Rabbi Akiva and the Thirty-Third of the Omer

10 May 2020

Letter from president Bill Clinton about Rabbi Akiva.This article was excerpted from “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership” by Rabbi Menachem Genack.  

Amid destruction it takes uncommon optimism to remain hopeful. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, and a curious holiday celebrating his legacy, provide an enduring message of optimism the most difficult of circumstances.

EACH YEAR, LATE IN SPRING, is a holiday unlike any other on the Jewish calendar. It is called Lag ba-Omer, the Thirty-third of the Omer. The Omer refers to the measure of barley that is offered in the Temple on the second day of Passover. The holiday is called the Thirty-third of the Omer in reference to the Biblical injunction (Lev. 23:15) to count the days between the barley offering on Passover, and the Festival of Weeks (“Shavuot” in Hebrew) fifty days later. This process is known as the “Counting of the Omer.” Rabbinic tradition records in the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) that as the result of a plague, Rabbi Akiva, the great second-century sage, lost all twenty-four
thousand of his students during this same fifty-day period. Some have interpreted this “plague” as a metaphor for the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba Revolt against Rome, in which Rabbi Akiva himself was ultimately martyred. Since the time of this devastating loss, the Counting of the Omer has been a time dedicated to remembering the terrible tragedy that occurred so many centuries ago. Joy is curtailed and, in particular, several of the laws of mourning are observed.
On Lag ba-Omer, however—the thirty-third day of the Omer—mourning gives way to celebration.

While the common explanation for this holiday is that it was on this day that the plague abated, some have suggested a different explanation, one that provides a special insight into the indomitable faith of Rabbi Akiva.
The Talmud says further (Yevamot 62b) that after the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, Rabbi Akiva, unbent, traveled to the south of Israel. There he found five new students and taught them the Torah. These five students became scholars and ultimately teachers, and from them Torah scholarship was rejuvenated.

It is Rabbi Akiva’s capacity to persevere in the worst of times, and to do so with supreme optimism, that distinguishes him as the “greatest of the Rabbis.” The Thirty-third of the Omer thus celebrates Rabbi Akiva’s resoluteness, despite an extraordinary setback, to forge a new beginning for the Jewish people.

Another Talmudic story is told about Rabbi Akiva that underscores his particular greatness.
The Talmud (Makkot 24b) relates that a few of Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues traveled one year with Rabbi Akiva to Jerusalem. They reached Mount Scopus, and there they tore their garments in grief, for they saw a fox scurrying from under the ruins of what had been the Holy of Holies, the Temple’s inner sanctuary.

All of the Rabbis began to weep—save for Rabbi Akiva, who laughed. “Why are you laughing?” the Rabbis asked him. Rabbi Akiva replied, “Why are you weeping?” The Rabbis, in response, quoted a verse that refers to the superior sanctity of the Holy of Holies: “The stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.” (Num. 1:51) And now we see foxes living here!
Shouldn’t we weep?”

In response, Rabbi Akiva justified his optimistic laughter by quoting verses that contain two opposing predictions, each offered by a prophet of God. It had been said of the First Temple that “Zion for your sake be plowed as a field” (Mic. 3:12). In contrast, a later prophet, living in the time of the Second Temple, had predicted that “old men and old women [will] dwell in
the streets of Jerusalem” (Zech. 8:4). Rabbi Akiva explained, “Until one of these prophecies was fulfilled, I had doubts that the other one would be fulfilled.”

Now that Zion had been “plowed over like a field,” however—to the point that foxes were living on the site of the Holy of Holies!—Rabbi Akiva felt certain that the promised revival and reconstruction of Jerusalem would also come to pass. Therefore upon seeing the foxes making use of the “field” that had once been the Temple, Rabbi Akiva remembered the dual prophecies
and felt joy and optimism, rather than sadness and defeat. Upon hearing his words, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues said to him, “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us.”

The thirty-third day of the Omer is an occasion for us also to be comforted by Rabbi Akiva’s great and inspiring optimism. In a time of desolation he created a new beginning, and amidst destruction he was able to see the seeds of redemption. It is his example that inspires us to shape from what at times appears to be so little, the possibility for so much.