“The Counting of the Omer, the plague which hit Rabbi Akiva’s students and the hope for the upcoming Lag BaOmer in our time”
From the second night of Passover until the eve of Shavuot we count the Omer for forty-nine days. Every night we stand, we recite the blessing and we count one more day.
It is written in the Torah: “And you shall count from the day following the holiday: from the day that you brought the Omer for rocking it, seven full weeks, will be. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days and then offer a new offering to Adonai ” (Vayikra 23: 15-16).
In the Biblical time, this period marked the beginning of the barley harvest when Jews would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word Omer literally means “sheaf” and refers to these early offerings.
As the holiday of Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with an agricultural celebration, the Omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Passover and Shavuot.
While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting the Omer from Passover until Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a physical liberation to a spiritual one.
These days between Passover and Shavuot are considered a time of sadness and we keep some of the customs of mourning during this period like refraining from participation in joyous events, performing weddings and having haircuts. No event involving music and dancing should be scheduled during this period of the year.
Why is this a time of sadness? Because of different sad events which happened in the Jewish history during this time of the calendar. One of the most known events is mentioned in the Talmud:
“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 … the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Ḥama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria. (Talmud Bavli Yebamot 62b)
According to the Talmud, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period of time due to a plague in a short period of time.
I believe that this year, when the Coronavirus pandemic is hitting our country and the entire world so hard, the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students becomes closer to our feelings. This year, when thousands of people are dying from COVID-19, we can definitely understand the pain and sadness of Rabbi Akiva and the people of that time. We can understand deeply the meaning of the custom of mourning we practice during these days as we are mourning the death of thousands of people.
The tradition tells us that on the thirty-third day of the Omer (Lag BaOmer), the plague which affected Rabbi Akiva’s students, ceased. This is one of the reasons of the celebration of Lag BaOmer. This is a day when we stop all the mourning practices. It is customary to perform weddings, having a haircut, having celebrations, etc. This is a great day because the plague was over and the people could resume their normal course of their lives. During these days, we can deeply understand the great happiness and joyfulness of knowing that the plague was over and no one else would be hurt by it. It should have been an incredible joyful feeling.
According to the tradition, on Lag BaOmer, after the death of almost all his students, Rabbi Akiva restarted to teach Torah to five students who survived the plague, the next generation of Torah scholars. As the midrash (Kohelet Rabba 11) relates, when Rabbi Akiva began teaching his five students, “the world was filled with Torah.”
It is written in the Talmud: “And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. This second group of disciples consisted of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time. Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations.” (Talmud Bavli Yebamot 62b)
Despite all of the sadness and pain, Rabbi Akiva had the strength to restart his teachings and form new students, who would be the Torah scholars of the next generation.
In this difficult time we are living, we dream and hope that “our Lag BaOmer” comes soon. We pray there is a way to stop this pandemic and no one else would be hurt. That day would be a really good reason to celebrate.
Maybe we can follow Rabbi Akiva’s strength to resume his role, thinking and taking care of the revitalization of the next generation.
May the teachings of the celebration of Lag BaOmer and Rabbi Akiva give us hope and strength in these difficult and challenging times.