Q. I have two questions concerning Lag Ba’Omer: Why is the Counting of the Omer a time of mourning? Why is the mourning broken on Lag Ba’Omer?A. There is a popular theory that links it with the students of Rabbi Akiva who died at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt. The most explicit reference to their death is the Mishnah in Y’vamot 61b and the G’mara to that passage. How many died, it asks? 12,000 pairs of students. Why did they die? Because they did not treat each other with respect. When did they die? Between Pesach and Shavu’ot. How did they die? From ask’ra, a choking disease.
In other versions of the story the numbers of victims differ and the reason for the deaths is expressed differently. The exact nature of ask’ra is also debated, though the general consensus is that it was a punishment for evil talk. How does all of this bear on the Jewish people as a whole?
Any death is a tragedy, and the rabbinic tradition of Rabbi Akiva is regarded so highly that a tragedy in his student group must have left an impact on Torah study. But was their death a national event to the extent that the whole Jewish people should observe it? And if it did warrant widespread mourning, why is the practice not known before the late Middle Ages?
The Shulchan Aruch helps us (Orach Chayyim 493) by pointing out that our people suffered many calamities at this time of the year; the blow to Jewish learning in Rabbi Akiva’s time could therefore have been chosen as a symbol of them all. But once we bear in mind that Rabbi Akiva was the great champion of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, we realise that his disciples must have been integral to the war effort. Their death, though not directly at the hands of the enemy, greatly weakened the Jewish situation.
As the mourning period is observed everywhere it is clear that the Jewish people as a whole found meaning in it, but the late development of the practice explains why the dates of the mourning are calculated differently by different groups. What is does not explain is why there is a break on Lag Ba’Omer.
The Manhig, early 13th century, tells us that the students’ deaths continued until halfway through the period, which is approximately Lag Ba’Omer but not exactly. However, Josephus (“Wars”, II:16-17) states that the first rising against Rome began on 17 Iyyar, 66 CE and the news became known on 18 Iyyar – Lag Ba’Omer – which was regarded as the anniversary of the uprising. Presumably the date was not referred to directly as Uprising Day or by any similar name in order to prevent reprisals, but indirectly as Lag Ba’Omer, Day 33 of the Omer.