Monday, April 15, 2013

What Would Rabbi Akiva Do? Reflections On Yom Ha'Atzma'ut 5773

Chag Sameach everyone!

Image courtesy of
After reading the brilliant piece from Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff from this year's Yom Ha'atzma'ut to Go from that discusses the Rav's hashkafic evolution into a Religious Zionist, and listening to a shiur given during shul that had nothing to do with Yom Ha'atzma'ut, but rather the restrictions of Sefirah due to the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students, I have been inspired to write.

I grew up largely ignorant of Yom Ha'atzma'ut, especially regarding any religious significance the day may or may not have. After my experiences in Israel, and then at Yeshiva University, I came to have a growing appreciation for the 5th of Iyar as not merely a political commemoration, akin to the 4th of July here in America, but as a day with valid religious meaning.

My current shul does not recognize Yom Ha'atma'ut at all. Yom Ha'atzma'ut was celebrated there many decades ago under a different congregational rabbi, who happened to have received semicha from YU's rabbinical school, RIETS and was a very ardent Zionist. Hence, my new found connection to the holiday feels a bit stifled without the proud and public religious atmosphere that I experienced in Israel and at YU.

While the current rabbi was speaking about the restrictions during Sefiriah, emphasizing the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students he specifically mentioned the prohibition of listening to live music, as well as recorded music - and even (per his opinion) A Capella as well. I began to recall the YU chagiga and the afternoon concert that is held every year on this day - and my mind ruminated on the idea of "What would Rabbi Akiva do?"

It is an interesting question that had not occurred to me before, but I think that it bears some significance regarding how we can, or should approach the celebration of Yom Ha'atzma'ut as a joyous religious holiday, even in the midst of mourning customs of Sefirah.

Rabbi Akiva was an optimist and a fervent lover of the Land of Israel.

We know he was very involved in the Bar Kochba revolt, initially believing in the messianic fervor that gripped many, giving hope to the possibility of a final redemption and the rebuilding of the land and the Beis Hamikdash. Some even suggest that the deaths of his students were not due to a plague per se, but because they were actively involved in the rebellion as soldiers serving under Bar Kochba and hence his defeat lead to many deaths, including theirs.

We also know the fairly famous story from Makkot 24b wherein Rabbi Akiva was walking with Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, and Rabbi Yehoshua near Mount Scopus and saw the devastation of Har Habayit, followed by a fox running out from the former location of the Kodesh Kodashim

While his colleagues cried at the latter sight, Rabbi Akiva laughed. They only saw the destruction and were overwhelmed with sadness. Rabbi Akiva saw the fulfillment of a prophecy regarding the plowing over of Har Habayit, which gave him hope that yet more prophecy would be fulfilled, namely, the rebuilding and repopulation of Yerushalayim.

If Rabbi Akiva, who could look at such ruin, and see amid the ashes a glimmer of the promised future yet to come, then if he were alive today and saw the founding of the modern State of Israel, and what it has achieved in its mere 65 years of existence, he would not only smile and laugh, but I imagine sing and dance as well.

In spite of the State of Israel's imperfections - and they do exist - so much good, so much Torah learned, so much mitzvah observance and so many people reaffirming their Jewish identities the world over has happened because we now have our homeland in Jewish hands once again.

While it is absolutely worthwhile to learn the lessons from the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva's students, it is also absolutely worthwhile to step back and celebrate the lessons we have learned - and continue to learn - from having the State of Israel in our lives.

May Rabbi Akiva's words of comfort become true soon, and we will have the full realization of the rebuilding of Israel and the Beis Hamikdash!


  1. It takes place during the time that neither those who hold of the first half, nor those who hold of the last half, do not observe sfira. That cannot be simply dismissed.

    Also, I hate when people try to figure out what dead people 'would have supported' as if they know, like when folks started talking about how MLKjr would've supported gay rights or gun control. You don't know, no one does, you're just guessing and seeing what you want to see.

