Today’s daf (Yevamot 62a) tells the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, and while I have previously attempted to understand aspects of this story, there have been some parts that have nevertheless eluded me. Then, this year, I purchased a copy of Rabbi Ephraim Oved’s ‘Torat HaAggadah’ where he sheds light on parts of the story that I had not understood until now, and based on his explanations, along with some of my own insights, I would now like to re-tell this story.
To begin, it seems that Rabbi Akiva had a very inclusive admissions policy to his yeshiva with some of his students not quite having the middot that one might expect of students of Rabbi Akiva. In particular, those who came to learn from him were haughty, and while they believed that they had much to learn from their teacher, they didn’t think that they had much to learn from their peers. In fact, from the fact that the Gemara says that the students came from Gvat to Antipras, Rabbi Oved teaches (al derech drush – i.e. homiletically) that we learn from the name Gvat that they had ga’avah (hubris), and that we learn from the name Antipras that they were ‘anti’ being part of a pair (pras) and that, instead, they believed that they had all the knowledge and skills without needed to learn with another.
To redress this issue, Rabbi Akiva insisted that his students learn in pairs (which is why the story emphasises how he had 12,000 *pairs* of students rather than simply stating that he had 24,000 students). Still, the students continued to have contempt and disrespect towards each other. Significantly, from the fact that we are told that they died between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavuot), Rabbi Oved explains that we learn from the word Pesach that they spoke unkindly towards their colleagues, and we learn from the word Atzeret that they didn’t feel that they needed to go beyond themselves to learn.
In response to this attitude Rabbi Akiva regularly delivered lectures to his students on the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך – ‘love your neighbour like yourself’ in order to highlight the importance of learning from and relying upon others. However, it seems that this fell on deaf ears.
In a similar manner, Rabbi Akiva famously taught that while all of the books of the Torah are holy, the book of שיר השירים, which speaks about the bond of a man and woman reflecting the bond of God with the Jewish people, is the holy of holies. Still, this lesson of learning from and relying on others didn’t seem to get through to his students.
Yet notwithstanding all his efforts Rabbi Akiva didn’t give up, and so he finally decided to take them on a field trip to his house to meet his wife Rachel. In so doing, he hoped to teach his students that Torah greatness comes when we learn and rely on one another – which is the meaning of the words he said about Rachel to his students (in Ketubot 63a) that: שלי ושלכם שלה הוא – ‘my (Torah accomplishments) and your (Torah accomplishments) are due to her (my wife)’. Still, they did not absorb this message, and while Rabbi Akiva had the humility to acknowledge his dependence on another in being the driving force for his Torah and spiritual growth, his students did not. As such, we are told that the students died from Askara. And why Askara? Because, as we are taught in Shabbat 33a-b with Rashi’s commentary, Askara is an illness that begins in the intestines (which represents the lust for honour) and ends in the throat (which is the tool they used to speak badly about each other).
Having now explained this story this way, the question we must ask is what is its lesson?
The first lesson is simple: that our desire for honour can often hold us back from learning from others.
The second lesson is that all of us grow when we learn from others.
And the third lesson is that someone can have a great teacher and still fail to heed what they say.
And it is these faults – that we continue to encounter and often express in our own lives – that we mourn during this period.