Why Were Rabbi Akiva’s Disciples Punished?

It is written, “Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them: For a dead person, none shall defile himself among his people” (Vayikra 21:1). Here our Sages note an apparent redundancy in the expression “Say…and you shall say” (see Yevamot 114a). We also see that the verse first speaks in the plural (“say to them”), but ends in the singular (“among his people”). Why the change?

We may explain this according to a statement in the Mishnah: “If you have learned much Torah, do not claim special credit for yourself” (Pirkei Avoth 2:8). From here we see that a person must teach his students without ever thinking, “If I teach others, when will I study myself?” The Sages note that man was born to toil, le’amal (Job 5:7). Now the term le’amal evokes the expression lilmod al manat lelamed (“study in order to teach”), because no effort or devotion can be greater, namely to give one’s time to others. Hence a person who teaches others without thinking about himself is rewarded by the Holy One, blessed be He, measure for measure, retaining his Torah as if he had been studying it when teaching others. Thus the Sages have said, “He toils in one place, the Torah toils for him in another” (Sanhedrin 99b).

This is why the verse in question states, “Say…and you shall say.” The Torah is alluding to the fact that we must say to ourselves in order to say to others. We must not think, “I’ll study alone,” for the Torah of one who acts in this way will eventually render him impure, as it is written: “May a sword fall upon the neck of [the foes of] talmidei chachamim who sit and engage in the study of the Torah, solitary and apart. Not only that, but they also become fools. ... [T]hey also become sinners” (Makkot 10a).

This is why Parshiot Emor and Behar are juxtaposed to Parsha Bechukotai: “Say” – say to yourself; “and you shall say” – to others; “Behar Sinai” (on Mount Sinai) – an allusion to humility, for Sinai made itself small before Hashem, and when a man forgoes his Torah in order to teach others, it is a sign that he is not proud. These parshiot are juxtaposed to Parsha Bechukotai, which contains the subject of Torah study – as our Sages have said, ‘If you walk in My laws’ [Vayikra 26:3] teaches us that G-d is proud that Jews study Torah” (Torat Kohanim, Bechukotai 1) – in order to tell us that the greatest form of devotion is when a person makes himself small like Mount Sinai so as to teach the Torah to others.

Do Not Claim Special Credit For Yourself

According to this, we may explain the teaching of our Sages when they said: “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 one another with respect” (Yevamot 62b). This is difficult to understand, for Rabbi Akiva said that “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) is a great principle of the Torah (Torat Kohanim 4:12). Therefore how could his disciples not have fulfilled this teaching from their master?

To this we may add the statement of the Mishnah: “All glory is due solely for Torah” (Pirkei Avoth 6:3). The disciples of Rabbi Akiva did not study Torah together when one of them needed help. True, they respected one another in everyday life, but that did not help them because they did not study together when one of them did not fully understand a halachah or teaching, since they did not want to lose their time. The Holy One, blessed be He, punished them as a result, for man was created only to teach others, without claiming special credit for himself.

Rabbi Chiya was only honored because he taught Torah to others. He said of himself, “I ensure that the Torah will not be forgotten in Israel. For I bring flax seed, sow it, and weave nets. I hunt stags with whose meat I feed orphans and from whose skins I prepare scrolls, and then proceed to a town where there are no teachers of young children, and write out the five books of the Chumash for five children, and teach another six children the six orders of the Mishnah. I then tell each one, ‘Teach your section to your fellows’ ” (Ketubot 103b). The Gemara adds that this is what Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi had in mind when he explained, “How great are the deeds of Chiya!”

The Water Hollowed out the Rock

Rabbi Akiva himself became the greatest among his generation only in this way. The Aggadah recounts that by the time Rabbi Akiva was 40 years old, he had not studied any Torah (Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan 6:2). One day, as he was next to a well, he asked: “What hollowed out this rock? He was told, “The water that falls on it all day long.” At that point, Rabbi Akiva logically deduced the same about himself: “If something this soft can shape something so hard, how much more will words of Torah – which are as hard as iron – shape my heart, which is but flesh and blood?”

He immediately went to learn Torah. In fact both he and his son sat before their teacher as he taught them both. Rabbi Akiva said, “Rabbi, teach me Torah!” He then wrote aleph beit and learned it, aleph tav and learned it, Vayikra and learned it. In fact Rabbi Akiva studied without respite until he had learned the entire Torah.

Since Rabbi Akiva had learned Torah only from the mouth of his teacher, who was not afraid of losing his time, he knew that each person must study Torah with others. He had learned Torah only from those who had studied with him without considering their time, which is why he taught his disciples to do the same. Since they did not, they were punished.


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