Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Strange Encounters; Hassidim and Karaites, Eastern Europe and Jerusalem's Old City

The casual visitor to Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, has probably come across the historic Synagogue of the Karaites on Karaim Street (photo bottom). Directly opposite, lies the ruins of a once magnificent edifice called the "Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue" built by the Hassidim of the Ruzhin sect who settled in the city (see before and after photos).

Completed in 1872, it merited a visit from the Kaiser Franz Josef I of Austria in 1871, en route to attend the inauguration of the Suez Canal. The visit was described in the hebrew Havatzelet Journal (one wonders if the Kaiser visited the Karaite Synagogue as well, if he did, I have been unable to locate a record of it). The Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue would serve as the general center of Hassidic Jews in the Old City until its fall in the War of Independence in 1948.

The Karaite Synagogue "Anan ben David" is according to scholars the most ancient continuously functioning (except for the period of the Jordanian occupation from 1948-67) Synagogue in Jerusalem, and perhaps in the entire Land of Israel. While the Karaite Synagogue was restored after the Six Day War, the Hassidic Synagogue, on the other hand, still lies in ruins (though there has been talk recently of restoring it as well).

One can only wonder what kind of (if any) neighborly relations existed between the Ruzhiner Hassidim and their Karaite neighbors, mere meters away...


This curious rendezvous between Hasidim and Karaites in Jerusalem, may not have been such a strange one after all; Karaites have lived in parts of Eastern Europe since at least the 13th c. and according to some scholars may have laid the foundations of certain eastern European Jewish communities (1). There certainly were relations between the two communities (Hassidim and Karaites) back in Poland, Galicia, and Volhynia, although not always good ones.

The most famous Karaite of the 19th c. was undoubtedly Avraham Firkovich (known by his penname אבן רש"ף). He was a prodigious scholar as well as traveler and bibliophile. Firkovich was born in Luck, Poland and spent the waning years of his life in the Karaite stronghold of Chufut Qale in the Crimea. He corresponded throughout his life with a wide variety of people, including prominent Hassidim, such as the third Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (2). In 1834 during his stay in the town of Berdichev, he quarreled with the local Hassidic Rabbi who called him 'an ignoramus'. According to one account the ideological debate developed into a fist-fight. Berditchev was a center of Hassidism (a famous Hassidic dynasty was founded there by Rabbi Levi Isaac) as well as a stronghold of Maskilim. It is no surprise that the arrival of Firkovich (and his decidedly pro-maskilic and anti-hassidic bent) added to the already boiling cauldron.
(It should be pointed out that the Karaite approach to Kaballah -and presumably the movements it inspired, such as Hassidism, was allot more nuanced than commonly perceived, see for instance the biography and works of Simcha Yiztchak Lutzki, termed in this paper a "Karaite Kabbalist").

Another famous Karaite scholar, Mordechai Sultansky actually met Rabbi Yisrael, founder of the Linkaforementioned Ruzhin Hassidic dynasty. David Assaf gives an account of Sultansky's less than charitable impression of the man:

Writing in 1841, Mordechai Sultansky of Chufut-Qale (Crimea), a prominent Karaite sage and historian recalled his encounter in Ruzhin with the young Israel, which probably took place around 1815

When I was young I had heard of the fame of the baal shem Israel, who was adored by his believers. I had a desire to see him and to assess his quality. I went there to the town of Ruzhin; however I could not see his face because of the crowd who flocked from all over the country to ask his assistance. Finally I had an idea. I wrote a letter of poems and phrases dedicated to his honor and delivered it to his attendant, and then he ordered that I be invited. That is how I came to see him, and he was then 18 years old. He said to me: my dear, you wrote your letter in vain, since I will not understand ay of it. That is because I haven’t any knowledge in wisdom or in books. I am devoted only to theoretical Kabbala. When I tested him, I realized that he had neither faith nor knowledge or sense, but he is one of Jezebel’s prophets, who merely consumes the remnants of the brainless Jews and strips them of their skin with his crazy tricks. However in their eyes he is as lofty as an angel. (3)


If Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin was a controversial figure, so much more so for his colorful son, Rabbi Dovber (bernyu) Friedman (pictured) who was given the post of Rebbe of Leova (1815-1877). The latter is one of the only 'admorim' in Hassidic history to have willingly resigned his post.

