The pupils of Rabbi Akiva and the Bar Kochba Revolt
Lag Ba’Omer falls on the 18th of Iyar and it is the thirty third day of counting the Omer and thereby its name. The festival is a festival of celebration and joy in the heart of the days of mourning customary during the period of counting the Omer between Passover and Pentecost. The origin of the festival is not completely clear however there are two different traditions, relating to the traditions of the period of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the second century AD. The Lag Ba’Omer customs which are known to us today developed from both these traditions. The most accepted tradition is based on the Talmud.
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples… and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate. Commentary: they all died between Passover and Pentecost. Rabbi. Hama bar Abba said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? — Rabbi. Nahman replied: Croup.
(Talmud Bavli Yebamoth 62 72)
According to the tradition that developed from this text it was customary to assume that Rabbi Akiva’s pupils were the soldiers who participated in the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans (132-135 AD). During the period between Passover and Pentecost they all died in the war, or from a disease (croup). Therefore the days between Passover and Pentecost are a period of mourning for the people of Israel. However on Lag Ba’Omer the plague ended or according to another tradition the Bar Kochba soldiers were victorious in the battle, and therefore a day of joy is held on Lag Ba’Omer in memory of this event. Rabbi Akiva was a central figure and it seems that he supported the revolt.
“Rabbi Akiva said: a star shall come out of Jacob (Numbers 24:16) – through Koseva (Bar Kochba) from Jacob. When Rabbi Akiva saw Bar Koseva (Bar Kochba )he would say he is the king of kings”.
(Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4:8)
Following the Bar Kochba revolt Rabbi Akiva was executed by the Romans, as one of the “ten martyrs”. The known legend tells how Rabbi Akiva became, with the encouragement and support of his wife Rachel, a great Rabbi in Israel and a teacher of thousands of pupils: Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd for Kalba Savua, when Rachel Kalba Savua’s daughter saw that he was modest and great she said to him: if I marry you will you go to learn Torah? He said to her: Yes let’s marry even modestly. When Kalba Savua heard he removed her from his home, During the winter they slept in a hayloft. He would gather the straw from her hair. He said to her: If I had it I would give you Jerusalem of gold (a jewel for her hair). Elijah came to them in the form of a man and called them from the door: give me some straw, my wife has had a child and I have nowhere to let her rest. Rabbi Akiva said to his wife: this man doesn’t even have the straw that I have. She said to him: Go and learn in the House of Torah Study. He left for twelve years to the House of Torah Study. At the end of the twelve years he returned to his home and brought with him twelve thousand pupils. Everyone came out to greet him, his wife heard and also came out to greet him...when she reached him she fell to her knees and kissed his feet. The pupils tried to restrain her but he said to them: Leave her, what is mine and yours – is hers.
(According to the Book of Legend)
* Jerusalem of Gold – Naomi Shemer took her expression for her well known song from this.
The mourning during the counting of the Omer, pursuant to this tradition, is not only for the death of the scholars but rather also the loss of the independence of Israel, which was almost achieved when Bar Kochba was the President of Israel for thirty years, minted currency and also captured Jerusalem for a short time.
At present there is much criticism in various circles about the revolt with the claim that it brought catastrophe and ruin on the nation. Following it, in fact, the land was destroyed and the people went into exile for 2000 years. In recent years many hiding tunnels have been excavated in the area of Beit Guvrin which served, it would seem, Bar Kochba’s army. The great investment of the people at the time of Bar Kochba in building the underground system testifies to the considerable preparations before the revolt and the partnership of many levels of society in preparation for the revolt and in the revolt itself. Also recently in the caves of the Judean Desert documents and letters have been found that were written by Bar Kochba (there he is called Bar Kosiva and from this perhaps the error of Bar Koseva which appears in the Legends of the Sages). These letters testify to his status as a very able and influential leader in the period in which he was the leader of the revolt. We shall present here a letter written by Bar Kochba in preparation for the festival of Tabernacles, in which he orders his people to bring him the four species: Shimon (Bar Kochba) to Yehuda Bar Menashe, I sent to you two asses so that you can send with them two people...so that they can load and send lulavs and etrogs to your camp, and you send others from you who will bring you myrtle and willow and send them to the camp, to the army. Peace be with you.
The Bar Kochba revolt ended in a terrible siege on the city of Beitar in the Jerusalem Mountains which was the soldiers’ camp. The siege caused the destruction of Beitar and the destruction of the entire area of Judea. Following Bar Kochba’s revolt the Jewish centre moved from the Judean plain to Beit Shearim and Zippori in the Galilee.
Lag Ba’Omer in Exile
Around the tradition of the Bar Kochba revolt and Bar Kochba’s soldiers throughout the generations in exile a custom developed of a holiday from studies in the House of Torah Studies, and the boys would go out into the fields with bows and arrows, according to that written in David’s Lament: Teach the children of Judea to use a bow” (Samuel B, 1:18)