by R. Dr. Basil Herring
They said “R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples who were located all the way from Gevat (near Beersheva in the south of Judea) till Antiparis (at its northern end) and they all died at one time because they did not act respectfully toward each other. As a result, the world was desolate (Rashi: “of Torah”), until R. Akiva went to the scholars in the South and taught them the Torah. They were R. Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Yosi, R. Shimon, and R. Elazar b. Shamua, and it was they who reestablished Torah knowledge at that time. Regarding the twelve thousand pairs, a Tanna stated that they all died between Pesach and Shavuot. R. Chama bar Abba said (others say it was R. Chiya bar Avin who said) they all died a terrible death. What was it? Said R. Nachman ‘it was askera.’” (Yevamot 62b)
This well-known Gemara is often quoted in the context of our Sefira-period mourning customs, to explain why we are to refrain from celebrations such as weddings, musical entertainment, haircutting and similar restrictions. The historical memory of that catastrophe in one of the darkest moments of Jewish history has certainly sunk into the national consciousness of the Jewish people to a remarkable degree, one which homiletical and ethical teachers throughout the generations utilized to drive home important lessons about the life-saving importance of acting with proper respect and sensitivity toward each other. After all, if such vaunted individuals who studied Torah and were close to one of the greatest Torah-teachers of all time could have been so severely punished for what would appear to be behavior that is not normally halakhically subject to the death penalty, surely we who are so much less than they were, should all take their fate to heart.
Without in any way diminishing the important moral lessons to be learnt from the catastrophic death of those twenty four thousand students, this Gemara deserves further analysis and understanding, particularly in light of the current world-wide Coronavirus pandemic, coinciding as it does with the very same time of the year of the contagion that occurred in the second century, i.e., between Pesach and Shavuot.
The passage in the Gemara poses several difficulties. To start with, we can note the unusual description of these students. Why were they not referred to more simply as “twenty-four thousand disciples,” rather than the unusual “twelve thousand pairs?” And why did they all die “at one time”, i.e. over a period of a few weeks, rather than – as one might have expected – over the course of many months or even years, in staggered fashion? Furthermore, in the aftermath of their death why did R. Akiva go to “the scholars in the South” to revive the study of Torah, rather than more simply re-populate the existing study halls and organizational structures with new students, or bring the students in the south to study with him in the Torah institutions in the center of the country? Finally, there are questions regarding the gruesome form that their death took: why did they have to die “a terrible death” (מיתה רעה) – even if their behavior toward each other was not sufficiently respectful? And what exactly was the askera (אסכרה) affliction to which they succumbed?
Now we should note that in his famous 10th Century Iggeret, Rav Sherira Gaon takes the view that the entire episode is to be understood as a punishment inflicted by the Romans in the aftermath of the failed Bar Koziba (or Bar Kochba) revolt, in which the Romans executed the students of R. Akiva, who had been the spiritual mentor and guide of the insurrection. But this approach, while appealing in some ways, does not conform to the Talmudic narrative of moral failing and ensuing disease unto death that the Gemara Yevamot records, nor does it answer most of the questions we have raised.
In the light of the world-wide pandemic that we are currently experiencing I would venture to suggest, without in any way intending to undermine the account of their interpersonal failings, that these students in fact were felled at the hands of a powerful epidemic that swept through Judea in the second century. If this is correct, then many, if not all of the questions we have raised can be resolved. Specifically, because the paired students engaged in close-contact Torah learning they naturally infected each other. The spread would also have been accelerated when those students would gather in larger groups to participate in classes lead by their teachers or rebbeim in a lecture hall. As well, the accelerated time frame of their multiple deaths would not be a surprise if it occurred in the context of a highly infectious disease, which as we now sadly know all too well, can quickly take the life of many otherwise healthy individuals, especially in the absence of advanced medical knowledge such as we have today. Thus too, the description of their terrible suffering at the time of death could well correspond to the dire symptoms so common in many life-threatening infectious diseases, such as we see in our own current experience. On this, see more below.
It also makes sense that R. Akiva, recognizing the territorially defined spread of an epidemic occurring in a specific infected location, sought out an area “in the South” (likely in a less inhabited desert area south of Beersheva) that for one reason or another had not been exposed or subject to the epidemic and thus was likely to have been better protected from the disease.
As to the form of their “terrible death”, in broad strokes what R. Nachman, and the rabbinic tradition more generally, understood by the term “askera” is reflected in the Gemara Shabbat 33b which quotes a number of Sages in Yavne (including some quoted in the above Gemara in Yevamot) who describe it as starting in the intestines and then spreading to inflame the esophagus to the point of closure (as alluded to in Psalms 63:12), and thus is to be considered a punishment for lashon hara (or gossip.) The Midrash Tanchuma (Miketz 10:2) considers askera to be the most painful of all causes of death, and based on this the Hafetz Hayyim (Shemirat Halashon 1: 8:6) concludes that lashon hara is “the most serious sin of all.”
Centuries later, Rambam (Hil. Ta’aniyot 2:13) lists askera as an example of an infectious disease causing the death of a number of people in a single city, to be considered a communal affliction (tzarat tzibbur) that requires public fasting and sounding of the shofar. The Shulhan Arukh (OH 576:5) adopts the Rambam’s language verbatim. At the end of the 19th century the Mishnah Berurah similarly decrees a public fast day for askera which has spread to numerous individuals in a city, even if only one death has resulted. And in the early 20th Century the Arukh Hashulhan (OH 576:12) considered “the childhood disease known as diphtheria which is a form of askera that closes up the esophagus” to require a public fast day. In any case, if the askera from which R. Akiva’s students suffered was related to a suffocating disease such as diphtheria it would surely have resulted in what the Gemara calls “a terrible death.”
There is one further question we can address. Is there any external historical evidence of such an epidemic in the 2nd century Middle East? One candidate would be the so-called Antonine Plague that ravaged large areas of the Roman Empire starting in 165 CE, as attested by the famed contemporary medical practitioner, Galen. The disease apparently started in the battle of Seleucia on the Tigris (in today’s Iraq), and was brought back to Rome by returning troops. One is tempted to identify this with the death of R. Akiva’s students in the generation following R. Akiva’s own death in 135 CE. The problem, however, is that such a notion is contradicted by the passage in Yevamot which reverses the order – by stating clearly that the students died in an early stage of R. Akiva’s career, after which he cultivated and taught a new, later generation of those who would become leading Tannaim. Thus, it is implausible to equate their askera with the later Antonine Plague that occurred some 30 years after R. Akiva’s death. Rather their epidemic would have to have been a localized outbreak which subsequent generations attributed to more specific spiritual and moral shortcomings.
In conclusion, the sad fate of so many of R. Akiva’s disciples at the hands of a terrible infectious disease in a period of Jewish history that was already so filled with pain, suffering, and death, and the response of their near contemporaries to somehow use that traumatic event as an opportunity for personal self-examination, should at the very least give us added reason to engage in our own modest heshbon hanefesh (introspection.) Doing so will allow us to reach the always salutary goal of achieving a higher level of moral sensitivity and respect for the well-being of our families, communities, countries, and humanity at large. As we face our own current challenges in dealing with this fearfully destructive world-wide pandemic, let us be inspired by the example of our forebears, to explore our own paths to abiding good health and longevity, as well as spiritual and moral growth, each in our own unique way.