Dovber was on intimate terms with the Maskilim of his locale. He regularly spouted 'maskilic ideas', rejecting what he termed "the superstitious baggage that Judaism has accrued since the Babylonian exile". One can only speculate what his views on Karaite Judaism were.....

By 1869, he had relocated to Czernowicz , where he stayed at the residence of the noted maskil, Dr. Yehuda Leib Reitman and refused to see any of his former followers. During his stay there, he would often engage the local Christian mailman in philosophical discussion, which he is said to have enjoyed immensely. He also publicized a scandalous letter which I reproduce here:

ידעתי קוראים נכבדים כי בני עמנו הנפוצים בארצות רחוקות כחכמים היושבים על גפי מרומי השכלה ככסילים היושבים אחורי התנור והכירים אשר שמעו את שמי ישיחו בי וישאלו: מה היה לי כי נהפכתי לאיש אחר? לכן גמרתי בלבי לבוא במגלת ספר להודיע בקהל עדת ישורון שורש דבר נמצא בי כי בלבי צפנתי אמונת אל אחד ובו אדבק כל הימים ונאמן אנכי לתורתו ולחכמי ישראל ההולכים לפנים ולא לאחור ולא אסרתי מעלי את יראת השם רק הרחקתי מעלי את המון הפתאים השומרים הבלי שווא אשר סביב שתו עלי. אולם לא אל אנשי חנף השמים חושך לאור ואור לחושך המתכסים באדרת החניפה למען כחש אשים דברתי כי המה מורדי אור החכמה ואמונה טהורה רק אל החכמים והנבונים בעם אשר החכמה נר לרגלם והאמונה אור לנתיבתם אביעה רוחי ואודיע דברי איתם כי האמת אזור מתני והאמונה אזור חלצי

ואם אמנם אין לאל ידי לבער את הקוצים מכרם בית ישראל לטהר את אמנותנו מהבלי המנהגים אשר אין להם עיקר בתורת אלהים רק עלו עם בני עמנו מבבל ושאר הגוים אשר התערבו בהם כאשר דרשו חז"ל: כתוב אחד אומר כמשפטי הגויים עשיתם וכתוב אחר אומר לא עשיתם הא כיצד? כמתוקנים שבהם לא עשיתם כמקולקלים שבהם עשיתם". הלא טוב לי כי אעבוד את אלהי אמת על כן לא אירא מרבבות פתאים אשר כהמות ימים פתיון ולא אערוץ מהמון רבה אשר בחשיכה יתהלכון אם רק מחשבתי רצויה בעיני אלהים וישרי לב.

ובזה אשים קנצי למילן ולכל אוהבי חכמה שוחרי מוסר שלום!

טשערנאוויץ יום א' לחודש אדר תרכ"ט לפ"ק

דוב בער במוהר"ר ישראל

Finally, under tremendous pressure from his family (who were at the receiving end of vicious attacks by rival Hassidim as a result of his activities), he publicized a second letter wherein he "recanted" his former heretical views. An impossible maskil and a tortured soul, he would spend the remaining years of his life at the house of his nephew the Rebbe of Sadigura.

