The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples, all of whom passed away during the period from Pesach to Atzeres (i.e.Shavuos):
ר"ע 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 ר"ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום, ושנאה להם ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה.תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת. אמר רב חמא בר אבא, ואיתימא ר' חייא בר אבין: כולם מתו מיתה רעה. מאי היא? א"ר נחמן: אסכרה.
Rabbi Akiva said: If a man studied Torah in his youth, he should also study it in his old age. If he had disciples in his youth, he should also have disciples in his old age. As it says (Ecclesiastes 11:6), "In the morning plant your seed [and and in the evening do not rest your hand; for you do not know which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they shall both be alike good.]"
It was said: Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbath to Antipatris, and they all died at the same time because they did not show proper respect towards each other, and the world was desolate until R. Akiba came to our Rabbis in the south and taught the Torah to them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua; and it was they who upheld the Torah at that time.
It was taught: All of them died from Pesach and until Atzeres. Rav Chama bar Abba, or, it might be said, Rav Chiya bar Abin said: All of them died a bad death. What was it? — Rav Nachman said: Askera (a choking disease).
It is in memory of this loss that we engage in a period of mourning during this time. According to tradition, the deaths actually ended on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer), fifteen days before Shavuos, and for this reason the mourning ends at this time. (ספר המנהיג, הל' פסח סי' ק"ו; מאירי יבמות ס"ב)
However, while this would explain why the mourning ends on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer), it does not explain how the 33rd day of the Omer has come to be a minor holiday on which, as the Rema states (O"C 493:2), “מרבים בו קצת שמחה” – “we engage in a small amount of rejoicing.” Why are we rejoicing? That the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying? The students of Rabbi Akiva did not experience a miraculous salvation on this day. The students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying because there weren't any left! They were all dead. How does this become a celebration?
Perhaps the most basic explanation for what we are celebrating on Lag BaOmer is found in the Pri Chadash, a major commentary written on the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Chizkia di Silva (d.1698), who begins by asking the very same question we have just raised:
......יש לדקדק בשמחה זו למה. ואי משום שפסקו מלמות, מה בכך? הרי לא נשאר אחד מהם, וכולם מתו! ומה סיבה של שמחה זו? ואפשר שהשמחה היא על אותם תלמידים שהוסיף אח"כ ר"ע, שלא מתו כאלו.
We need to clarify the purpose of this rejoicing [on Lag BaOmer]. If it is because they stopped dying, what [reason for rejoicing] is there in that? Not one of them remained, they had all died! So what is the reason for this rejoicing? Possibly, the answer is that the rejoicing is over those disciples that Rabbi Akiva added on afterwards, who did not die as these did.
The Pri Chadash tells us that the reason for our celebration is because Rabbi Akiva went on to teach new students, who did not fall prey to the errors of their predecessors, thereby rebuilding the Torah world.
Based upon this Pri Chadash, we can see that there are, fundamentally, three basic themes that underlie the celebration of Lag BaOmer:
- We celebrate the greatness of Rabbi Akiva that, even after suffering such an incredible blow, he never gave up hope. This is the main lesson taught in the Talmudic passage quoted above. Even after he lost all of his students, Rabbi Akiva did not give up but went on to teach new students.Rav Gedalia Schorr expands upon this theme ('אור גדליהו – מועדים, ל"ג בעומר ו):בל"ג בעומר הוא זמן להתחזק בתורה, שאף אם לא למד והיה לו זמנים של נפילה, בל"ג בעומר הוא זמן לחזק את עצמו. ויש לו ליקח לימוד מרע"ק, שמתו לו כ"ד אלף תלמידים, ואח"כ העמיד חמשה תלמידים, וביניהם רשב"י, שעל ידיהם היה התפשטות התורה בישראל, ולא נתייאש מזה שמתו לו כ"ד אלף תלמידים. כן כל אדם, אף שעברו לו הסתירות שונים ונפילות, יחזק עצמו בלימוד התורה.
Lag BaOmer is a time for us to strengthen ourselves in Torah study. Even if one has not learned, and has had periods of downfall, Lag BaOmer is a time to strengthen oneself. One should learn from the example of Rabbi Akiva, whose twenty-four thousand disciples died, and afterwards he raised up five students (one of whom was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) through whom the Torah was spread through Israel. The death of his 24,000 students did not cause him to give up. Similarly for every person, even if one endures various obstacles and downfalls, one should strengthen himself in Torah study.
- We celebrate that the later students of Rabbi Akiva recognized the lesson in what had happened to their predecessors and took that lesson to heart. It is certain that, however we are to understand the sin of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students – that “they did not show proper respect towards each other” – their sin was not an obvious one. The students of Rabbi Akiva were great men, and their death left the world “desolate” of Torah. Nevertheless, the later students of Rabbi Akiva recognized that such a major catastrophe could only come about through some significant underlying moral error, and through this recognition they were able to avoid repeating that error.
- Finally, our mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, and our celebration of Rabbi Akiva’s new students, points to our recognition of the absolute centrality of a living mesorah – Torah tradition – in Judaism. While the Jewish people are often called the “People of the Book” (a phrase coined by Mohammed), the title is misleading in that the word “book” refers to a physical object. We are not the people of the “Book of the Torah”, we are the people of the Torah, in both its written and oral form. Even today, when much of the “Oral” Torah has been written down in works such as the Talmud, the core of the Torah is still oral and is transmitted from teachers to students. The existence of a living mesorah – of actual flesh and blood rabbis and disciples – is essential for the survival of the Torah and the Jewish people.