We are currently in a time of mourning because 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died.
The Gemara (Yevamos, 62b) relates that the reason for their deaths is because “they did not show honor to one another.”
However, Rashi (Vayikra, 19;18) relates that Rabbi Akiva’s main axiom was that we should all love our fellows like ourselves. Therefore, how could all of his students go against his main teaching?!?
Secondly, the Gemara (Yevamos, 62b) refers to the 24,000 students as “12,000 pairs.” Why did the Gemara choose this exact language? Why not just say 24,000?
Thirdly, why did this great tragedy occur at this specific time of year? Presumably, Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students didn’t only disrespect each other during this specific period of the year!?!
Fourthly, the Gemara (Shabbat, 31a) relates that a non-Jew once came to Hillel and requested that he be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel then responded: “Do not do to your friend what is hateful to you. The rest is commentary-go learn!” Why did Hillel change the language of the Torah (Vayikra, 19;18) from “You shall love your friend like yourself” to “Do not do to your friend what is hateful to you”? Why did Hillel change the saying from doing good to your friend to refraining from doing bad to them?
Lastly, the Mishna (Pirkei Avos, 4;15) states: “The honor of your friend should be like the fear of your teacher.” The implication is that one should honor their friend even more than themselves-as one is required to honor their teacher. However, this seems to contradict the Torah (Vayikra, 19;18) which clearly tells us that we are only obligated to love our friends like ourselves!?!
Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explains that the Rambam (Pirkei Avos, 1;6) states that there are 3 levels of friendship/lovers. The first level are people in which one enjoys sharing their experiences with but a person will nevertheless make sure to avoid opening themselves up to them out of fear of being abused through the information. A greater level of friendship is one in which the two people are able to place complete trust in one another and say whatever they have on their mind. However, in order to attain this level of friendship the two parties must both fully believe that the other party is truly concerned for their well-being-and not just themselves. The highest level is love based on seeing someone else’s outstanding character. This is when a person see’s good qualities in another in which he doesn’t have himself. As a result, he’s able to use his friend in order to learn and grow.
Based on this we could now understand that when the Mishna (Pirkei Avos, 4;15) states “The honor of your friend should be like the fear of your teacher” that the Mishna is referring to the highest level of friendship where two people learn from one another. Towards such a friend we are obligated to honor even more than ourselves-like our Rebbi (teacher) as since we learn from them they are in effect one of our teacher’s. We could see that the Mishna (Pirkei Avos, 4;15) must be referring to a friend in which one learns with (the highest level of friendship) as the whole Mishna deals with relationships which involve one learning from another. The Mishna (4;15) states: “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, the honor of you friend like the fear of your teacher, and the fear of your teacher as the fear of heaven.” Since the first section of the Mishna deals with a student who learns from their rebbi, and the last section deals with one’s rebbi, the middle section must be referring to friends in which one has a learning relationship with. There is therefore no contradiction between the pasuk (Vayikra, 19;18) and the Mishna (4;15). The Torah (19;18) is referring to the first 2 levels of friends towards which one is simply obligated to treat them like themselves whereas the Mishna (4;15) is dealing with the highest level of friendship in which a person learns and grows from their partner. Towards friends in the first 2 levels of relationships a person is merely obligated to love them like themselves. The Mishna (4;15) then comes and teaches us that towards a friend in which one uses to learn and grow the obligation is to love them even more than oneself-like their rebbi.
Further, we could now understand that the students of Rabbi Akiva actually gave each other respect, as the Torah (Vayikra, 19;18) commands us that we should love our fellows like ourselves. Their sin was that they failed to treat their learning partners (chavrusas) with the same amount of honor as they treated their rebbi (teacher)-as the Mishna (Pirkei Avos, 4;15) teaches that one is obligated to honor their friend (in which they learn with) like the fear they have for their teacher. We therefore understand that Rabbi Akiva’s students didn’t go against his main axiom of “you shall love your fellow like yourself”-rather, they went against the teaching of the Mishna (Pirkei Avos, 4;15) that one is supposed to honor their friend in which they learn with
like that of their teacher (meaning-even more than oneself).
Similarly, the Gemara (Yevamos, 62b) refers to the students as 12,000 pairs instead of the simpler 24,000 in order to teach us that they died for showing a lack of honor specifically to their learning partner. Meaning they all gave each other honor and loved each other as much as themselves. However, towards their chavrusas (learning partners) in which they were obligated to show additional honor they failed and gave the same level of honor that they gave to everyone else. Their sin is therefore spoken in terms of every person and their learning partner in order to teach us that the area in which they lacked the proper amount of honor was in terms of their learning partners.
Furthermore, this tragedy happened at this specific point in time (between Pesach and Shavuot when we are supposed to improve ourselves in order so that we should be able to reach the level required to receive the Torah) as due to all the students lacking the proper amount of honor towards their chavrusas their learning was “weak” and they were therefore unable to reach the next level of learning. Only if two chavrusas learning properly with each other and don’t try to put each other down or use the other person simply to have company to sit down with will they be able to reach the level required to receive the Torah through their learning.
Lastly, Rabbi Zweig explains that Hillel changed the language of Rabbi Akiva’s axiom to “Do not do to your friend what is hateful to you” because it is naturally a lot harder for a person to avoid hurting someone else than to simply do good for them (and show that they love them like themself) as doing favors for people psychologically makes a person feels good as it gives them a sense of importance and purpose. In contrast, refraining from hurting another person requires one to impose limitations on themselves which is a very hard thing to do (e.g. not to say lashon hara or answer someone back with a smart/sharp line). Hillel is teaching us that the principle of love has to come from giving another person their sense of space. Meaning, it’s important to give to your friends and make them feel good about themselves-but the starting point of the relationship must be that you respect them and therefore won’t hurt them in any way. In all relationships respect must come before love as only through the giving of respect will everything one gives to their friend be considered true gifts of love. The way to achieve true sincere love is to begin with respect-giving the other person their space. We could learn out this lesson out from the Rambam as he states (Hilchos Ishus, 15;19): “Our Sages commanded that a man honor his wife more than his own person (himself) and love her as he loves his own person (himself).” The Rambam first says that a husband should honor/respect his wife and only after that does he say that a husband should love his wife. By stating a husband’s obligation to respect his wife before his obligation to love her the Rambam is coming to teach us that the principle of love is respect and only after there is a serious level of respect between 2 people in a relationship will they be able to establish a real love relationship. Thus, we now understand that Hillel changed the language of Rabbi Akiva’s axiom to “Do not do to your friend what is hateful to you” in order to teach us that the whole principle of love is based on respect.