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

the Torah.

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

sheds blood.

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

"move down."

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