Litvaks and Lag B’Omer

By BJLife/AJ Esral

Posted on 05/06/23

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So what’s the deal with Lag B’Omer?

The Gemara in Yevamos famously tells the story of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim who all died between Pesach and Shavuos for committing the grievous crime of not according one another with the proper respect. We observe the laws of aveilus during these weeks, refraining from shaving and subjecting ourselves to cringy acapella music until at long last, Lag Ba’Omer arrives, replete with lighting bonfires, launching bows and arrows, and little boys’ upsherins, and we breathe a sigh of relief that we can finally turn off the Maccabeats.

This period of aveilus is hard to relate to. This wasn’t the Churban. We don’t know anything about these talmidim. There were, unfortunately, many other periods in our history when far more people died in a far shorter time period, and those tragedies all get lumped together with our collective aveilus on Tisha B’Av. Why do these anonymous talmidim get special treatment?

What’s more, the reason they all died was because they didn’t give kavod to one another. Why is that so bad? It would be one thing if they disparaged their rebbi, or the gadol hador, perhaps. But a chavrusa is a different story. He’s your equal, after all. Possibly the best insult we have in all of Shas was when R’ Yehuda Hanasi said of Levi in Yevamos (9a), כמדומה לי שאין לו מוח בקדקדו—it would appear that there is no brain in his head. Ouch. What exactly is the inyan of giving kavod to one’s chavrusa?

And moreover, how does this tie in to Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai? It is said that Lag B’Omer is the celebration of Toras haNistar, which is about as un-Litvish of a thing as one can say. Litvaks don’t know of such things. Is there a Litvish way to relate to Lag B’Omer, or are we non-kabbalistically-inclined supposed to just play along?

The Three Types of Talmidei Chachamim

Let’s first talk about kavod haTorah. The pasuk in Devarim (4:4) says ואתם הדביקים בה' אלקיכם חיים כולכם היום. The Gemara in Kesubos (111b) asks how it is possible to cleave to Hashem if He is like an all-consuming fire, and answers that the mitzvah is to attach ourselves to talmidei chachamim, by marrying our daughters to them, doing business with them, and letting them benefit from our possessions. A certain kavod haTorah is being described here, one which enables us to attach ourselves to the Shechina, kiviyachol.

But which talmid chacham is this referring to?

The Rambam in Hil. Talmud Torah (perakim 5-6) describes three types of talmidei chachamim one is supposed to give kavod to: (1) one’s rebbi muvhak, from whom one has learned most of his knowledge; (2) a ‘talmid chaver’ who has also taught a person, albeit not the majority of his knowledge; and (3) any talmid chacham, even one who has not taught a person anything. Which of these three is the Gemara in Kesubos talking about?

We can infer from the Gemara’s lack of specificity that the talmid chacham one is supposed to do business with, etc., is the third one on the list: the regular, run-of-the-mill talmid chacham, and not specifically someone who has had a particular influence on us. What is the inyan of giving him special treatment?

The Purest Type of Kavod

The short answer is that only by the third one is the kavod haTorah inherent. To illustrate by way of contrast, one’s rebbi muvhak is given the most kavod, because it is his Torah that will usher his student into Olam Haba; thus, the student is obliged to recognize that. The same can be said for the talmid chaver. In other words, the kavod given to one’s rebbi, though partly a function of the kavod of the Torah itself, is also a function of the fact that he is giving a person something invaluable; there is an additional (and perhaps no less important) imperative of hakaras hatov. There is more at play than regular kavod haTorah that a talmid chacham deserves.

It follows that kavod haTorah, in its purest form, is and can only be with the person to whom you have no personal connection; the only thing you’re honoring about them is their Torah. Of that person, it is said that to marry your daughter to them, do business with them, etc. is like cleaving to the Shechina itself. ואתם הדביקים בה' אלקיכם, you who cleave to Hashem Himself, through attaching yourself to His talmidei chachamim, חיים כולכם היום, you will be given life.

So let’s go back to talmidei Rabi Akiva. They didn’t afford proper kavod to one another. In light of the above, we can suggest that it was specifically because they were equals that a lack in this particular brand of kavod was so damaging. There was no imperative to honor one another as one would a rebbi—they were indeed equals, and owed each other only the simple derech eretz that they owed everyone else. However, the kavod that was demanded of them was kavod haTorah, not kavod of bein adam l’chaveiro. This kavod was like that third level of the Rambam, stripped of any external motivations. This was to be the purest form of kavod haTorah there is: kavod for nothing but the Torah itself.