According to the Yivo Encyclopedia:

Disillusioned with Hasidism and with his role as tsadik, he began to keep company with maskilim. In 1868, following the death of a brother, he experienced a profound personal crisis and decided to abandon his standing as a Hasidic rebbe. Attempts to persuade him to recant failed, and rumors abounded regarding alleged contacts with missionaries and his desire to convert to Christianity. Fearful of the damage to the reputation of the dynasty, his wife and brothers brought him forcibly to Sadagora in 1869, but maskilim from nearby Czernowitz secured his release with the help of the police. He stayed at the home of a communal elder, a lawyer named Yehudah Leib Reitman; was openly lax in his religious observance; and published a declaration in the Jewish press rejecting Hasidism and espousing Haskalah values. A storm ensued: maskilim lauded him as a hero, while his former Hasidim believed he had gone mad. After one and a half months, Bernyu repented his actions and returned to his brother’s court at Sadagora. He did not resume his rabbinical duties, however, and lived in solitude until his death.

Bernyu’s actions and his followers’ reluctance to denounce them (some of his Hasidim claimed that he had not sinned at all, attributing his behavior to some inscrutable religious mystery) inspired Ḥayim Halberstam of Sandz, an extremely conservative rebbe and important halakhic authority, to attack Sadagora Hasidism, condemning their regal style of life and pronouncing a ban upon its members as long as the four “brothers” remained unrepentant and refused to acknowledge their misdeeds in public. The controversy was marked by violence and split the Hasidic communities of Galicia and Hungary bans and counterbans flew back and forth. Sadagora Hasidim in the Land of Israel excommunicated Reb Ḥayim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and dozens of vitriolic polemical pamphlets were published. Only after the deaths of Bernyu and Halberstam (both in 1876) did the dispute die down, but the warring camps remained hostile to one another for many years thereafter.


While have no record of Dovber/Bernyu having correspondence with Karaites, we do have extensive evidence of other maskilim and their overtures to Karaites. One example, is the famous thinkers and writer Nachman Krochmal author of Moreh Nevuchei Hazman (Guide to the Perplexed of this Age). Krochmal carried on a correspondence with the Karaite cantor of the town of Kuzikow, David ben Mordechai, author of Semmah David and also with the important Karaite leader Abraham Leonowicz of Halicz. When this correspondence was discovered by local Hassidim, they termed him a Karaite and a heretic. Krochmal wrote a defense of his actions, wherein he denied becoming a Karaite but at the same time, he fiercely defended the Karaites as fellow Jews who believed in the most important aspects of the Jewish faith.

According to Reuven Fahn, Kuzikow was the first Karaite savant to establish close links with the Galician maskilim (David may have inherited his friendly attitude to the Rabbanites from his father, Mordechai ben Nisan who mentioned that it was Rabanite Jews who had taught him the Hebrew Bible and literature. David’s sons continued the family tradition of maintaining close contacts with the Rabbanites. This is why it was the Rabbanite scholar David Maggid who edited a collection of David Kuzikow’s writings; Semah David (St. Petersburg, 1897) and achieve a proper understanding of Rabbinic literature, the Talmud and Haskalah. In many of his writings, Kuzikow referred with deep respect to the Talmudic scholars and their works.

The history of his friendly correspondence with Krochmal was soon marred by an unpleasant episode with clearly shows the complexity of relations not only between the Karaites and Rabbanites but also between the maskilim and other Rabbanite Jews. Approximately from 1814 to 1816 Kuzikow accidentally gave some of his letters to the local hassidic jews. The latter when they discovered that Krochmal’s epistles were full of praise for the Karaite hazzan, copied and publicized these letters. They apparently tried to compromise Krochmal and suggest his deviation from the norms of Judaism and Jewish religious law. The matter was especially sensitive because at the same time the Rabbanite authorities of Lwow imposed a herem (ban) on some maskilim.

While being understandably vexed by these complications, Krochmal did not change his positive views of the Karaites. He mentioned that they believed in the same written law as the Rabbanites, the coming of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and other articles of Jewish creed. Moreover, in spite of the fact that their forefathers rejected the Talmud, in his time many Karaites approached the study of the Oral Law (Torah she-be-al pe, i.e. the Talmud). Krochmal suggested in his letter that the Karaites should be given hope that some day they would join their Rabbanite brethren and there would be no division between these two branches of Israel.

