Parsha Pearls: The Counting of the Omer

The period of Sefiras Haomer is linked in our history with the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose yartzeit is on Lag Baomer. The Gemara (Shabbos 33b) relates that he spent thirteen years hiding in a cave with his son Rabbi Elazar, during which time they studied, prayed and lived off a miraculous carob tree and water from a spring.

The Zohar comprises the teachings that Rabbi Shimon learned from Eliyahu Hanavi while in the cave. The Zohar (Shemos 32a, end of Va'eira) contains a prophecy about the children of Yishmoel ruling over Eretz Yisroel: "Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Chiya were walking on the road. Said Rabbi Yosi to Rabbi Chiya: Why are you silent? The road is only repaired through words of Torah. Rabbi Chiya sighed and cried, and then began: "And Sarai was barren; she had no child" (Bereishis 11:30). Woe for this! Woe for the time that Hagar bore Yishmoel! Said Rabbi Yosi to him: Why? She bore a child later, a son, a holy trunk. He said to him: You saw and I saw, and this is what we heard from the mouth of Rabbi Shimon: Woe for that time, for since Sarah was delayed, it is written, "Sarai said to Avram...come, I beg of you, to my maidservant" (Bereishis 16:2). And that is why Hagar succeeded in taking the place of Sarah her mistress, and she had a son from Avraham. And Avraham said (Bereishis 17:18), "Would that Yishmoel would live before You!" Although the Holy One, blessed is He, was announcing to him the birth of Yitzchak, Avraham clung to Yishmoel, until the Holy One, blessed is He, replied to him, "And regarding Yishmoel, I have heard you..." Then he was circumcised and entered into the holy covenant before Yitzchok came out into the world. And come and see, the angel of Yishmoel stood for four hundred years before the Holy One, blessed is He, and asked: Does someone who is circumcised have a share in Your Name? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: But Yishmoel is circumcised – why does he have no share in Your Name like Yitzchok? He said to him: This one was circumcised properly and this one improperly. Furthermore, these cling to Me properly, on the eighth day, but these are far from Me for many days. He said to him: Even so, since he is circumcised, should he not get some reward? Woe to the day Yishmoel was born in the world and was circumcised! What did the Holy One, blessed is He, do? He distanced the children of Yishmoel from clinging to Above, and gave them a portion below in the Holy Land because of their circumcision. The children of Yishmoel are destined to rule over the Holy Land for a long time, when it is empty of all, just as their circumcision is empty, not complete (i.e. without p'riah). And they will prevent the children of Israel from returning to their place, until that merit of Yishmoel is used up."

This prophecy has become the focal point of debate between traditional Jews and Zionists. Traditional Jews point to this as proof that Jews must not fight wars against the Yishmaelim, the Arabs, to take the Holy Land away from them. It is Hashem's decree that they should control the land until their merit is used up, and it is not for us to say when that time is. Furthermore, the Zohar predicts that the Arabs will prevent the Jews from returning to their land. What could be a better description of the Zionist era, in which Jews have struggled to maintain control of the land through eight wars and two uprisings, and are still struggling? They thought they would found a state and then the Jewish people's troubles would vanish, but their wars with the Yishmaelim never seem to end. Clearly Hashem has sent them to make sure Jews should not maintain a state in Eretz Yisroel.

Some Zionists have argued that the Zohar only says that Yishmaelim have a right to rule Eretz Yisroel when it is empty - not now that it is full. The problem with this is that if so, the Zohar's statement that they will prevent the Jews from returning is meaningless. How will they prevent us from returning, if we can just return whenever we want, fill up the land and nullify their rights to the land? Rather, the Zohar must mean that the role of Yishmaelim is to keep the land empty until the time of redemption arrives. If Jews attempt to come and take it over, they will fight against them relentlessly until they leave.

