Akiba ben Yossef (ca.50–ca.135 CE) (Hebrew: רבי עקיבא) or simply Rabbi Akiva was a Judean tanna of the latter part of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd century (3rd tannaitic generation). He was a great authority in the matter of Jewish tradition, and one of the most central and essential contributors to the Mishnah and Midrash Halakha. He is referred to in the Talmud as "Rosh la-Chachomim" (Head of all the Sages). He is considered by many to be one of the earliest founders of rabbinical Judaism[1].
Akiba and his wife

According to the Talmud, Akiba owed almost everything to his wife. Akiba was a shepherd in the employ of the rich and respected Kalba Sabu’a, whose daughter took a liking to him, the modest, conscientious servant. She consented to secret betrothal on the condition that he thenceforth devote himself to study. When the wealthy father-in-law learned of this secret betrothal, he drove his daughter from his house, and swore that he would never help her while Akiba remained her husband. Akiba, with his young wife, lived perforce in the most straitened circumstances. Indeed, so poverty-stricken did they become that the bride had to sell her hair to enable her husband to pursue his studies. But these very straits only served to bring out Akiba’s greatness of character. It is related that once, when a bundle of straw was the only bed they possessed, a poor man came to beg some straw for a bed for his sick wife. Akiba at once divided with him his scanty possession, remarking to his wife, "Thou seest, my child, there are those poorer than we!" This pretended poor man was none other than the prophet Elijah, who had come to test Akiba (Ned. 50a).

By agreement with his wife, Akiba spent twelve years away from her, pursuing his studies under Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah. Returning at the end of that time, he was just about to enter his wretched home, when he overheard the following answer given by his wife to a neighbor who was bitterly censuring him for his long absence: "If I had my wish, he should stay another twelve years at the academy." Without crossing the threshold, Akiba turned about and went back to the academy, to return at the expiration of another twelve years. The second time, however, he came back as a most famous scholar, escorted by 24,000 disciples, who reverently followed their beloved master. When his poorly clad wife was about to embrace him, some of his students, not knowing who she was, sought to restrain her. But Akiba exclaimed, "Let her alone; for what I am, and for what you are, is hers" (she deserves the credit) (Ned. 50a, Ket. 62b et seq.).

[edit] Akiba as Systematizer

Akiba’s true genius, however, is shown in his work in the domain of the Halakah, both in his systematization of its traditional material and in its further development. The condition of the Halakah, that is, of religious praxis, and indeed of Judaism in general, was a very precarious one at the turn of the first century of the common era. The lack of any systematized collection of the accumulated Halakot rendered impossible any presentation of them in form suitable for practical purposes. Means for the theoretical study of the Halakah were also scant; both logic and exegesis—the two props of the Halakah—being differently conceived by the various ruling tannaim, and differently taught. According to a tradition which has historical confirmation, it was Akiba who systematized and brought into methodic arrangement the Mishnah, or Halakah codex; the Midrash, or the exegesis of the Halakah; and the Halakot, the logical amplification of the Halakah

What was Rabbi Akiva like? – A worker who goes out with his basket. He finds wheat – he puts it in, barley – he puts it in, spelt – he puts it in, beans – he puts it in, lentils – he puts it in. When he arrives home he sorts out the wheat by itself, barley by itself, spelt by itself, beans by themselves, lentils by themselves. So did Rabbi Akiva; he arranged the Torah rings by rings.

God’s Two Attributes

But he is far from representing strict justice as the only attribute of God: in agreement with the ancient Palestinian theology of the מדת הדין ("the attribute of justice") and מדת הרחמים ("the attribute of mercy") (Gen. R. xii., end; the χαριστική and κολαστική of Philo, Quis Rer. Div. Heres, 34 Mangey, i. 496), he teaches that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice (Ḥag. 14a). Hence his maxim, referred to above, "God rules the world in mercy, but according to the preponderance of good or bad in human acts."

The Messianic Age

His doctrine concerning the Jewish Messiahwas different than other views, and believed Bar Kokba to be the Messiah. He accordingly limited the Messianic age to forty years, as being within the scope of a man’s life — similar to the reigns of David and Solomon—against the usual conception of a millennium (Midr. Teh. xc. 15).

[edit] Legends

A man like Akiba would naturally be the subject of many legends. The following examples indicate in what light the personality of this great teacher appeared to later generations.