As has been mentioned, Krochmal also maintained contacts with another important Karaite leader, Abraham Leonowicz. During half a century of his tenure in the office of leader of the Halicz community, Leonowicz kept up relations with many Rabbanite thinkers, who later mentioned him in their writings: Isaac Samuel Reggio of Gorizia, Samson Halevi, Luzzatto, Bloch, Geiger and Daniel Hartenstein, to name a few. Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) one of the most famous German maskilim received from Leonowicz a manuscript copy of Mikhtav Ahuz by the Rabbanite scholar Joseph-Solomon of Crete (Yashar Delmedigo- who himself entertained pro-Karaite sympathies), which he published in 1840.

This again shows that the Karaites eagerly read and copied Rabbanite manuscripts-and, moreover, they were the only possessors of some unique manuscripts penned by European Rabbanite scholars. As was mentioned above, Leonwitz’s tenure in the Hazzan’s office was marred by a few conflicts with the Rabbanites. This is why, perhaps, Reuven Fahn came to the conclusion that Leonowicz “did not reach the spiritual state of David Kuzikow” in his relations with the maskilim. (4)


1). see for instance Eliach, Yaffa. There once was a world: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok 1998

2).Mentioned in Shapira, Dan. AVRAHAM FIRKOWITZ IN ISTANBUL p. 77 n. 151

It's interesting to note that the famed 'Chabad library' (one of several) contains plenty of maskilic and Karaite works such as this one by the Karaite Scholar Elijah Bashyaczi.

3). Assaf, David. The regal way: the life and times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin P. 73I

4). The Karaites of Galicia: an ethnoreligious minority among the Ashkenazim by Mikhail Kizilov, p. 224-5

The whole Krochmal Karaite controversy is narrated in detail in Krochmal’s letter to Zeev-Wolf Shiff of 1816 (Krochmal Kitvei, 413-416).

Monday, September 05, 2011

Was the Gaon of Pumeditha, Rab Sherira Crucified (?) by the Caliph Alkadir of Baghdad?

I came across this odd reference a long time ago, while reading SEDER HADOROT by Rabbi Yehiel Halperin (1660 - 1746). I came across it again, recently in this book published in honor of the 1999 wedding that united the vizhitz and spinka Hassidic sects. As is their custom on occasions such as this, a book was published with sayings of their Hassidic forbears. Appended to it, an exaggerated royal pedigree, to demonstrate that they are of noble (Davidic) lineage. The text on this particular page quotes the SEDER HAKABALLAH ("Chain of Tradition") of the Spanish scholar Abraham ibn Daud (1110-1180, approx.):

רב שרירא גאון זצ״ל, הי״ד, בן רב חנינא גאון בן רבי יהודאי גאון בן רב שמואל ר י ש

בלה, מצאצאי רבה בר אבוה המיוחסים לזרע דוד, מצאצאי זרובבל בן שאלתיאל, ,

גאון בפומפדיחא משנה ד' ,תשב״ח עד שנת ד' תשנ״ח, שאז לגודל חולשתו מסר

הגאונות לבנו רב האי, והאריך ימים עד שנח חשס״ז, וגם אז נקפד פחיל חייו ביד צר,

במו שבחב רבינו הראב״ד בסדר הקבלה שלו"דהלשינו פריצי ישראל ברב שרירא ורב

האי, וחפסם מלך ישמעאל ובזזו בל אשר להם, לא השאיר שריד שום מחיה בעולם,

ותלה רב שרירא בידו אחה והוא בבן מאה שנה״. ורבינו האר״י ז״ל אמר, שהוא רמוז

בפסוק "שרים בידם נתלו, פני זקנים לא נהדרו". "שרים״ רמז לרב שרירא, "בידם

נחלו" שנתלה בידו, "פני זקנים לא נהדרו" שהיה זקן בן מאה שנה, שהכל רמוז בתורה.

