Question: I find it very difficult to understand the punishment of death that was meted out to Rabbi Akiba’s students. If he was so great, we can assume that his students were of a superior caliber as well. If so, why did they deserve such a harsh punishment?
Answer: We began our discussion by citing the prohibition of marrying or cutting our hair for a minimum period of 34 days between Pesach and Shavuot. We observe these signs of mourning to commemorate the thousands of Rabbi Akiba’s students who died during this period.
We sought to explain the reason these students deserved such a harsh punishment. We cited a similar story concerning the Nadav and Avihu, whose hasty actions led to their fatal transgression of issuing a ruling before their master Moses, for which they were killed. Hashem is very exacting with those closest to Him. Thus, Rabbi Akiba’s students were punished even though their sin may have been minor.
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My mashgiach ruchani, HaRav Hersh Feldman, zt”l (the Mirrer Mashgiach), delivered a “schmooze” many years ago (see “Yemei Hasefira” in his Tiferet Tzvi p. 197) on the death of Rabbi Akiba’s students.
Rabbi Feldman begins: “Other than the ctual prohibition as well as the gravity of the punishment and the tum’ah, the ritual impurity that is visited upon a person due to his haughtiness, we see that the traits of modesty and humility assist one in the acquisition of Torah knowledge.
“Our Sages (Ta’anit 7a) expound the verse (Isaiah 55:1), ‘Hoy kol tzamei lechu lamayyim… – Ho! Everyone who is thirsty, go to the water…’ The ‘water’ here is the Torah, for which we thirst. Our sages ask, ‘Why is the Torah compared to water?’ Just as water flows from an elevated place and settles in a lower place, so do the words of Torah exist only in an individual whose understanding [and very being] is humble.”
Rabbi Feldman continues by citing the Gemara in Eruvin (13b): “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. These said, ‘The halacha is in agreement with our views,’ and those asserted, ‘The halacha is in agreement with our views.’ A Heavenly voice went forth and proclaimed, ‘Both are the words of the living G-d, but the halacha is in agreement with Beit Hillel.’
“The Gemara asks, ‘Now, since both are the words of the living G-d, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the halacha in agreement with their rulings?’ [This is the general rule; there are exceptions. In 18 circumstances the halacha is actually in accord with Beit Shammai – see Shabbos 13b and 17b; see also Rambam, Perush HaMishnayot on Yevamot Ch. 3, stating that when Beit Hillel rule stringently and Beit Shammai are lenient, the halacha generally follows the latter.] The Gemara answers: Because Beit Hillel were easygoing and very humble, and they would study their views and the views of Beit Shammai, and more so, they would always mention the views of Beit Shammai before theirs….”
Rabbi Feldman asks: “Since Beit Hillel were more easygoing and modest than Beit Shammai, is that [sufficient] reason to set forth the halacha in accord with them?
“We must explain: For one to hear and understand his fellow’s view and follow the logic of his reasoning to its natural conclusion, one must be graced with refined traits. One must not bear enmity to one’s fellow, nor be jealous of him, nor be contemptuous of him, which would be the result of boastfulness or haughtiness. A person who is conceited and haughty will not expend any effort to come to an understanding of his fellow’s view. Why? Obviously he considers his fellow’s view to be insignificant. It is surely not worth his while to exert any effort at understanding it. With such an approach he will never be able to comprehend his fellow’s view with any clarity.”
Rabbi Feldman continues: “Beit Hillel, however, who were easygoing and modest, traits that emanate from humility, expended great effort and toiled at understanding the views of their fellows [Beit Shammai] and to give them credit. This they did without any trace of negative personal motives. They would treat the views of their fellows deferentially, with the greatest respect, so that they would understand their decisions.
“More so, they would repeatedly study their views… They would even cite those [Beit Shammai’s] views before their own. If, after all that, they reached the conclusion that Beit Shammai’s view was incorrect and the halacha should not be as Beit Shammai established, then it was clear that the halacha should indeed follow Beit Hillel.
“This was so because weighing, deciding and understanding the matters in question was arrived at after clear analysis, without any preconceived personal notions.”