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Thirty sixth Day of the Omer

Why is the Omer period considered a period of semi-mourning? There are obscure hints and a lot of deliberate misinformation. The midrash speaks of a ''plague'' that somehow and mysteriously killed a lot of ''Rabbi Akiva’s students'' – 24,000 of them - but apparently after thirty-three days it let up and this became a day of relief and even celebration. But what kind of plague?

Think back. What was Rabbi Akiva’s big mistake? He had been, says the Talmud, a late developer, only commencing studies at the age of forty and at his wife’s insistence. He became a famous and inspiring teacher. He is mentioned in the Pesach Haggadah discussing with colleagues in B’nei Beraq, whether the time for the messianic restoration had come.

In the year 132CE – this was sixty-three years following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple – he pledged his support to one Shimon, dubbed now ‘Bar Kochba’ by his followers (''son of a star!''), and Bar-Kosiba by his opponents (''Son of worthlessness''). Was Shimon Bar-Kochba going to be the promised Messiah who would throw out the Roman occupiers and re-establish Jewish independence?

Well – spoiler alert – No he wasn’t. The rebellion was a disaster and this time the Roman military was more thorough in eliminating almost any sign of Jewish life. Pretty obviously this rebellion must have begun at Pesach – the Haggadah tells us of the mysterious discussion amongst the sages at B’nei Berak. Was the messianic time due or not? Was this festival of Freedom the right time to declare a new attempt to regain that freedom? If it had been a clear, obvious decision, there would have been no need to argue all through the night. In the end it is the ''students'' who come and say – ''Our Teachers, it is time for the Morning Shema!'' By which we can understand, not that they were fussing about their prayer, but that they were eager to declare the Oneness of God.

Many of these rebels then died not by a plague but by the swords of the Legionaries. But before that became quite clear, Akiva had been arrested, tortured and dragged into the Arena to be put to death. The Talmud in ''Berachot'' 61b explains what happened. He was flayed alive, his skin cut from his flesh. But he told the students who were to be executed with him, that he was happy to be able to fulfil the verse of Deuteronomy 6:5 to its fullest extent, to serve God with ALL his strength… . It was the time for the Morning Shema……

So what do we learn? That belief in a human being as a messianic figure who will solve all the problems is not only foolish but can be fatally so. The Haggadah story tells us the beginning and assumes that we already know the Talmud passage that describes the end. Pessach is to be celebrated in expectation of God’s strong hand and outstreched arm – for no angel, no seraph, and certainly no human being can substitute for this. We have forty-nine days to muse upon this, before we come to a celebration of the divine revelation on Sinai.

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild. (Berlin)


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