Friday, May 23, 2008

Lag BaOmer: Why Celebrate That There Were Not Any Students Left?

It is a good question, and has been asked in the past. Thus, Avraham Bronstein writes:
Me: So why do we celebrate Lag BaOmer?
Student: Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying.
Me: OK, how many students did he have?
Student: 24,000 (he was well-prepped by his morning studies)
Me: And how many died?
Student: All of them.
Me: So, think with me now, why did they 'stop dying'?
Student: Because there weren't any left....wait a second, that's not a good thing, why are we celebrating?
This leads him to the conclusion that Lag baOmer is a holiday of folk holiday.

Perhaps. Perhaps various reasons were tacked on afterwards, but it originally had to do with, e.g., Rashbi, or with the ending of pogroms, and so on.

But just because one has a question does not mean that the entire enterprise has been disproved. For example, perhaps the students of Rabbi Akiva were not the only ones dying from iskara. Who says the plague only attacked them? Though all these students died, the ending of such a massive plague could be cast as a day of great joy.

Or, we could say the following, which is why I actually wrote this post. I saw an interesting suggestion in Aruch haShulchan, which also happens to answer this question (see inside).

The gemara which talks about Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students dying says that they died from Pesach until Shavuos. So why assume that they stopped dying at lag baOmer. Doesn't this contradict the gemara. There are answers, such as a midrash which says "until peros haAtzeret" or Tosafot's answer about subtracting the days in which aveilut is not noheg (Pesach, Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh).

But the Aruch haShulchan brings down that it did not entirely end on that day, but it paused. Thus, people died all the way until Shavuot. But on lag baOmer, nobody died. Thus, this exchange:
Me: So, think with me now, why did they 'stop dying'?
Student: Because there weren't any left....wait a second, that's not a good thing, why are we celebrating?
would not be correct, according to this interpretation.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I once gave a shiur on this very question. I suggested that the celebration was R' Akiva's excitement at the opportunity to start over. When the last student died, R' Akiva did not mark it as a sad day, refusing to be depressed by the tragedy that occurred. Instead, he focused on the opportunity that lay ahead. This fits in nicely with the version of the midrash that tells how R' Akiva told his new students not to be like the old students and respect each other, after which they went and filled the world with Torah. The celebration of Lag BaOmer is a lesson on how to deal with tragedy and suffering. That's my pshat in any case.

Awesome blog, by the way. I check for updates constantly. Very thoughtful stuff. Thanks for writing.

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