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    What’s so special about Rabbi Akiva?

    Depiction of Rabbi Akiva in the Mantua Haggadah, 1568

    The hero of Lag Ba’Omer is Rabbi Akiva. When an epidemic carried off huge numbers of his students, the deaths ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer. Bereft of his students, he determined that he would raise up a new generation.

    One way of looking at the story is to say that because Akiva was the spiritual mentor of the Bar Kochba revolt, the support of his disciples was crucial to the national cause.

    However, the episode has a broader significance as a crucial chapter in the spiritual history of Judaism. With the loss of the pupils of the greatest teacher of the generation, the continuation of the Torah would be at risk. Akiva might therefore have been the originator of the statement at the beginning of Pirkei Avot, “Raise up many disciples” (Avot 1:1).

    The rabbis say that a handful of Akiva’s students survived the epidemic but when the teacher looked at them he thought that only one, Yehudah ben Bava, was sufficiently learned to have earned rabbinical ordination, so he was ordained on Lag Ba’Omer, and from this precedent developed the custom in some communities for candidates to be ordained on that date. Yehudah was one of the ten martyrs, great as the cedars of Lebanon, who were put to death by the Romans.

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