In this sense, the Brisker Rav once compared the Arabs to the Emorites described in the Torah (Devarim 1:44), who came out to fight the Jews who invaded Eretz Yisroel too early. The Torah says that "They pursued you like bees, and they beat you in Seir until Chormah." Rashi comments, "Just as a bee, when it stings a person, dies immediately, so too when they hit you they died immediately." The Brisker Rav posed the question: The Torah seems to be using the comparison to bees to explain how strongly the Emorites fought, yet Rashi says that the comparison to bees was meant to highlight their weakness, that they died immediately. How does Rashi's comment conform to the simple meaning of the Torah?

The Brisker Rav explained: If A hits B repeatedly and B does not hit back, we only see that A hates B a little. But if B hits back double for every time A hits him, and still A continues to hit B, we see that A must really hate B, for he is willing to suffer so much just to hit B.

Here too, the Emorites also knew that when they fought against the Jews, they would die on the spot, and yet this did not deter them from pursuing the Jews - so powerful was their hatred. Thus the description of the Emorites dying like bees is meant to show how strongly motivated they were to pursue the Jews.

The Brisker Rav quoted the Vilna Gaon, who gave a similarly explanation to a comparison to bees in Tehillim (118:12): "They surround me like bees..." David Hamelech is describing his enemies' motivation to fight as so powerful that they are willing to die like the bees.

The Brisker Rav concluded, "The Zionists think that if they kill Arabs, the Arabs will be afraid and surrender to them. But we find here in the Torah that these nations pursued the Jews like bees - even when they knew it would cost them their lives. The Arabs kill and wound because they were sent by Heaven!" (Nesivos Rabboseinu v. 2 p. 164)

Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpoleh, known as the Shpoler Zaideh (1724-1811) used to sing the following song before the bedtime Krias Shema or before Tikkun Chatzos. The song is known as "Kol Bayaar," and each verse is traditionally sung in Lashon Hakodesh, Yiddish and Ukrainian. It is clear that the song is based on the Zohar's depiction of the Arabs as those blocking the gates of Eretz Yisroel until the time of redemption:

A voice in the woods, a cry and a moan:
A Father is calling His children to come home.
My children, My children, where did you go
That you have forgotten about Me so?
My children, My children, please come home
For I cannot stand to be alone.
Our Father, our Father, how can we reach You?
The guard at Your gate does not let us pass through.

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gevas to Antiparas, and they all died during one period, because they did not treat one another with respect…they all died between Pesach and Shavuos…they all died of askara (the croup). (Yevamos 62b)

The Gemora here states clearly that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died from a disease. But Zionist authors such as Y. L. Maimon invented the story that they died fighting in the revolt against Rome led by Ben Koziva. Even before the era of Zionism, heretical Jewish historians such as Graetz and Frankel depicted Rabbi Akiva as traveling around, arousing the Jews to fight for their independence. Rabbi Yitzchok Isaac Halevi showed that these claims have no historical basis, in Chazal or elsewhere (Doros Harishonim v. 4 chapter 39-41). The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanis 24a) says only that Rabbi Akiva thought that Ben Koziva was Moshiach.

In fact, there is a dispute between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi about the attitude of Chazal toward Ben Koziva. The Bavli (Sanhedrin 93b) says that Moshiach must be able to judge cases based on his sense of smell. When Ben Koziva claimed to be Moshiach, the Sages tested him to see if he had this miraculous ability. When they saw that he did not, they killed him. The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, says that Rabbi Akiva believed in Ben Koziva, and the Rambam says (Melachim 11:3) that not only Rabbi Akiva but all the Sages of his generation as well believed in him. The Rambam proves from this story that Moshiach will not have to perform any miracles to establish his identity as Moshiach. The Raavad, quoting the Bavli mentioned above, disagrees.

The Midrash Rabbah on Shir Hashirim 2:7 says that there were four times in history when the Jewish people “forced the end and stumbled”; one of them is the revolt of Ben Koziva. This Midrash, which holds that the revolt was forbidden, must agree with the Talmud Bavli that Chazal did not support Ben Koziva. But according to the Yerushalmi, which says that Rabbi Akiva did support him, it must be that there was no transgression of the oath against forcing the end. Why not?