    1. I don't think your MLK Jr parallel works at all. We don't know what he thought about these issues, but there is clear evidence of what Rabbi Akiva's hashkafic views were about the Jewish state in Israel and his perspectives on its rebuilding. I'm not guessing anything - but extrapolating from freely available gemaros.

      Regarding your first point, the minhagim of what we do for mourning seems to have developed much later on with regard to the crusades etc, and doesn't have as much to do with Rabbi Akiva's students as is often thought.

  2. Wow, really inspiring! Thanks, SoG!

  3. I agree with FG on this one. A charedi rabbi once asked his class, 'Do you know who the biggest "Zionist" was? The Rambam.' What does that mean? Zionism is an undefined term until it has been defined. It can mean whatever you want it to mean and once it has been given a definition, we can talk about who is and who isn't a Zionist.

    To say that Rabbi Akiva was a lover of the land and therefore would approve of Yom Ha'atzmaut, and the fact that we have the State of Israel as being a good thing is, forgive me, ridiculous.

    I'm not going to bother mentioning all the bad things that have happened because we have a State, because undoubtedly you know them all. I believe that it's a wonderful thing, but who am I? There are Gedolim who have been debating exactly that since Israel's inception, and I, for one, am positive that my opinion is as worthless as a clay penny is next to a mountain of gold and diamonds.

    With all that said, to your last paragraph, Amen!

    1. There are plenty of Gedolim who acknowledge Yom Ha'aztma'ut, and when the first anniversary arrived, most, if not everyone said Hallel.

      The point of negative things having occurred and are occurring is does not negate the good - and that's what Rabbi Akiva focused on.

      Your first point is entirely agenda driven and is undermined by the same reasoning you are trying to use against my position.

    2. Can you provide a source for your first statement? I'm only asking because I'm surprised by it. Which gedolim?

      I agree that it's appropriate to focus on the positive, but you can't assert that R' Akiva or any other Tanna, Amorah, or anyone aside from today's gedolim would approve or disapprove of the day as it's celebrated today.

      I'm not sure what you mean by agenda driven or how it's undermined, etc. Can you explain?

      Addressing a point you made to FG, how do we know what R' Akiva's hashkafic views were on the State of Israel? No one, except Neturei Karta (who don't count lol), are against the idea of being in control of the land of Israel; the problem is specifically with the State of Israel.

  4. I have always been dissatisfied with the reasons given for the period of sefira being one of mourning. 12,000 pairs of R. Akiva students died somehow just doesn't seem to cut it. There are many cases of plagues, death and destruction. And the reason for their deaths is even more perplexing - that they didn't honor each other enough. Now that hardly seems like a case deserving of divine capital punishment.
    If this rational seems somewhat disconcerting see Youtube of Rabbi Sacks for Yom Hazikaron/Yom Haatzmaut that explains sefira from a historical perspective.

    Igeret Shreera Gaan says they died not of plague but shmadah- persecution.
    Gemara often refers to unbearable tragedy and terrible occurrences by alluding obliquely (and always conscious of Roman censors). In Yevamot 62B The death of the students are really referring to crushing of bar kochba rebellion by Hadrian. This was the worst tragedy ever up to that time- even worse than destruction of temples. Roman historian Dodio(?) says 580,000 Jews were killed directly and 985 cities, villages destroyed. This was a holocaust. The mourning during this period is an oblique mourning for that holocaust.

    Lesson Jews learned was that twice (great rebellion in 66 leading to temple destruction 70 and 135 bar kochba)- when faced with insurmountable superior force it doesn't pay to fight and lead our people to destruction. Armed resistance lead to disaster. Baba Kama gemara says from day evil (Hadrian) govt arose, by rights they should decree no Jew get married and have children. So much was the despair.

    The lose of 12000 pairs of students represent the devastation and almost destruction of Judaism and our people. We mourn their holocaust at this time.

    Our holocaust was a gamechanger necessitating our shift to active resistance and proactive efforts to secure our rights to exist safely and in our land.


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