Rabbi Akiva (ben Joseph; Mid-first Cent. Ce. - C.135)
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RABBI AKIVA (Ben Joseph; mid-first cent. CE. - c.135)
One of the key figures in the formative period of rabbinic Judaism. His
early history is shrouded in legend. Traditionally the son
of a proselyte, he was a poor and ignorant youth who earned
his living as a shepherd for the rich landowner, Ben Kalba
Sabua. Akiva married his daughter, Rachel, who encouraged
him to start studying when he was already 40 (he learned the
alphabet together with his son) and even sold her hair to
find money for food. His father-in-law was enraged that his
daughter had married Akiva and refused to recognize their
marriage. They lived in poverty but Rachel uncomplainingly
looked after the children while he went away to study at the
academies of famous rabbis. According to the story, he
returned after 24 years, accompanied by thousands of
disciples, to whom he proclaimed that he and they owed
everything to Rachel.
Whatever the historical accuracy of these traditions, Akiva
had, before the end of the century, become one of the
outstanding rabbinicc authorities and had established a
distinguished academy at Benei Berak which produced nearly
all the leading rabbis of the next generation. By this time
his father-in-law was reconciled and Akiva enjoyed wealth as
well as wisdom. He was regarded as one of the heads of the
Jewish community in Eretz Israel on whose behalf he traveled
extensively including a mission to Rome in 95 CE to obtain
from Emperor Domitian the cancellation of anti- Jewish
In his time, Judaism was guided by a vast accumulation of
oral traditions. These were collected, organized according
to subject matter, and committed to writing by Akiva,
thereby laying the foundation for the Mishnah, the
authoritative code of Judah ha-Nasi (q.v.), which in turn
was the basis of the Talmud. His innovativeness in the field
of Jewish law led to the saying, "What was not revealed to
Moses was discovered by Akiva." In particular he held that
every word, letter, and mark in the Bible was sacred and
possessed a meaning. (A legend related that Moses in heaven
saw God making crowns for the letters of the Torah and asked
for the reason. God replied, "A man called Akiva will arise
who will deduce rules of Jewish law from every curve and
crown on these letters.") Akiva derived laws from even the
apparently most unimportant and redundant words of the
Bible, seeking to demonstrate how the Written Law - the
Bible - contained the oral tradition. This approach was a
matter of controversy with another great scholar, Rabbi
Ishmael ben Elisha, who insisted that the Bible speaks in
human language and should be understood through its plain
meanings and not through the fanciful, homiletic approach
expounded by Akiva. Akiva was also one of the pioneers of
Jewish mysticism who - in the guarded words of the rabbis -
"entered the heavenly garden and emerged unscathed."
After the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed (70 CE) and
Jewish independence lost, Akiva was convinced that national
redemption would ensue. In the year 132, following measures
by the Roman emperor Hadrian, which incensed the Jewish
population, a revolt broke out under Simeon bar-Kokhba (q.v.
) which achieved impressive initial successes. It is thought
that Akiva was one of the religious forces behind the
rebellion. Certainly he enthusiastically supported it and
even hailed Bar-Kokhba as the potential messiah, proclaiming
"A star has stepped out of Jacob" (hence the epithet "Bar-
Kokhba," i.e., "son of a star," for the leader, whose real
name was Bar Kosiba. After three years of bitter fighting,
the rebellion was quelled by the Romans with much cruelty.
Hadrian issued a series of edicts aiming at the elimination
of Judaism, including a ban on study of the Torah, which was
ignored by Akiva. Imprisoned by the Romans, he continued to
teach his pupils in devious ways, even while in prison.
Eventually Akiva, now in his nineties, was sentenced to be
executed in Caesarea. The story goes that he insisted on
reciting the Shema even while his persecutors were tearing
his flesh with iron combs. He was asked how he could
continue to pray while in agony and answered: "All my life,
I have sought to serve God with all my heart, all my soul,
and all my might [as is written in the Shema, cf.
Deuteronomy 6:5]. Now I realize the meaning of serving
God `with all my soul,' that is, even though he is taking
away my life." The connection of the Shema with the great
martyr led to its recitation being adopted as a final
confession of faith for later Jewish martyrs and for Jews on
their deathbeds. L. Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint, and
Martyr, 1962. AKIVA'S SAYINGS
Who is wealthy? The man with a virtuous wife.
"Love your neighbor as yourself" is the great principle of
Whatever God does is for the best.
Tradition is a protection ("fence") for Torah; tithes are a
protection for wealth; vows for abstinence; silence for
Before you taste anything, recite a benediction. He who
sheds blood impairs the Divine image.
If a husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhinah (Divine
Presence) abides with them; if they are not, fire consumes
Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted.
The world is judged favorably, yet all depends on the
preponderance of good deeds.
Whoever neglects to visit a sick person is like one who
More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to suckle
(i.e., the teacher wants to teach even more than the pupil
wants to learn)
Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God.
Beware of unsolicited advice.
The judge who passes sentence must fast on the day of
As a house implies a builder, a dress a weaver, a door a
carpenter, so the world proclaims God, its Creator.
Take your place a little below your rank until you are asked
to move up; it is better to be told "come up higher" than