The answer is simple: the oath prohibits forcing the end, that is, trying to bring the end of the exile on our own, without waiting for Moshiach. According to the Bavli, since Chazal had conclusively proven that Ben Koziva was not Moshiach, any effort to throw off the Roman yoke would be considered forcing the end. But the Yerushalmi holds that Moshiach need not perform any miracles, as the Rambam says. He need only be someone who “learns Torah and does mitzvos and forces the entire Jewish people to follow the Torah” (Rambam Melachim 11:4). Ben Koziva evidently met these criteria, so Chazal rightly assumed that he was Moshiach, and there was no prohibition on following him into battle. However, to follow a false moshiach who does not succeed in getting everyone to keep the Torah, and certainly to follow someone who does not even claim to be moshiach, is a transgression of the oaths according to all opinions.

The Satmar Rav notes (Vayoel Moshe 1:48,80) that by making teshuva of the entire Jewish people the criterion for Moshiach, the Rambam is not leaving open the door for impostors. On the contrary, to make everything dependent on miracles and wonders would be dangerous, because sometimes a false prophet is given the ability to fool people with miracles (Devarim 13:3). But to make all Jews do teshuva is such a monumental task that, in the normal way of the world, no one can do it. If someone does succeed, it is a clear sign that Hashem has sent him to be Moshiach.

* * *

Rabbi Avrohom Loewenstam in his work Tzeror Hachaim (published 1820) explains Rabbi Akiva’s position differently. How, he asks, could the great Rabbi Akiva have sanctioned this sin, this transgression of the oath? The answer is, he says, that the city of Beitar, in which Ben Koziva reigned for two and a half years, had never been conquered by Rome at all. Beitar was a living remnant of the Jewish kingdom that had existed before the destruction of the Temple. Evidence to this can be found in the words of the Midrash Eichah (2:2): “Fifty-two years Beitar lasted after the destruction of the Temple. And why was it destroyed? Because they lit candles to celebrate the destruction of the Temple.” The Midrash goes on to explain that they rejoiced that Jerusalem was gone, and now Beitar would be the commercial center of the Land. Thus, Beitar had been a Jewish center all along, and Ben Koziva’s reigning in Beitar was not really an act of revolt against Rome. Rabbi Akiva was completely justified in supporting this, and he never, G-d forbid, entertained thoughts of rebellion.

But we must understand: what was the Tzeror Hachaim’s question? If Rabbi Akiva held that Ben Koziva was Moshiach, what was wrong with supporting his military activities? It seems that unlike the Rambam, the Tzeror Hachaim assumes that according to all opinions there will be miracles and heavenly revelations of some kind to prove Moshiach’s identity. Thus even Rabbi Akiva, who thought that Ben Koziva would eventually be revealed as Moshiach, had no right at that point in time to rely on this assumption in practice, to launch a revolt against Rome. The Tzeror Hachaim is thus forced to say that the reign of Ben Koziva was not a revolt.

* * *

The Gemora in Sanhedrin 93b says that the Sages killed Ben Koziva when they realized he was a false moshiach. The Yerushalmi Taanis 24b, which says that he fell into the hands of the Romans and was killed by a snake, apparently disagrees. This would fit well with the Yerushalmi’s statement earlier that Rabbi Akiva believed that Ben Koziva was Moshiach, which the Rambam understood to mean not only Rabbi Akiva but all the Sages of the time. However, the Radvaz attempts to reconcile the two Talmuds by saying that some of the Sages believed in Ben Koziva and some did not. When those who rejected him (because of the smell test) distanced themselves from him, he was weakened and lost his battle.

Whether the Sages actually killed him or merely weakened him, it is clear that they caused him to lose his war. Why did they decide on this course? Didn’t they realize that Beitar was a huge metropolis, and that myriads of Jewish lives would be lost if the Romans conquered it? Didn’t they realize that Ben Koziva, with his army of two hundred thousand mighty warriors who could uproot cedar trees with their bare hands, was the Jewish people’s best hope to defend themselves?