Brief synopsis:

Rav Sherira Gaon, of blessed memory, may God avenge his blood, (906-1006)was a descendant of Rabba bar Abahu who in turn descended from the house of David. He (Sherira) was the Gaon of the Academy at Pumbeditha from the year 4710 to 4758, when due to his weakened state he handed over the reigns to his son Hai Gaon (939-1038) who reigned until 4767. And then his life was turned upside down, when insolent men of Israel spread libel on them to the authorities, whereby they were seized by the 'King of Ishmael' who confiscated all their possesions, and Rav Sherira was hanged by one of his hands. And Arizal (Isaac Luria) said that this was foretold in the verse in Lamentations 5:12: שרים בידם נתלו, פני זקנים לא נהדרו, literally: Our princes are being hanged by their thumbs, and our elders are treated with contempt. 'sarim' alludes to sherira, 'beyadam nitlu' that he was hung by his hand, 'pney zekenim lo nehadaru' alludes to his being 100 years old at the time of his death, etc.

Was Rab Sherira really crucified at age 100 by the Arab ruler of Baghdad?

If so, why the strange and macabre method of hanging him by one arm?

Is this some sort of twisted crucifixion? (parenthetically, crucifixion was not foreign to the Arabs and the Berbers of that period. A century after the incident in question, a Berber mob would crucify Rabbi Josef Ha-naggid (1035-1066) on the gates of Granada)

Heinrich Graetz tells the story quite differently:

Malicious persons had Sherira arraigned before the Caliph Alkadir on some unknown charge, probably growing out of the rigor of his administration (the editor of hebrew wiki, opines that the charge was espionage and probably related to the far reaching correspondence of the father-son pair, often sending letters (and accepting disciples from) to countries that were considered at war with their own, such as Persia, Spain, Andalucia and Byzantium--J.D.). In consequence of this, father and son were deprived of their liberty, all their property was confiscated and there was not enough to them for a bare livelihood. They were however, liberated at the intercession of an influential man and restored to their dignity. Sherira soon after on account of old age abdicated in favor of his son (998) and died a few years later. (1)

Moshe Gil and David Strassler in Jews in Islamic Countries, put forth a (possible) different explanation for the word נתלה by Ibn Daud:

“and the king of the Ishmaelites grabbed them..”and Rav Sherira Gaon depended on one hand”; (nitla נתלה which may be “he was hanged”, but also ‘depended’, i.e., was in distress...

…the information in Ibn Daud, that Sherira Gaon “was hanged (nitla) on one hand” was somewhat of a mystery for scholars. Some assumed that it should be taken literally, and found parallels in Christian martyrology. As against this it was claimed that- according to what Ibn Daud further states-Sherira was not removed from his post of Gaon, which contradicts this story, that should be considered an invention; or it was considered an erroneous translation of some Arab idiom. However Fleischer has shown, based on piyut that the meaning is: he was impoverished, lived in poverty; this is also in accordance with the additional information which I quote on the sufferings of Sherira and Hai (see ibid) (2)

see also here

and here



Graetz, Heinrich. History of the Jews: From the Revolt Against the Zendik (511 C. E. ) to the Capture of St. Jean D'Acre by the Mahometans pp. 233-4


pp. 389-90

From ibid:

see also Fleischer ZION 41 (1977), 165 FF. Previously that peculiar expression was much discussed; a Christian parallel was cited: what happened to the Persian Anastasius: una manu per tres horas suspensus (he was hung by one hand for three hours) and then decapitated. This martyr had lived in Palestine, and these events should have happened during the Persian conquest..

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Lag Baomer, a Holiday?

This is a synopsis of a lecture by Rabbi David Bar-Hayyim of Jerusalem.

Courtesy of Adam Abraham Kessler.
The Talmud does not mention it.
The Zohar does not mention it.
Not even the writings of Luria (or rather his students) really mention it.