[edit] His innovative method

"When Moses ascended into heaven, he saw God occupied in making little crowns for the letters of the Torah. Upon his inquiry as to what these might be for, he received the answer, "There will come a man, named Akiba ben Joseph, who will deduce Halakot from every little curve and crown of the letters of the Law." Moses’ request to be allowed to see this man was granted; but he became much dismayed as he listened to Akiba’s teaching; for he could not understand it" (Men. 29b). This story gives a picture of Akiba’s activity as the father of Talmudical Judaism.

His martyrdom

[edit] His transformation

The Aggadah explains how Akiba, in the prime of life, commenced his rabbinical studies. Legendary allusion to this change in Akiba’s life is made in two slightly varying forms, of which the following is probably the older:

Akiba, noticing a stone at a well that had been hollowed out by drippings from the buckets, said: "If these drippings can, by continuous action, penetrate this solid stone, how much more can the persistent word of God penetrate the pliant, fleshly human heart, if that word but be presented with patient insistency" (Ab. R. N. ed. S. Schechter, vi. 28).


The most common version of Akiva’s death is that the Roman government ordered him to stop teaching Torah, on pain of death, and that he refused.

There is some disagreement about the extent of Akiva’s involvement in the Bar Kochba rebellion. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica online)

Akiba’s martyrdom—which is an important historical event—gave origin to many legends. The following account of his martyrdom is on a high plane and contains a proper appreciation of his principles: When Rufus—"Tyrannus Rufus," as he is called in Jewish sources—who was the pliant tool of Hadrian‘s vengeance, condemned the venerable Akiba to the hand of the executioner, it was just the time to recite the Shema. Full of devotion, Akiba recited his prayers calmly, though suffering agonies; and when Rufus asked him whether he was a sorcerer, since he felt no pain, Akiba replied, "I am no sorcerer; but I rejoice at the opportunity now given to me to love my God ‘with all my life,’ seeing that I have hitherto been able to love Him only ‘with all my means’ and ‘with all my might,’" and with the word "One!" he expired (Yer. Ber. ix. 14b, and somewhat modified in Bab. 61b).

The version in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 61b) tells it as a response of Akiva to his students, who asked him how even now—as he is being tortured—he could yet offer prayers to God. He says to them, "All my life I was worried about the verse, ‘with all your soul,’ (and the sages expounded this to signify), even if He takes away your soul. And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not? Then he extended the final word Echad ("One") until his life expired with that word. A heavenly voice went out and announced: "Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your life expired with "Echad". Pure monotheism was for Akiba the essence of Judaism: he lived, worked, and died for it.

Contrary to the vision (Men. 29b), which sees Akiba’s body destined to be exposed for sale in the butcher’s shop, legend tells how Elijah, accompanied by Akiba’s faithful servant Joshua, entered unperceived the prison where the body lay. Priest though he was, Elijah took up the corpse—for the dead body of such a saint could not defile—and, escorted by many bands of angels, bore the body by night to Cæsarea. The night, however, was as bright as the finest summer’s day. When they arrived there, Elijah and Joshua entered a cavern which contained a bed, table, chair, and lamp, and deposited Akiba’s body there. No sooner had they left it than the cavern closed of its own accord, so that no man has found it since (Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash, vi. 27, 28; ii. 67, 68; Braunschweiger, Lehrer der Mischnah, 192-206). 

[edit] His students

Akiba taught thousands of students: on one occasion, twenty-four thousand students of his died in a plague.[5] His five main, last remaining students were Judah bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Nehemiah, Jose ben Halafta and Shimon bar Yochai.

[edit] His wealth and influence

Akiba’s success as a teacher put an end to his poverty; for the wealthy father-in-law now rejoiced to acknowledge a son-in-law so distinguished as Akiba. There were, however, other circumstances which made a wealthy man of the former shepherd lad.

It appears that Akiba, authorized by certain rabbis, borrowed a large sum of money from a prominent heathen woman—a matrona, says the legend. As bondsmen for the loan, Akiba named God and the sea, on the shore of which the matrona’s house stood. Akiba, being sick, could not return the money at the time appointed; but his "bondsmen" did not leave him in the lurch. An imperial princess suddenly became insane, in which condition she threw a chest containing imperial treasures into the sea. It was cast upon the shore close to the house of Akiba’s creditor, so that when the matrona went to the shore to demand of the sea the amount she had lent Akiba, the ebbing tide left boundless riches at her feet. Later, when Akiba arrived to discharge his indebtedness, the matrona not only refused to accept the money, but insisted upon Akiba’s receiving a large share of what the sea had brought to her (Commentaries to Ned. l.c.).

