiach. A life of incredible sacrifice, totally vindicated by the redemption itself.
Then it all came crashing down. The Bar Kochba revolt was crushed, the students had all died. Rabbi Akiva was already elderly. Every single thing that he and Rachel had worked for had evaporated. Their entire life of sacrifice had come to total disaster. It is hard to imagine human beings who would not have sunk to the depths of despair and never arisen again.
But that is not what happened. Instead Rabbi Akiva travelled to the south of the country and found five students. Five.
He invested his energies into them.
And those energies produced five students whose teachings and whose students would eventually rebuild the whole Jewish people. All the primary texts of the Oral Torah came to us through them. Everything that we study and observe has their fingerprints on it. We live today because of them.
One of the five was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. As he felt himself ready to leave the world, he gathered his students. His depth in Torah was unsurpassed but he felt compelled to achieve two things. One was to ensure that all that he had attained could be passed on in full. The other was to learn the lesson of Rabbi Akiva students. They had died because they did not honour one another. His solution was to bring the students together and sit them in a circle. In a circle each one faces the other. Each one looks into the eyes of the other. It was as if Rabbi Shimon was telling them; if you want to preserve the Torah you must look one another in the eye; you must work together as one. And if you do this, you can reach the greatest heights and deepest depths. You can keep Judaism alive.
Rabbi Akiva himself was caught by the Romans and tortured to death. It was not his first encounter with pain. But he reacted by reciting the Shema with joy. In the eyes of Rabbi Akiva, this was an opportunity to fulfil the commandment to love Hashem with his ‘heart, soul and might’ in the ultimate way.
That was a theme of his life. Every dark situation that brought everyone else to tears, brought Rabbi Akiva to laughter. Where people saw the darkness of the present, he saw the seeds of hope in the future.
Lag Ba’Omer was the day he got up from burying the last of his students. It was the day he might have collapsed and finally given up. Instead it became the day of his superhuman heroic decision to keep going and to rebuild.
Decades later it became the day that his star student ensured the continuity of Judaism once again.
It is a day of a hidden spirit that Rachel, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon all found within themselves. It is the day when darkness and hopelessness was defeated by a miraculous hope. The power within each of us to access the deep hope and the ensuing light, is the power of the miracle of the constant survival and rebirth.
It is day celebrated with the lighting of fires. It is the day when the internal flame can find a renewed hope, a new courage, and a new ability to see in any one or five students the ability to transform all of history.
May we find that light and hope within.
Have a wonderful Shabbos,
 R.Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) (1194-c.1270), Commentary to Vayikra 23:36
See Pri Chadash to Shulchan Aruch OC 493:2 who suggests that the students might not yet have stopped dying, but it is nevertheless the day Rabbi Akiva started teaching the five students of the south.
Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country.
Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".
Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.