Questions, Notes, and Comments Regarding the 12,000 Pairs of Students of Rabbi Akiva who died 19 Centuries Ago [Talmud Tuesday]
There is a Talmudic tradition that 24,000 students died in the early part of the second century in the land of Israel all within a springtime period. According to that tradition, they died between Passover and Shavuot, the latter of which is coming up this weekend, so they died within this time period centuries ago. I have mentioned the Talmudic texts relating to this tradition before and now seek to consider them further. The central text is the following beraita (Yevamot 62b):
דתניא, רבי יהושע אומר: נשא אדם אשה בילדותו – ישא אשה בזקנותו, היו לו בנים בילדותו – יהיו לו בנים בזקנותו, שנא’: +קהלת י”א+ בבקר זרע את זרעך ולערב אל תנח ידך כי אינך יודע אי זה יכשר הזה או זה ואם שניהם כאחד טובים;
רבי עקיבא אומר: למד תורה בילדותו – ילמוד תורה בזקנותו, היו לו תלמידים בילדותו – יהיו לו תלמידים בזקנותו, שנא’: בבקר זרע את זרעך וגו’.
אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא, מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה
לזה, והיה העולם שמם, עד שבא רבי עקיבא אצל רבותינו שבדרום, ושנאה להם רבי מאיר ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה.
It was taught:
Rabbi Yehoshua says, “If a man married a woman in his youth, he should marry in his older age. If he had children in his youth, he should have children in his older age, as it is said, ‘In the morning, plant your seed; and in the evening, do not let your hand rest, because you do not know which one will prosper – this one or this one, or if both of them will be good like one’ (Eccl. 11.6).”
Rabbi Akiva says, “If he learned Torah in his youth, he should learn Torah in his older age. If he had students in his youth, he should have students in his older age, as it is said, ‘In the morning, plant your seed; and in the evening, do not let your hand rest, because you do not know which one will prosper – this one or this one, or if both of them will be good like one’’ (Eccl. 11.6).”
They said, “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students, geographically ranging from Gabbatha until Antipatris – and they all died at one segment of time, because they did not accord honor one to the other. And the world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva reached our rabbis in the south and taught the Torah to them. They were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yosé, Rabbi Shim’on, and Rabbi Eleazar, son of Shammua, and they revived the Torah at that time.”
Here are some thoughts and observations of mine:
- Wow! That’s a lot of students to have, in the first place, for Rabbi Akiva! How did he manage teaching all of them?
- It’s also interesting that the students were not all huddled in the same area or around a certain city.
- It’s furthermore interesting that the students stretched from Gabbatha, a part of Jerusalem, through Antipatris, which is along the Roman road between Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem, although the students didn’t continue along that road all the way up to the coast in Caesarea Maritima.
- What caused them to all die during a specific time period? Which time period might it have been and why?
- Could it have been a disease that ravaged them?
- Could it have been creatures (bugs, animals, etc.)?
- Did anybody else die within this time period in these places? If so, how many total people died at this time?
- Although somewhat surprisingly, despite not offering a cause of death, the text does offer a reason for their deaths(!): “they did not accord honor to one another” – Who was not according honor to one another? And how?
- Was it that the pairs were not according honor to other pairs, perhaps in a competitive fashion about their Torah knowledge or intelligence?
- Was it the individual members of each pair not according honor to each other within the pair?
- How were the people not according honor to each other? Why does the text not state this method?
- How did this not according honor to each other cause their deaths? Were they fighting each other until they all died out?
- Were they fighting each other and contracted a disease/virus, which quickly spread due to their close physical proximity?
- What was it that made Rabbi Akiva up and leave where he was and go down south?
- Were these five latter rabbis already trained and rabbis or were they fresh?
- Why did Rabbi Akiva only have five new students?
- How could he go from having thousands of students to only five? What must have that experience been like?
- Did he want a more intimate and controlled learning/teaching environment, perhaps one that did not get away from him and spiral out-of-control as had his earlier teaching project gone with the calamitous loss of thousands of lives?
- Why did he go from having thousands of pairs to a small number of non-paired students (since five students is not an even number, it stands to reason that they were not grouped into pairs; however, if they were in pairs, how would they have been arranged? Would they have been in two pairs with Rabbi Akiva pairing up with the fifth student? Would he have rotated pairs (perhaps fixing a mistake he made with his first set of thousands of disciples)?
- One wonders what Rabbi Akiva’s mourning for the thousands of his deceased students would have been like. It is hard to imagine him not to have been devastated.
- One wonders what his mourning would have been like: why does the text not mention his mourning for his students and how it affected him?
- Also, one wonders: if this was such a devastating loss, why is there no mention of any broader communal mourning for these students?
- Why does the Talmud not mandate any mourning period for the generations to commemorate these deceased students?
- Could the Talmudic sages specifically made sure not to institute any mourning practices to commemorate this occurrence on account of their lack of honor amongst each other? Perhaps the Talmudic sages deemed these students not fit to fuss over?
- Finally, Rabbi Akiva is incredibly resilient! The loss of any number of students, especially within a short period of time, I would imagine, would be horrifically devastating to anybody. Yet, Rabbi Akiva is able to pick himself up, move on, and start with new students. That certainly demonstrates an incredible amount of fortitude and lack of giving up.
In a separate text that follows this text, the editors included another tannaitic text that specifies the time period of when these students’ deaths occurred:
תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת.
It was taught: All of them died from Passover until Shavuot.
Again, as I mentioned above, it is interesting that they all died within a time period, and here, this text specifies that it was between Passover and Shavuot. It does not mention why their deaths all occurred within this time period, nor does it mention if their deaths began during Passover and continued until Shavuot, or if their deaths began after Passover and continued up until, but not including Shavuot, or if their deaths occurred within some time period within the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. If it’s the last possibility, it could be that they all died within a month’s time, or even within a few weeks’ time (or, even more devastatingly, within a matter of days(!))(!).
I have raised a lot of questions, comments, and notes here on these two beraitot from the Babylonian Talmud and, while I don’t anticipate receiving any answers, they should be helpful in considering these texts. There are a couple of amoraim whose comments are quoted on the same page in the Talmud who discuss the deaths of these students, but I will leave the discussion of those for another time.