The Satmar Rov explains that yes, our Sages knew all this; but they also knew that the alternative - to continue in this uprising during exile, led by someone who was not Moshiach - would be far more dangerous. Hashem made the Jewish people swear not to force the end of the exile, and warned that violating the oath would bring dire consequences. If Ben Koziva were to continue his reign, who knew what would happen? So they chose the lesser of the two evils, to put an end to Ben Koziva’s kingdom, and they saw this as a partial escape from danger. We must always remember the story of Ben Koziva and the great trepidation with which Chazal viewed the concept of a Jewish kingdom before the coming of Moshiach! (Vayoel Moshe 1:139)

After the publication of the above, the following questions were posed by our readers:

Question: Don't the Zionists have proof from the words of the Gaonim to say that Rabbi Akiva's disciples died in Ben Koziva's revolt?

Answer: The only "proof" they have come up with is a line from the Igeres Rav Sherira Gaon, which reads: "And Rabbi Akiva raised up many disciples, and there was a destruction ("shmada") on the disciples of Rabbi Akiva." The Zionist writer Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says in his commentary on the Talmud that this might be a reference to the war of Ben Koziva. However, the Doros Harishonim rules out this possibility due to the fact that Rav Sherira Gaon ends off with the words, "as it states in Yevamos." Thus it is clear that Rav Sherira Gaon merely meant to quote from Yevamos, where it is written that the cause of death was a plague of croup; his word "destruction" must be a reference to that plague.

The Doros Harishonim also says that all of the 24,000 disciples learned under Rabbi Akiva before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. He proves this from Kesubos 63a, which relates that Rabbi Akiva came home to his wife with all the disciples and his father-in-law, Kalba Savua, annulled his vow and gave him half of his property. Since Kalba Savua died in the destruction of Jerusalem, this incident must have take place before the destruction. If so, it cannot be that these disciples were soldiers 50 or 60 years later in Ben Koziva's army.

In any case, this entire discussion is irrelevant to the issue of Zionism. Whether Rabbi Akiva actually sent his disciples into battle, or whether he merely supported Ben Koziva's revolt as the Yerushalmi says, we still have to explain why this revolt did not violate the Three Oaths. And the answer we gave was that Rabbi Akiva and the Jews of his time were following someone who had the criteria to be moshiach, unlike today's Zionists, who go to battle in the absence of anyone with the criteria to be, or even claiming to be, moshiach.

Question: You wrote: "Moshiach need only be someone who 'learns Torah and does mitzvos and forces the entire Jewish people to follow the Torah' (Rambam Melachim 11:4). Ben Koziva evidently met these criteria, so Rabbi Akiva rightly assumed that he was moshiach, and there was no prohibition on following him into battle. However, to follow a false moshiach who does not succeed in getting everyone to keep the Torah, and certainly to follow someone who does not even claim to be moshiach, is a transgression of the oaths according to all opinions." But doesn't the Rambam also say that moshiach must "fight the wars of Hashem"? If someone cannot be assumed to be moshiach until he leads a war, then how could it be forbidden for someone who has not yet established himself as moshiach to fight a war? How will he ever get off the ground?

Answer: The Rambam's criteria for moshiach are to be read in order, and only after fulfilling each level can the messianic candidate go on to fulfill the next. Thus, if he is someone who "learns Torah and does mitzvos and forces the entire Jewish people to follow the Torah", then he is assumed to be moshiach with enough certainty that he may continue on to "fight the wars of Hashem". Once he fulfills the condition of fighting the wars of Hashem, he may continue on to the next stage mentioned by the Rambam: building the Temple and gathering in the exiles.

It is also worth noting that according to the Chofetz Chaim, there is one kind of war that is permitted even during exile: a war against a decree of shmad, a decree made by a government that forces Jews to give up their Torah observance. The classic case of a war against a decree of shmad was the Hasmonean war against Antiochus, which we commemorate on Chanukah. This war took place during the Temple era; nevertheless the Chofetz Chaim said that such a war would be permitted even today, when the oaths are in force, against an empire that outlaws the Torah, such as Communist Russia. (Recorded by Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman in his article "Omer Ani Maasai Lamelech" section 9.)

According to this, there would be a way for a messianic candidate to fulfill this condition of fighting a war even before he has completely established himself as moshiach: he could fight a war against a decree of shmad.