climbing a mountain

Why do we celebrate Lag b’Omer, the day when the plague ended that killed nearly each and every one of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

Lag b’Omer is a happy day. We are told to increase our joy and not to recite any prayers of a mournful nature.

There are a number of reasons why Lag b’Omer is celebrated. The more well-known reason is attributed to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is said to have left instructions to celebrate the anniversary of his death (“yartzeit”).

According to some accounts, Lag b’Omer is indeed the day that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died. That is why hundreds of thousands of people travel to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron on this date.

Another reason for the celebrations on Lag b’Omer is that it is the day on which the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying. For over the course of a month most of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died. On Lag b’Omer, the epidemic that was killing them ceased.

This latter reason for celebrating Lag b’Omer is very strange. Imagine a person who has 10 sons. One after the other, each one dies. There are no more sons. Would the parents think of calling for an annual day of celebration because their sons stopped dying? Of course not!

So why the celebration to recall the day on which Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying?

It is explained that it had originally been decreed in heaven that only Rabbi Akiva would die in the plague. God later rescinded the decree somewhat and decided to exchange the death of Rabbi Akiva for something of equivalent value: 24,000 rabbinical students.

According to this approach, the celebrations of Lag b’Omer are a bit more palatable: They recall Rabbi Akiva and are reminded that his contribution to Judaism and Jewish scholarship that was saved.

After the plague, Rabbi Akiva took his five surviving students (Rav Meir, Rav Yehuda, Rav Yossi, Rav Shimon, and Rav Elazar ben Shamua) and they moved to southern Israel.

I am sure it is safe to assume that if –God forbid—any of us would have suffered such a tragedy, we would have simply given up on life. But not Rabbi Akiva. Even after the destruction of everything he worked so hard to build, he continued on. He moved forward. He started from scratch. He knew that the continuity of the Jewish people depended on him, and he simply could not throw in the towel.

And he was right! There is not a single page in the entire Talmud that does not mention at least one of the five disciples of Rabbi Akiva.

We have much to learn from Rabbi Akiva. When things are tough – never throw in the towel. Never give up. Your efforts will never be in vain.

So when you celebrate Lag b’Omer this year, have in mind a celebration to recall Rabbi Akiva’s strength to persevere even after witnessing horrific tragedy. May we never be in his shoes.