Now, if every one of them was flawed, but in different ways, or alternatively if most, but not all of them had this flaw, they would have survived. But if every one of them had this exact flaw, then the mesorah of Rabi Akiva would be fatally compromised—the notion of kavod not for our rebbeim, not for our gedolim, but for Torah itself. This would never be passed on, and would be left out of our mesorah. Understanding that Torah comes from Hashem even when not being used explicitly to teach others or to lead a nation—Torah in its purest form, Torah which is not being used for any of that, is supremely valuable. A mesorah devoid of this is fatally flawed, and thus, the talmidim of Rabi Akiva had to die, so as not to promulgate it.

Seeing Beyond

What does all this have to do with Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and Toras haNistar?


The whole premise of Torah sheBaal Peh is to unpack the Torah ShebiKsav, to show the sea of meaning lying underneath the surface. Toras haNistar goes a step further, uncovering a new layer of kedusha within the Torah sheBaal Peh, and, beyond that, revealing the latent sparks of kedusha in everything. Wherever these two shine their light, the external and unholy façade falls away, revealing endless layers of intractable depth. Just compare the size of your shul Chumash with the rest of the shul’s library.

The talmidim of Rabi Akiva were unable to see past the surface of their chavrusas and appreciate the depth of the Torah they carried. The lower standard, which they likely met, was having proper kavod towards their rebbi. But to see their chavrusas as repositories of Torah, deserving of a certain standard of kavod haTorah even without having taught them—on this point, they failed, and the ensuing churban served as a chilling reminder that to detach from that sort of kavod haTorah is to detach from life itself, as the pasuk so eloquently attests.

Rabi Akiva’s Sensitivity

This particular type of kavod haTorah was something Rabi Akiva personally excelled in. the Mishna at the end of Sotah says that when Rabi Akiva died, kavod haTorah died with him. Rashi there explains that Rabi Akiva took it upon himself to darshan every crown of every letter. In other words, even the parts of Torah which are, perhaps, furthest from the plain meaning of the text carry a world of meaning in themselves, and Rabi Akiva made it his business to reveal that. This is true kavod haTorah: showing that every part of Torah, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, is an expression of ratzon Hashem, and should be accorded the proper respect.

Who can forget the famous story of Rabi Akiva’s night in the woods, where for every mishap that befell him—not finding a place to stay in the city, his donkey and rooster dying, his candle going out—he looked beyond the plain event in front of him until he found the spark of ratzon Hashem underlaying it and declared gam zu letovah? Indeed, the Gemara says of Rabi Akiva, יצתה נשמתו באחד; his soul’s culmination in this world, the final note with which it took its leave, was the expression that everything in this world is אחד—everything can be traced back to the will of Hashem.

The New Generation

Moreover, our celebration on Lag B’Omer of Rabi Akiva’s resilience in taking on new talmidim in the face of such tragedy also highlights this quality.

The question is asked why we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer as the day the talmidim stopped dying if there were no more left to die. It is said in the name of Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l that we are celebrating Rabi Akiva’s resolve in continuing, in taking on new talmidim, and not giving up amid his horrific losses. To flesh out this idea a bit more, it wasn’t just that he didn’t give up. Rabi Akiva channeled the lesson of this tragedy—the danger of not recognizing the value of Torah in and of itself—into his next five talmidim. In so doing, Rabi Akiva found the spark of kedusha latent in the tragedy itself, and transformed that into a new generation of Torah leadership which, if nothing else, would certainly not lack in this most important quality. And the fruit of this effort, the kedusha that came from the 24,000 lost talmidim, ultimately produced a Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar and leader in the world of Toras haNistar, in seeing and revealing the latent sparks of kedusha which underlay everything. This is the legacy of Lag Ba’Omer, of turning around and unlocking the holiness that lays dormant in everything, even the most horrific tragedies.

To end on a very un-Litvish note, there is a delicious remez from R’ Menachem Mendel of Shklov, a talmid of the Gaon, from a pasuk in Bamidbar (21:20). It is the last pasuk of the Shiras haBe’er, which describes a series of miracles that accompanied Klal Yisrael on their journeys. The water of the well (which refers to Torah) reached the desert, Matanah, Nachliel, and Bamos, whereupon it says that ונשקפה על פני הישימן – the well reached the peak of Pisgah, which overlooks the wasteland. R’ Menachem Mendel says that ישימן stands for Yehuda, Shimon, Yosi, Meir, and Nechemiah, R’ Akiva’s five new talmidim.[1]

In other words, the chiddush of Rabi Akiva was to reveal Torah in the most forsaken wilderness—to show that nothing, not the smallest crown of a yud or the most desolate wasteland, is devoid of an inner spark of kedusha; it is only a matter being sensitive enough to detect and reveal it.

[1] The Tosafos Yeshanim in Yoma amends the girsa to switch out R’ Elazar ben Shamua for R’ Nechemiah.