In Shaar HaKavanos (by Luria’s student Chaim Vital) Lag B’Omer is referenced as Yom SheMeis RaShBY. The original manuscripts (as obtained from the Vital family) actually refer to it as Yom Simchas RaShBY, a copyist left out the ‘chet’ in later editions so Simchas accidentally became SheMeis. The book records that Luria met a sage who would every day recite a particular Tefilla which was added on to Birchas Bonei Yerushalayim for Tisha B’Av. This sage in addition to reciting it every day would also say it on Lag B’Omer in Meron. Luria had a dream in which the RaShBY told him to tell the sage not to say it on the RaShBY’s Yom Simchato, and that if he persisted a calamity would fall upon him. Soon afterwards one of this sage’s children passed away. Vital also mentions that Luria observed the custom to go to Meron on Lag B’Omer a few times – and he also tenuously tries to make a connection between RaShBY and the account of R. Akiva’s students.

The Ben Ish Chai (who as a ‘Kabbalist’ was very familiar with Luria’s writings) writes in Daas U'Tvunah [Pp. 4] – that there is no source to suggest that LaG B’Omer is the date of RaShBY’s death, which would further seem to confirm that the possible reference in Shaar HaKavanot to RaShBY’s death is erroneous.

In the Shulchan Aruch; Orach Chaim: 493 it speaks about the Minhag of not getting married and cutting ones hair/beard, in 493:2 it says that the Minhag is not to cut one’s hair until LaG B’Omer because there is a saying that the Talmidim of R. Akiva ceased dying on that day, and therefore mourning is not appropriate and that one must wait until AFTER LaG to cut.

The Rama disagrees with this, saying that cutting ON LaG B’Omer is permitted, that we rejoice a bit and that there is no Tachanun. The Rama based his statement on the Maharil who says that even though it says in Yevamos 62b that they died from Pesach until Shavuous, that really they only died on days on which Tachanun is said - so you have to subtract all the non-Tachanun days from the 49 day Sefira period (7 days for Pesach, 3 days for Rosh Chodesh [2 for Iyar, 1 for Sivan], and 7 days for Shabbosim, which adds up to 17) so when 32 days are up there is some joy as a remembrance that there was a cessation of their deaths.

During the period of the later Geonim and possibly the earlier Rishonim there was a practice of making Aliya LaRegel [pilgrimage] to go to Jerusalem for Shavuos, people would come from many different directions (Syria, Bavel, Egypt etc.) and so there were particular places that groups of people would meet up from all over before continuing the trek to Jerusalem so that in larger numbers they could be assured greater safety. The primary meeting place before collectively moving en masse as a caravan to Jerusalem was in Meron on the 18th of Iyar. Because there was a tradition that RaShBY and his son R. Elazar were buried in Meron, somehow the connection was made in people’s mind between him and that day.

In 363 CE there was an earthquake in Jerusalem which was recorded in ancient Syriac by a bishop named Cyril who said it took place on 19th of Iyar, about 9 hours after sunset. This took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Julianus [‘the Apostate’]. He was very against the rise of Christianity in the Empire and wanted it to revert to the paganism that preceded Constantine. As an attack on Christianity he desired that the Beis HaMikdash be rebuilt. Preparations began, but on the day that the actual work was to begin this earthquake occurred, destroying whatever preparatory work had already commenced. Additionally short afterwards Julianus died mysteriously (possibly assassinated).

From that date in 363 CE forward, the Jews observed the 18th of Iyar as a day of mourning. Perhaps the bishop’s calculation of the 19th was not in accord with the Jewish calendrical calculations but was very close – just apart by one day at the time. Either way this became a date of mourning as any hope of rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash at this late date was utterly dashed due to the devastation of the earthquake. Documents that were discovered at the Cairo Geniza which recorded the customs of communities in Eretz Yisroel mention the 18th of Iyar is to be observed as a fast-day.

So we see that LaG B’Omer is really not such a happy day, and that really something very strange has occurred over the last few centuries and it somehow underwent a transformation to being a day of joy.

What is clear – is that concerning this day – nothing is really clear at all. It’s a day clouded in mystery, and certainly not a day for great celebrations.

