Love, Awe & Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The time between Pesach and Shavuos is a mourning period partially for the reason given in Yevamos (62b): “It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

One of the questions asked on this Gemora is how is it that the students of Rabbi Akiva, who taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” did not respect one another to such a degree that it caused their death.

The Chasam Sofer answers this question by stating that Rabbi Akiva taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” after the death of his 24,000 students when he started over with 5 students. He saw that this teaching was primary for the continuance of Torah itself.

I would like to propose another answer. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (in Innerspace) points out that all emotions stem from the two root emotions of Love and Awe. Love is the emotion whereas we become connected, attached and united. Awe is where we recognize the greatness and uniqueness of another and we create distance out of the recognition and respect of that difference.

Rabbi Akiva’s student’s learned the message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” very well and they saw themselves and their colleagues as one unified entity. Love creates this unification. However, in addition to the needed connection resulting from love, we also need to see our uniqueness and the respect that flows from our unique role in the world. This is where the students failed and it was partly an over-emphasis on love and connection that lead to not properly respecting and recognizing each students unique greatness.

I told this over to Rabbi Welcher over Shabbos and he liked it even though he said over the Chasam Sofer’s explanation in his drasha. He provided some support of this idea from the Gemora on the same page (Yevamos 62b) where it says one should love his wife like himself, but honor her *more* than oneself which again shows the interplay between love and respect.

Another posssible application is the typical BT issues of communal integration coupled with the need of maintaining our sense of uniqueness. From the lesson of the Rabbi Akiva’s students we see the importance of both. If we continue to solidify our connections as well as recognizing and respecting each individual’s unique soul, talents, environment and challenges then perhaps we can fine tune the interplay between love and awe/respect and make our community a better place.

26 comments on “Love, Awe & Rabbi Akiva’s Students

  1. Dear Mr Frankel

    Sorry I only read the article, not people’s comments
    Rav Ezriel Tauber ,the student [talmid] of Rabbi M.D.B Weissmandel, Zatzal brings your pshat in one of his seforim[I think ”I shall not Want”, or maybe ”Self-Esteem, or ”Darkness before the Dawn”.

    Yours sincerely
    Gershon Wynschenk

  2. Steg,

    I really like your explanation. It makes sense. But still…if we can’t say the real reason, if don’t even know the real reason anymore, perhaps we need to move on. Especially when we already have a mourning period for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.

    Ron, I would say that the one thing we need to do is recognize that rules and traditions made at a specific time or place should not necessarily be binding on future generations.

  3. DK:

    that’s one understanding of what it’s all really about. obviously, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jewish sovereignty it would have been unsafe to preserve an explicit memory of the military victory-and-then-defeat, just as Hhazal stressed the miraculous menora-light of Hhanuka as opposed to the military victory.

  4. Ron,

    Jewish history is filled with ill-fated developments. what is truly is tragic is that outside of blaming not being frum enough as a cause for downfall, we are often unwilling to say, “this isn’t working,” or “this was a bad idea.”

    It seems such hubris is all too common in near-Eastern circles. I mean, look at our cousins. Since the late 60s, an increasingly popular idea in those circles is that the one thing they need to do is more frumkeit and more mesiras nefesh.

  5. Steg, that’s interesting. Certainly Rabbi Akiva supported that unfortunate attempt to escape the noose by pulling hard on it. But explain further, please.

  6. Just curious, does anyone else think this is a little much, in terms of duration, for something that happened a long, long, time ago?

  7. Bob, I agree with the unlikelihood of the flat org chart, but that would also answer why Rabbi Akiva was not able to adequately address this issue – middle managers.

  8. I can’t imagine an organizational chart as flat as 24000 employees reporting directly to one general manager. What do we know about the internal organization of this Yeshiva?

  9. Bob, Yes, but that distance is born out of the needed ingredient of respect.

    I just this second had the fortune of having lunch with Rebbetzin Heller and I told her over this idea. She brought support from a Maharal which stated that Ahavah and Yirah are contradictory forces in that Ahavah causes attaction and Yirah causes distance.

