Several years after Churban Bayis Sheini...
22 Nissan — Isru Chag Pesach, several years after Churban Bayis Sheini1
I woke up this morning expecting to smell the heavenly scent of Ima’s pitot baking. Never does chometz smell or taste better than the morning after Shevii shel Pesach. We worked hard last night to pack away all the Pesach keilim. Little Nechemia complained that he was too tired to help me store the dishes, but I reminded him of the fresh, fluffy pita that would be waiting for us in the morning, and guess how quickly he came running!
Morning came, and I almost dressed in my Yom Tov clothing before remembering that Pesach was over. I sniffed to make sure, but it just smelled like spring — and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. There was a strange heaviness in the air, and I felt a cold sliver of dread worm its way through my stomach. Something was wrong.
I made my way into the kitchen, afraid of what I would find. My hands were shaking, and it had nothing to do with the heavy lifting I had done the night before. Ima was sitting at the table, and the relief hit me so hard I almost blacked out. But the way she sat hunched over warned me not to rejoice too soon.
“Ima?” I said softly.
She raised her head to look at me, and I knew that it was much worse than I had feared.
“It’s happening again,” she whispered with a shaky breath, as a waterfall of tears washed over her cheeks.
I froze, and all at once the memories of last year tumbled over me. No! It can’t be! It’s not possible.
Last year, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people died in a plague that began as soon as Pesach ended. Several of the niftarim were from right here in Beit Guvrin, but our little town wasn’t the only place affected. Apparently, people had been dying all across Eretz Yisrael. After a while, we started realizing that all the dead were men, and they were all talmidim of Rabi Akiva! The epidemic raged for a few weeks and then stopped as suddenly as it had begun.2
Is it really happening again?
I can’t concentrate anymore right now, and besides, I’m sure my help is needed, so I had better go.
May we only hear besurot tovot,
Yishai ben Pinchas
24th Nissan — Day 9 of the Omer
As if the last two days weren’t bad enough, this morning brought more bad news in the form of the Bnei-Chanan family, who arrived home after spending Yom Tov with the rest of their clan in Beit Shemesh. It’s official — the dreaded plague is back, and in a big way.
The great Rabi Akiva established yeshivot all over the country, including here in Beit Guvrin. Oh, how I long to be old enough to join the yeshivah! But that’s probably never going to happen. As the firstborn son, I must help Abba in our family’s vineyard, learning everything I can so that I can run it one day.
My cousin Ezra, on the other hand, has the makings of a rosh chevraya. After all, Dod Elazar is the rosh of the Beit Guvrin yeshivah, and Ezra takes after his father in every way.
I can’t even begin to imagine how Ezra is feeling. So far, three men from Beit Guvrin have died since Isru Chag, and yes, they were all talmidim of the yeshivah. Is it terrible that a tiny voice in my head whispers how lucky I am that my father is but a humble winemaker? I can’t think about Dod Elazar without feeling nauseous.
I doubt I’ll sleep well tonight, or any night in the near future, but I have a hunch that I’ll be needing my strength in the coming days, so I must try to get some rest.
Yishai ben Pinchas
29th Nissan — Day 14 of the Omer
I smell like a hen house, but I suppose I mustn’t complain.
Ima, tzaddikah that she is, has taken it upon herself to provide all the boiled eggs for the seudat havra’ah, the first meal that aveilim eat upon returning from the levayah. The seudat havra’ah consists of a round food, like an egg, to symbolize the galgal hachaim (the circle of life), to remind the aveilim that death is a part of life.
Beit Guvrin may be a small town, but it’s not that small. Sadly, we’ve stopped counting the number of dead because we just can’t keep up. The first thing Ima does in the morning after Shacharit is look toward Abba. He nods, and that’s all Ima needs to know that yet another family is in mourning. Guess who is honored with the task of gathering all those eggs?
Sometimes, there aren’t enough eggs to go around, so Ima puts up a pot of lentil soup to give the aveilim instead.
The beit din has ruled that all the levayot must take place at night. Usually, when a talmid chacham passes away, all the businesses close during the levayah. But now, there are simply too many funerals of talmidei chachamim! People must still earn parnassah and can’t keep closing their shop doors. And so, the levayot take place at night, after business hours. 3
The only silver lining during this dark time is that it’s spring. The weather is warm and fresh, with not a hint of frost in sight. That means that we can afford to neglect our vineyard for a while. None of us are the least bit interested in grapes right now, even if they are our livelihood for the entire year.
Yearning for brighter days,
Yishai ben Pinchas
11th Iyar — Day 26 of the Omer
I know I’ve been ignoring you lately, but honestly, I don’t even know where to begin.
Yesterday, Ezra got up from shivah.
I can’t believe I even wrote those words.
Dod Elazar is gone, and my cousins are yetomim.
But really, everyone in Beit Guvrin feels like yetomim now. As rosh chevraya, Dod Elazar was our rav, our father. Without him, we are lost!
More and more talmidei chachamim are dying each day. Father in Heaven, will You not make the plague stop? How many more must die? We need our talmidei chachamim, for without them, Your Torah will be forgotten! Abba and Ima say that it feels like the Churban all over again….
At the end of the shivah, Abba gathered us and reminded us of what Rabi Akiva always says: “Kol ma d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid — everything HaKadosh Baruch Hu does is for the good.”
“It doesn’t feel too good right now, Abba,” Nechemia piped up. We all smiled through our tears, but I realized that I felt that way, too.
“You’re right, Nechemia,” Abba said, pulling him onto his lap. “But what Rabi Akiva means to teach us is that even when it feels like there can’t possibly be anything good in the situation, still we must remember that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is merciful. He loves us and knows what’s best for us, and only does good for us.”
I think about that a lot whenever I feel the helplessness begin to overtake me. I say the words over and over again — “Kol ma d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid” — and feel comfort that somewhere, Rabi Akiva, whose precious talmidim are dying, is saying those words to himself, too.
Last year, the plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer. All of us are waiting for next week to come.
With hope and tefillot,
Yishai ben Pinchas
Can you imagine being the rosh yeshivah of a yeshivah that was three times the size of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim (one of the largest yeshivos today), and losing every single talmid? That is what Rabi Akiva endured. He built the largest network of yeshivos that the world has ever seen, only to see it completely destroyed. Yet, he didn’t despair or give up. He simply started all over again!
In the times of Rabi Akiva, the oral Torah was still only be’al peh. It had not yet been written down, and so it was essential that Rabi Akiva teach it to the next generation. He gathered five more talmidim (including Rabi Shimon bar Yochai) and founded his yeshivah from scratch. The majority of Torah shebe’al peh that we now have comes from these five talmidim.
- There are differences of opinion regarding how many years after the Churban the story of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim took place.
- There are differences of opinion among the Acharonim regarding the timeline of the epidemic. Some say that all 24,000 talmidim were niftar over the course of just a few weeks, from Pesach until Lag B’omer. Others say that the epidemic struck every year for several years between Pesach and Lag B’omer, killing more and more talmidim each year, until none were left.
- According to Rav Hai Gaon, as brought down by Rabbeinu Yerucham and the Tur.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 959)
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