Lag BaOmer "on one foot":
The holiday of Lag BaOmer is associated with having haircuts. This source sheet looks at the reasons behind that.
Is there really a holiday that we celebrate with haircuts?
Context: The Shulchan Aruch was published by Rabbi Joseph Caro in 1563 as a “Code of Jewish Law”, explaining what to do in every situation that it could think of. In general it gives Sephardic practice, so the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles) wrote a gloss giving the Ashkenazic practice when it was different. There are 4 sections to the Shulchan Aruch:
Orach Chayim - the laws about Jewish time (prayer time and holidays)
Yoreh De’ah - the laws about Jewish living (kashrut, conversion, mourning, Israel)
Even Ha’ezer - the laws about getting married and divorced
Choshen Mishpat - the laws about business, money, and courts
This is in the part of Orach Chayim about Pesach.
What questions does this raise for you?
So what happened with Rabbi Akiba's students?
Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, which is about the custom of "yibbum", where a widow marries her brother-in-law in order to have a kid accorded to her husband's name. This text is commenting on a mishnah that says you no longer have to fulfill the commandment of "be fruitful and multiply" if you already have a kid (or possibly a boy and a girl). In this sugya (section), it says that a baraita (text that didn't make it into the Mishnah) says that according to Rabbi Joshua actually you need to keep having kids even after you've had some, and if your wife dies you should marry again and have more into your old age. He supports this with a verse about sowing seeds in the morning and in the evening because you don't know how each of them will turn out. Rabbi Akiba doesn't think that Rabbi Joshua is right (nor does the Gemara); since in the Gemara people have to deal with the evidence presented by those they disagree with, this text expounds Rabbi Akiba's interpretation of the verse Rabbi Joshua cites.
What happens in this text?
Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit, which is about fasting. The mishnah that it is commenting on (Ta'anit 4:6) is a classic Tisha B'Av and Seventeenth of Tammuz text about calamities on those days and therefore the reasons why we fast on those days. One of the things that happened on the 9th of Av is the fall of Beitar, which effectively ended the Bar-Kochba Revolt in 135 CE. This text is part of Rabbi Akiba's thoughts on that subject. Incidentally, the “Seder” in B’nai Brak that we read about in the Haggadah was probably more revolutionary than it seems from a surface read.
Given how Rabbi Akiba felt about Bar-Kochba, and given that the Talmud sometimes speaks cryptically, how might his students have died?
Context: This is from a responsa written by Rav Sherira Gaon, the head of a Babylonian academy, to a query from a Tunisian community in 986. The question was about how the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud came to be. The response is the first use of a historical lens on the Talmud.
What does Rav Sherira Gaon’s explanation for the demise of Rabbi Akiba’s students support in our understanding of why they might have died?
אמרו על ר' עקיבא ששנים עשר אלף זוגות תלמידים היו לו וכלן מתו בפרק אחד על שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם בלא תורה עד שבא לו אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנה להם לר' מאיר ור' שמעון ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ור' אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו את השעה ותלמידים אלו הוזכר כאן שכלם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת וקבלה ביד הגאונים שביום ל"ג בעומר פסקה המיתה ונוהגים מתוך כך שלא להתענות בו וכן נוהגים מתוך כך שלא לישא אשה מפסח עד אותו זמן:
Meiri, Tractate Yevamot 62b
There is a received tradition from the Geonim that on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deaths (of the students of R. Akivah) stopped...and we also have the custom not to get married from Pesach until this time
Context: The Meiri, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, was a Spanish rabbi who lived from 1249-1315. He wrote a commentary on the Talmud. The Geonim were the heads of the Babylonian academies from the 500s to the 1000s. They were the first ones to start interpreting the Babylonian Talmud. Apparently the Geonim had a tradition that the “plague” stopped at “Atzeret”, which they took to mean “16 days before Shavuot”.
Other possible explanations for why Lag BaOmer became a day of celebration include that there was a lull in the fighting during the Bar-Kochba rebellion, or that possibly they captured Jerusalem on this day in 132 CE, or that Rabbi Akiba “ordained” the 5 rabbis on Lag BaOmer, thus ensuring that Jewish tradition would continue to be taught. Additionally, the Byzantine Emperor Julian tried to rebuild the Third Temple, but an earthquake in 363 CE stopped him and that supposedly happened on this day.
Which explanation resonates with you the most?
For more about Lag BaOmer, including the connection to laser-eyed rabbis, bows and arrows, and bonfires, please visit the longer version of this sheet here: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/234406?lang=bi.
With thanks to: Benjamin Adler, Dovid Birk, Rena Ableman, Eliana Willis, Rabbi Claude Vecht-Wolf, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, Sara Wolkenfeld, Joseph Ravitsky, David Schlusselberg, Shaul Wertheimer, Sefaria Education, Sarah Zollman, and Aaron Klein.