Additionally we have the Chasam Sofer who was very opposed the celebrations of LaG B’Omer. In a Teshuva he wrote (on Yoreh Deah: 233) he states that he heard about celebrations in Tzfas for the Yom Hilula of the RaShBY and that even though the revelers intentions are L’Shem Shamayim he cannot agree to the whole business – that he stays away from it… and also cites this as a reason for not moving to Tzfat because if they wanted him to be involved he would be forced to be Poreish Min HaTzibur. He says that to make this day, a day of celebration and lighting fires, and to do this in that particular place [namely Meron] is not right. Especially to innovate a holiday on which no miracle is recorded and that none of the Poskim refer explicitly to. He says he knows of no real reason for any of the rites associated with this so-called holiday.

LaG B’Omer seems to have become over-rated and gotten out of hand. One should be suspicious of any such holiday that arose over the last few centuries. All the popular Drashos about the connection of fire and kabala to lag b’omer is just a big mish-mash. It appears ok to have some Simcha on this day to have a relief from the Aveilus. However we should not think that it’s a profound deep day of great significance, mystical or otherwise.

Yevamos 62b – the regular girsa is as follows “It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Givat to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Yosi, R. Shimon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuos. R. Chama b. Abba or, it might be said, R. Chiya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? — R. Nachman replied: Azkara.”

Academic scholars and Torah scholars all agree that R. Akiva was a great supporter of Bar-Kochba. ChaZaL mention it in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Taanios Ch. 4 which says he was a great supporter of the revolt of Ben Koziba (which took place about 132-135 CE approximately 60 years after the Churban). The RaMBaM writes in Hilchos Melachim 11:3 “One should not entertain the notion that the Melech HaMoshiach must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds that the fools claim. This is definitely not true. A proof can be brought from the fact that that R. Akiva, one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnah, was arms bearer of King Ben-Koziba…etc” Indicating he was a great supporter of Kochba’s effort against the Romans, who at that time was the def-acto ruler of Eretz Yisrael. ChaZaL refer to him as Ben-Koziba HaMelech, and R. Akiva’s support with many students was pivotal. R. Akiva’s allegiance was more than in word, but also in deed. These students died in battle, and perhaps there was a particularly deathly period of slaughter that occurred between Pesach and Shavuos. The war was the most bloody war the Jews had experienced till that time. Hadrian who was in charge of putting down the revolt didn’t write back to Rome during this period {as he usually would} that he and his legions were at peace. Entire legions of Hadrian’s army were destroyed, they lost large amounts of people, that has been estimated to be between tens and hundreds of thousands dead. Needless to say the estimate on the Jewish side is considerably more. There was loss on both sides, even though the Romans ultimately won it was still not perceived as such a success because of all the loss.  The Jews tragically became a minority in EY because of both the number of Jews who were killed, or were enslaved, in tangent with the importation of gentiles into EY. From that time, the Jews of EY never really recovered. Most Jews were forced northward into Galil and Golan… Lod became considered the ‘south of the country’ as it says in Sanhedrin 62b that R. Akiva. Went ‘Etzel Rabboteinu Shebadarom’. We know that this was Lod.  Concerning the Gemara referring to a plague – ‘azkara.’ It seems it was either internal voluntary censorship on the part of the Chachamim– to discourage and prevent revolt, because to do so would mean the end of Jews and Judaism, or it was censorship born of external factors such as fear that the Romans would prevent them from speaking openly about the historical truth so they couched it in other terms, for example many Aggados if looked at with a discerning eye clearly refer to revolt and this could be such an instance.  
R. Akiva was ultimately killed because he was a political supporter of Bar Kochba, and to get a sense of the conditions we can take a look at Maseches Shabbos 33b which records that R. Yehuda, R. Elazar, and R. Yosi [who were all students of R. Akiva in the period right after the revolt]  were sitting, and Yehudah the son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Yehudah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people (referring to the Romans)! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.' R. Yosi was silent. R. Shimon b. Yochai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.' Now, Yehudah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which eventually reached the government. They decreed: Yehudah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted, Yosi, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; and Shimon, who censured, let him be executed.