    Rebbetzin Heller also said the Chasam Sofer’s answer certainly makes life easier and would eliminate a lot of drashas on the subject.

    The tragedy of the student’s death has to also be looked at in the context of transmission of Torah. Rabbi Akiva and his five students after the tragedy are the primary teachers of almost the entire Mishna.

    Prehaps the issue is what is necessary for the proper transmission of Torah. A group of 5 distinguished Talmidim might be preferable to a group of 24,000 non-distinguished Talmidim.

    Finding the right balance of love and fear is a difficult and lifelong task and I don’t think anybody ever masters it. Even if Rabbi Akiva reached the highest levels here, transmission of such wisdom is no easy feat. When you also consider that Rabbi Akiva was in the process of passing on Torah to a Yeshiva of 24,000 after the Churban we might understand why this issue was not adequately addressed.

  10. Mark,
    Is the idea of your hypothesis that an overemphasis on love eliminated a necessary sort of distance between study partners? Even if this overfamiliarity or lack of distance was wrong and also made the study process less productive or effective, how exactly can one connect that to an event so tragic as the death of all these students?

    Furthermore, the Rosh Yeshiva here was none other than Rabbi Akiva, who would be well aware of the right balance between love and fear, and well aware of the condition of his student body and any needed corrective actions.

  11. OK, he is trying to describe the different things that go into yiras Hashem. But I am looking for someone who supports the proposition that yira is appropriately used in terms of typical interpersonal relations. Again, I think the Ramban is that person, but I was wondering if there are any more.

  12. R’ Aryeh Kaplan in his Handbook of Jewish Thought – Chapter 7 number 15 states: “The fear of G-d implies that one should give him the greatest respect and honor. Our reverence for God should far exceed the respect we have for even the most exalted mortal kings and rulers”

    In the footnote 48 on this statement he references Chovoth HaLevavoth 8:30; Reishith Chochmah, Shaar Ha Yirah 15; Tur, Orach Chaim 1; Chaya Adam 1:2; Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 1:4; Mishnah Berurah 1:1

  13. I guess we are positing the offsetting of Avraham’s boundless chesed by Yitzchak’s “din” orientation, which I suppose is rooted in yira. Clearly we need to find that balance. I am not used to the idea of approaching interpersonal relations with yira though besides regarding parents or teachers. I know in his Igerres the Ramban uses the term this way but at least some commentators find this so disquieting that they twist what seems like the plain meaning and say it means yiras Hashem. Interesting hypothesis!

  14. You need both but respect probably comes before love. Bilvavi (in Da Et Atzmcha) talks first about the need to be able to find the alone part of yourself and then he discusses the need for love and connection.

  15. Brilliant.
    I never thought about love and awe/respect in this way.Its the perfect concept to apply to so many different kinds of connections.Respect/Awe fixes so many things.It also acts like a check system so that emotions don’t go haywire. In so many different contexts and emotional settings.
    I also like the Yevamos 62b reference.Its right in sync sort of with that Sotah 4a arrogance leads to adultry reference.
    What’s more important to love everyone or respect everyone. Is it better to be loved or respected.lust and honor and jealousy drive a man or woman ? Out of this world.

  16. Good point Heidi. How to fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself is open to much discussion in the rishonim and achronim as many see loving someone as yourself as close to impossible.

    Rabbi Dessler has a great piece (Strive for Truth Vol 6 – Page 40) in which he identifies three levels
    1) Doing away with jealousy as per the Ramban
    2) Seeing your neighbor as part of collective Klal Yisroel and therefore you’re both of the same “body”
    3) Seeing your neighbor in the image of G-d

    For the purpose of this article, we would assume Rabbi Akiva’s students were on level 2.

  17. very nice… Another thought which you kind of touched upon: Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is great… but it is dependant on how one feels about his or her self. Someone with a low self-esteem may be fulfilling this while treating everyone like garbage.

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