Students to Soldiers
by Alan Tunkel
Tractate Succah, Chapter 3, Mishna 4
MISHNA: R. Yishmael says: Three myrtle boughs, two willows, one palm branch, and one citron are needed. If two out of the three myrtle boughs had the tips broken off, they may be used. R. Tarphon says: Even if all three should have the tips broken off. R. Akiva says-: As one Lulav and one citron are needed, so are only one myrtle bough and one willow needed.
GEMARA: We have learned in a Boraitha: It is written: The fruit of the tree hadar," in the singular, one fruit; "a branch of a palm tree," in the singular; one branch; "boughs of the myrtle tree, "in the plural, three; and "willows of the brook," also in the plural, two. And even if two had the tips broken off, it is valid. R. Tarphon, however, said: Three are needed; and if all the tips are broken off, it does not matter. R. Akiva said: As the Lulav and the citron are only one, so of the myrtle boughs and the willows is needed only one.
Coins had been invented in the 7th century BCE. During the First and Second Jewish Revolts against the Roman occupation of Judaea (66-70 CE and 132-136 CE) the Jewish Authorities took the trouble to mint their own coins. They did this by obliterating the head of the Emperor and the Roman gods that were found on the coins then circulating and by overstriking them with Jewish symbols and an appropriate message, e.g. "Year 2 of the Freedom of Zion". (Coins had major propaganda value in an era without widespread literacy, travel, news media or books).
What Jewish symbols did the Jewish Authorities choose for their coins? Nothing that was liable to be worshipped as a "graven image" was suitable. Accordingly, during both Revolts, they chose to depict the Lulav and Etrog.
However, on close examination of the coins of each Revolt an interesting difference emerges. Whereas the Lulav of the First Revolt includes many twigs of willow and myrtle, the Lulav of the Second Revolt has just one twig of each. Was there a reason for this or was it just a whim of the engraver?
We have seen that in Tractate Succah, Chapter 3, Mishna 4, R. Yishmael states that three myrtle and two willow twigs are required whereas R. Akiva states that one of each is sufficient. Apparently the coin of the First Revolt supports the opinion of R. Yishmael whereas that of the Second Revolt supports R. Akiva. Why should this be so?
3. One should not entertain the notion that the King Moshiach must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is not true -note that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnah, was the armour bearer of Ben Kozba [Bar Kochba] the king, and would describe him as the King Moshiach. He and all the Sages of his generation considered him to be the King Moshiach until he was killed because of [his] sins. Once he was killed, they realised that he was not [the Moshiach]. The Sages did not ask him for any signs or wonders.
The leader of the Second Revolt was Shimon Bar Kochba. As just seen, Rarnbarn in his Laws of Kings and Kingship, Chapter 11 paragraph 3, describes R. Akiva as the "armour-bearer" of Bar Kochba. We might call him the 'Chaplain to the Armed Forces'. Of course Bar Kochba and his mint-master followed the opinion of R. Akiva when engraving a Lulav on the dies for their coins. He was their Rav.
The Mishna was not redacted until long after these Revolts but these ancient coins provide unexpected and dramatic confirmation of the accuracy of the Mishna now handed down to us and show how the laws were obeyed meticulously by our ancestors even at times of great danger and hardship.
When the Romans defeated Bar Kochba's forces, they tortured and killed R. Akiva, as recorded in Gemara Berachos 61b, and an event that we remember when we read of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur each year.
And thou shall love the Lord thy God etc. It has been taught: R. Eliezer says: If it says 'with all thy soul', why should it also say, 'with all thy might', and if it says 'with all thy might', why should it also say 'with all thy soul'? Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; 'with all thy soul'; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, 'with all thy might'. R. Akiva says: With all thy soul': even if He takes away thy soul.
Our Rabbis taught: Once the wicked Government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practise the Torah. Pappus b. Judah carne and found R. Akiva publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: Akiva, are you not afraid of the Government? He replied: I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors? They replied: Art thou the one that they call the cleverest of animals? Thou art not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die! So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, for that is thy life and the length of thy days, if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be! It is related that soon afterwards R. Akiva was arrested and thrown into prison, and Pappus b. Judah was also arrested and imprisoned next to him. He said to him: Pappus, who brought you here? He replied: Happy are you, R. Akiva, that you have been seized for busying yourself with the Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things! When R. Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema ', and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all thy soul', [which I interpret,] 'even if He takes thy soul'. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it? He prolonged the word ehad until he expired while saying it. A bat kol went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, Akiva, that thy soul has departed with the word ehad! The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Such Torah, and such a reward? [He should have been] from them that die by Thy hand, 0 Lord. He replied to them: Their portion is in life. A bath kol went forth and proclaimed, Happy art thou, R. Akiva, that thou art destined for the life of the world to come.
What befell Rabbi Akiva's students?
It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Pentecost. R. Hama b. Abba or, it might be said, R. Hiyya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it?-R. Nahman replied: Croup.
There are many (including the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks) who believe that for 'Croup' one should read 'the Romans'.
It is remarkable that coins from nearly 2,000 ago are able to verify the accuracy of the Mishna. However, they also highlight the tragedy of Bar Kochba's revolt against the Romans, which led not only to the defeat and death of his 24,000 soldier-students but directly to the exile of our ancestors into the Diaspora as slaves and refugees.
It is understandable that under their Roman overlords, the editors of the Gemara chose not to be explicit about the death of Rabbi Akiva's soldier-students. However, why did they decide to say, "all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect"? What were they trying to teach us?
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has said, "The entire Talmud is framed by questions and answers. It is, perhaps, the only sacred book iri all of'world c.llturethat not only perrriits bufeven encourages the student to question it." And that is what our yeshivot today teach their students to do. By contrast, the soldier is required to obey orders, not to challenge or question them.
The JC of II May 2011 reported that the new Israeli coalition government had to "come up with a formula that will end the inequality of yeshiva students' exemption from national service" because "on the thorny issue of Charedi military service, the High Court has given the government until August to draft a new law." Charedi yeshiva students becoming soldiers! Having been trained to challenge and question they will now be required to obey orders instantly and respect their officers, even those who are not orthodox. Is this not what the editors of the Gemara were trying to teach us?