R. Shimon b. Yochai and his son R. Elazar had to flee as a result, and were fugitives for many years from the Romans, and hid in a cave, and the Gemara proceeds to record the miraculous nature of a carob-tree and a water well springing forth within the cave in order to preserve them. Indeed we see that R. Shimon was a radical, and that he had inherited ideas from his teacher R. Akiva. So we see that there is a connection between Sefiras HaOmer and the deaths of R. Akiva’s students, but it is not the usual connection that is made, it is really a result of the revolt.

Indeed we see that there was another girsa [version] of the Gemara that was previously extant which seems to confirm this. In the Iggeret of R. Sharira Gaon [in the nusach sfaradi text] sent to Jews in Spain he writes a short history of Torah Shebaal Peh, which  says R. Akiva had many students, and there was a Shmada [Roman decree (i.e. war)] on them, and that he had 12,000 students [not pairs] which died between Pesach and Shavuos. Further proof of the meaning of Shmad can be seen from context of the discussions continuation. Which notes that in time of Rabi there was period of grace, decrees [shmad] were relaxed. Because of the good relations between Antinonius and Rabi.

The whole Minhag of Aveilus during this period of Sefiras HaOmer has its roots in the national mourning of the Jews as a result of the destructiveness of the Kochba revolt. One would think that ChaZaL would have instituted an official mourning as a result. Speculatively perhaps they didn’t for 2 reasons. One being that the Romans would not have allowed it, that it was just politically untenable, and the other is that maybe the Chachamim might have felt that it was not appropriate to turn such a long period into one of mourning. that it is more appropriate to concentrate it into the 9th of Av. So it appears this is something the nation took on of their own accord, and was commemorated by the cessation of shaving and hair cutting. However it appears that such is a bit out of hand, we see even by the mourning of one’s parents – one goes past the initial period of shloshim, until people begin to tell you that you appear scruffy. Seven weeks is clearly way beyond that, also for marriage the same would apply. It seems the Minhag got out of hand. The RaDBaZ speaks approvingly in a Teshuva of communities that shave Lichvod Shabbos during this period, and that he permits marriage without waiting for such a long period of time. This is in ShU’T RaDBaZ 2:687 “I personally conduct myself in this manner - I [allow myself to] cut my hair throughout the month of Nissan and on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and this is the widespread custom… the custom [to allow haircutting on Rosh Chodesh, i.e. not to observe practices of mourning thereon] comes and overrides the lower-level custom. And besides, I have seen many communities who never observed this custom, and they cut their hair every week in honor of Shabbat…”. He also says that it is very uncomfortable for one who is used to shaving/cutting his hair to refrain, and if one is exempted due to irritation in a case by a Mitzvah Asseh such as sleeping in the Sukkah, then certainly by a Minhag, an alleviation from the botherance is permissible. ChaZaL certainly would not have instituted such a long burdensome period of mourning.

However there is certainly something to be said of commemorating the events, whether you hold the whole omer, or any of the variations.

In the QA session after the Shiur: Q is addressed as to whether on should say Tachanun on Lag B’Omer, the Rabbi responds by citing the RaMBaM in Hilchos Tefilla end of Ch. 5 which states that “it is an accepted custom among the entire Jewish people not to utter Neffilas Apayim on Shabboses or Moadim, nor does one utter it on Rosh Chodesh, Rosh HaShana, Chanuka or Purim or in Mincha of erev Shabbos or Yomim Tovim or in the Maariv of any day” Beyond that there are no other days that one should not say it (though in Maseches Sofrim which is not mentioned by the RaMBaM perhaps there is reason not to recite it during Nissan). Outside of a reasonable cause and justification to not do so, one should say Nefillas Apayim on Lag B’Omer. Obviously if one is in a place where such is not the custom, he should do so separately in private so as not to increase controversy and division.

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