The hillula celebration of Lag B’Omer also memorializes, in hidden form, the greatest expositor of the Oral Law (Torah SheBa’al Peh), the wondrous Tana, Rabbi Akiva, one of whose greatest disciples was R. Shimon bar Yochai. The Talmud relates that Rashbi used to encourage his students to review his teachings because they were a compendium of R. Akiva’s Torah (Gittin 67a). Rashbi also learned to sacrifice himself for Israel’s honor from his master, for R. Akiva supported the rebellion against the Romans and encouraged Bar Kochva’s [revolt]. [As mentioned above, one of the reasons] we rejoice on Lag B’Omer is because of the secrets of the Torah [that were revealed on that day]. This aspect is also related to R. Akiva, of whom it is said that he entered the Pardes – that is, the deep secrets of the Torah – and came out unscathed (Chaggigah 14b). The other Sages who entered with him, however, suffered harm, for they were incapable of absorbing the awe-inspiring secrets of the Pardes.
The halachic reason given for rejoicing on Lag B’Omer revolves around the fact that R. Akiva’s disciples continued the mesorah (transmission) of the Torah, as we explained above (sec. 1). After all, R. Akiva is one of the pillars of the Oral Law. Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin explains (Pri Tzaddik, Lag B’Omer 1) that [the Rabbis] could not establish a holiday on the anniversary of R. Akiva’s death because he was killed by the government. Therefore, they established the hillula on the day his student, R. Shimon bar Yochai, died. Consequently, Rashbi’s hillula includes R. Akiva’s. Thus, it is fitting to focus on R. Akiva’s Torah and greatness on Lag B’Omer.
There was almost no one in history who began studying Torah under worse conditions than R. Akiva did. Nonetheless, by virtue of his diligence and great faith, he reached the loftiest heights (see Avot DeRebbe Natan, chap. 6). To a large extent, this was due to his wife Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savu’a, one of the wealthiest Jews at the time. She recognized the lofty stature of her husband’s soul and agreed to marry him if he would learn Torah. [As a result], her wealthy father took an oath forbidding her from deriving any benefit from his possessions. Nonetheless, she refused to change her mind, married R. Akiva, and became one of the poorest Jews of the time. Despite all this, she continued, with great self-sacrifice, to encourage her husband to learn Torah. After R. Akiva became the Gadol HaDor (the greatest Torah Sage of his generation), he said to his students, “My [Torah] and your [Torah] is [truly] hers” (Ketuvot 63a).
“Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: ‘When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns onto the letters. He said to Him, “Master of the Universe, who is preventing You?” (Who needs the preciseness of these crowns? No one understands their meaning, anyway.) [God] responded to him, “There is a person who is going to live in many generations from now, whose name is Akiva son of Yosef. He is going to derive heaps and heaps of laws from every tip of a letter”… [Moshe] replied, “Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as that and You are giving the Torah through me?” Said [God], “Be silent! This is how I want it to be…”’” (Menachot 29b). The fact that HaShem showed Moshe specifically R. Akiva from among all the Sages of Israel indicates that he is considered the greatest expositor of the Oral Law (see also Sanhedrin 86a, where the Gemara states that all anonymous halachic teachings stem from him).
R. Akiva’s dedication to faith [in God] and Torah was boundless. Ever after 24,000 of his students died, he did not lose his faith. Rather, he continued to teach more students, from whom Torah spread throughout Israel. [Another example of his faith]: When he saw a fox leaving the site of the Holy of Holies, and his colleagues cried, he laughed, because of his faith that just as the prophets’ warnings of calamity came true, so will their words of consolation (Makkot 24b).
When the Romans issued a decree against Torah study, R. Akiva sacrificed himself and taught Torah to the masses. [Unfortunately, though], he was caught, incarcerated, and sentenced to a cruel death. Our Sages say: “When they brought R. Akiva out to be executed, the time to recite the Shema arrived. [The Romans] proceeded to comb his flesh with iron combs, and [despite this] R. Akiva accepted upon himself the yoke of Heaven [by reciting the Shema]. His disciples said to him, ‘Our master, even to such a degree?’ (Behold, one is exempt from reciting the Shema under such excruciating circumstances. Why, then, are you exerting yourself so greatly to read it?) He replied, ‘My whole life I was troubled by the verse With all your soul, [which implies that one must love God] even if He takes away your soul. I said to myself, “When will I have the opportunity to fulfill it?” And now that the moment has arrived, shall I neglect to fulfill it?!’ He proceeded to draw out the word echad (one) [in the verse, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one], until his soul left him while saying, ‘one.’ A heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed, ‘Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, for your soul left you with [the word] “one”’… A heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed, ‘Fortunate are you Rabbi Akiva, for you are ready for life in the World to Come’” (Berachot 61b).