The Enduring Lesson: Rabbi Akiva’s Caution Against Complacency

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Akiva, renowned for his moral teachings, famously expounded on the verse “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” (“Love your fellow as yourself” – Vayikra 19:18) – a principle he declared the cardinal rule of the Torah, the כלל גדול בתורה (Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4). Yet, in an astonishing paradox, the Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva’s very students perished due to their failure to uphold this core value and show proper respect (kavod) to one another.

רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: לָמַד תּוֹרָה בְּיַלְדוּתוֹ — יִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָה בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ. הָיוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידִים בְּיַלְדוּתוֹ — יִהְיוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידִים בְּזִקְנוּתוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בַּבֹּקֶר זְרַע אֶת זַרְעֶךָ וְגוֹ׳״. אָמְרוּ: שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אָלֶף זוּגִים תַּלְמִידִים הָיוּ לוֹ לְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא מִגְּבָת עַד אַנְטִיפְרַס, וְכוּלָּן מֵתוּ בְּפֶרֶק אֶחָד, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹּא נָהֲגוּ כָּבוֹד זֶה לָזֶה

Rabbi Akiva says: If one studied Torah in his youth, he should study more Torah in his old age; if he had students in his youth, he should have additional students in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, etc.” (Koheles 11:6). They said by way of example that 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 because they did not treat each other with respect (Yevamot 62b).

תָּנָא, כּוּלָּם מֵתוּ מִפֶּסַח וְעַד עֲצֶרֶת. אָמַר רַב חָמָא בַּר אַבָּא וְאִיתֵּימָא רַבִּי חִיָּא בַּר אָבִין: כּוּלָּם מֵתוּ מִיתָה רָעָה. מַאי הִיא? אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן: אַסְכָּרָה

It was taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot. Rabbi Chama bar Abba, and some say Rabbi Chiyya bar Avin, said: They all died a terrible death. What was it? Rabbi Nachman said: It was asphyxia (Yevamot 62b).

One potential explanation for this paradox lies in the overzealousness and competitiveness that can arise among students vying for closeness to a revered master. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s students were so consumed by their desire to be nearest to him that they lost sight of the need to treat their fellow students with dignity, at times attempting to push others away from their esteemed teacher’s proximity.

כִּי אֲתָא אַיְיתִי בַּהֲדֵיהּ עֶשְׂרִין וְאַרְבְּעָה אַלְפֵי תַּלְמִידִים, שְׁמַעָה דְּבֵיתְהוּ, הֲוָת קָא נָפְקָא לְאַפֵּיהּ. אֲמַרוּ לַהּ שִׁיבָבָתָא: שְׁאִילִי מָאנֵי לְבוֹשׁ וְאִיכַּסַּאי. אֲמַרָה לְהוּ: ״יוֹדֵעַ צַדִּיק נֶפֶשׁ בְּהֶמְתּוֹ״. כִּי מָטְיָא לְגַבֵּיהּ, נְפַלָה עַל אַפַּהּ, קָא מְנַשְּׁקָא לֵיהּ לְכַרְעֵיהּ. הֲווֹ קָא מְדַחֲפִי לַהּ שַׁמָּעֵיהּ. אֲמַר לְהוּ: שִׁבְקוּהָ, שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלָּכֶם — שֶׁלָּהּ הוּא

When he came back, he brought twenty-four thousand students with him. His wife heard and went out toward him to greet him. Her neighbors said: Borrow some clothes and wear them, as your current apparel is not appropriate to meet an important person. She said to them: “A righteous man understands the life of his beast” (Proverbs 12:10). When she came to him, she fell on her face and kissed his feet. His attendants pushed her away as they did not know who she was, and he said to them: Leave her alone, as my Torah knowledge and yours is actually hers (Ketubot 62b).

The Gemara’s account of the students trying to rebuff even Rabbi Akiva’s wife upon his return after many years illustrates the extent of their disrespectful behavior, seemingly born of misguided zeal. While their spiritual enthusiasm was commendable, the students’ overzealousness paradoxically led them to trample the very value they sought to uphold. Another possibility, however, points to a different oversight:

The idea of ואהבת לרעך כמוך, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), may have been so fundamental and self-evident to Rabbi Akiva that he neglected to explicitly instill it in his students day-to-day, assuming they had certainly internalized this “cardinal principle of the Torah.” At times, even the most basic tenets can be taken for granted, leading to a failure in transmitting them to the next generation.

Significantly, some sources suggest that Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement – declaring “Love your fellow as yourself” as the כלל גדול בתורה “cardinal principle of the Torah” (Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4) – came precisely in response to the tragic loss of his students. This timing implies that their deaths served as a bitter lesson, prompting Rabbi Akiva to realize the critical importance of actively teaching and reinforcing even the most elementary moral precepts.

The story of Rabbi Akiva’s students serves as a chilling reminder that even the noblest of intentions can lead to grave missteps when not accompanied by self-awareness and a daily examination of our actions. Moreover, consideration for others and consistent compassion for our fellow human beings are essential. This account illustrates the importance of continually scrutinizing our assumptions, contemplating the potential consequences of our deeds, and meticulously passing on the core teachings to future generations. We cannot assume that they undoubtedly know what we know.

We are repeatedly reminded of the tragic fate of Rabbi Akiva’s students for a period of 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. This memory serves to remind us of the human potential for error and the obligation to humbly acknowledge our blind spots. By learning from their failures, we can strive to embody the principles they failed to uphold. Thus, we can ensure that the lessons of respect, humility, and interpersonal love endure. We cannot take for granted or assume that future generations know what we know. We must teach our practices and traditions to the next generation. The chilling call of our Sages echoes through the ages – we must internalize the bitter lesson learned from the story of Rabbi Akiva and his students in our personal lives.

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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