According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b)
It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect.” Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah. (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4) It would be surprising that even just one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?
It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. And here is the issue. When his students first met his wife, he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to her. While living apart from his wife for all of those years, Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them? This is reminiscent of the adage, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect we need to model it.