During this period of the Omer (between Pesach and Shavu’ot) many people observe certain customs of mourning: not shaving, not celebrating weddings, not buying new clothes, and not listening to instrumental music. Strangely enough, this custom arose as a way of marking a mysterious plague of the ancient world. ‘What plague?’ you may ask. For that, we need to back to Rabbi Akiva and the Jewish rebellion against Rome.
The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) relates the story that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, all of whom died in a plague that ran rampant between Pesach and Shavu’ot one year. The Talmud attempts to justify their deaths saying that they were killed, ‘because they did not treat each other with respect.’ Yet, even in the language the text uses, it makes clear that there’s more to the story.
The ‘plague’ under discussion is actually a euphemism. Rabbi Akiva’s students didn’t die from disease, they died because they were killed fighting in the revolt against Rome led by Shim’on bar Kokhvah. Akiva was a supporter of bar Kokhvah and his students presumably either joined him in rebelling against Roman rule or if not, were suspected of doing so by Roman authorities.
Roman historian Cassius Dio relates that during the years of the rebellion (132-136 CE) 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns destroyed, and 985 villages razed. Although bar Kokhva did achieve many victories, Roman forces eventually overwhelmed the rebels, famously cornering the remainder at the fortress of Beitar at the end of the war.
After the war was over, the Romans went on a campaign that can only be called genocidal– annihilating Jewish communities in any place they could find. In addition, they took 8 leaders of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Akiva included, and arrested, tortured, and killed them. This marked the final bloody end of 150 years of conflict between Rome and Jerusalem and the beginning of nearly 2000 years of exile for our people.
Despite this history, which is well attested by both Jewish and non-Jewish archaeological sources, our Sages who came later clearly were uncomfortable with promoting the narrative of Rabbi Akiva’s students as warriors felled by the Romans. When the story is told in the Talmud, it is a ‘plague’ which kills them. Perhaps they meant to suggest that the marrying of religious devotion and radical violence that inspired bar Kokhva was itself the plague. Perhaps they merely wanted to ignore the ignominious history of the rebellion (which is rarely mentioned in Rabbinic sources.)
Either way, there is some merit to the mourning customs of the Omer, whether as an opportunity to recall those 24,000 students who perished– to remember their heroism and their devotion, or to carefully caution ourselves against the same.