The Talmud also enumerates six occasions in which Akiva gained his wealth (Nedarim, 50a-b). Akiba’s many journeys brought numerous adventures, some of which are embellished by legend. Thus in Ethiopia he was once called upon to decide between the swarthy king and the king’s wife; the latter having been accused of infidelity because she had borne her lord a white child. Akiba ascertained that the royal chamber was adorned with white marble statuary, and, basing his decision upon a well known physiological theory, he exonerated the queen from suspicion (Num. R. ix. 34). It is related that during his stay in Rome Akiba became intimately acquainted with the Jewish proselyte ḳeṭia’ bar Shalom, a very influential Roman—according to some scholars identical with Flavius Clemens, Domitian‘s nephew, who, before his execution for pleading the cause of the Jews, bequeathed to Akiba all his possessions (Ab. Zarah, 10b).

Another Roman, concerning whose relations with Akiba legend has much to tell, was Tinnius Rufus, called in the Talmud "Tyrannus" Rufus. One day Rufus asked: "Which is the more beautiful—God’s work or man’s?" "Undoubtedly man’s work is the better," was Akiba’s reply; "for while nature at God’s command supplies us only with the raw material, human skill enables us to elaborate the same according to the requirements of art and good taste." Rufus had hoped to drive Akiba into a corner by his strange question; for he expected quite a different answer from the sage, and intended to compel Akiba to admit the wickedness of circumcision. He then put the question, "Why has God not made man just as He wanted him to be?" "For the very reason," was Akiba’s ready answer, "that the duty of man is to perfect himself" (Tan., Tazri’a, 5, ed. S. Buber 7).

His relationship with his wife

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Akiva was the shepherd of a rich man nicknamed Kalba Savua because anyone who entered his house hungry like a dog (kalba) went out satiated (savua) (a reference to his hospitality toward guests). Kalba Savua’s daughter, whose name was Rachel, noticed his modesty and good nature. She saw that he had a great mind, and that if he would put his mind to The Almighty’s Divine Torah, he would flourish into a great teacher in Israel. She spoke with Akiva about God and the role of the Jewish people, and it sparked his interest. One day Akiva came to Rachel by a river, and asked her why the Jewish people, if they were God’s Chosen people, had to suffer so much.

Rachel’s response moved Akiva, and he told her that he could only dedicate himself to Torah if he had a wife like her by his side. She said that she would accept his "wooing" if he would devote himself to the study of God’s law. He said he would, and they married in secret. Her father, hearing this, drove her out of his house and prohibited her by vow of having any share in his assets.

Rachel brought Akiva to Gamzu, a small place near Lod, to learn from the Torah sage Nochum of Gamzu. He learned with him until he died, at which point he moved to Yavneh to study at the feet of ben Zakkai, as well as Gamliel II HaNasi (the Prince), and Yehoshua ben Chananya. After 12 years, he returned to his home with twelve thousand disciples following him. He overheard a neighbor saying to his wife Rachel: "How long will you live as a widow while still married? Your husband has probably forgotten all about you!" She answered her: "If he would listen to me, he should go study another twelve years." Hearing this, Rabbi Akiva said: "So I’m doing it with her approval!" and went and studied another twelve years.

When he came back this time, he had twenty-four thousand disciples with him. Hearing this, his wife was about to go out and greet him. Her female neighbors said to her: "Go borrow garments and dress yourself!" She replied: "A righteous man knows the spirit of his domestic beast" (Proverbs 12:10). When she reached him she prostrated herself and started kissing his feet. His servants started pushing her away. He said to them: "Let her be! What both I and you have is hers."

Her father heard that a great man had arrived in town. He said: "Let me go to him, perhaps he may annul my vow." Rabbi Akiva asked him: "Had you known that her husband would become a great man, would you have vowed?" Kalba Savua answered: "Why, if he even knew one chapter, even one Halakha!" Rabbi Akiva then said: "I am him." He prostrated himself and kissed him on his feet, and gave him half his assets (Ketubot 62b-63a).

[edit] Favorite maxim

This was not the only occasion on which Akiba was made to feel the truth of his favorite maxim ("Whatever God doeth He doeth for the best"). Once, being unable to find any sleeping accommodation in a certain city, he was compelled to pass the night outside its walls. Without a murmur he resigned himself to this hardship; and even when a lion devoured his donkey, and a cat killed the rooster whose crowing was to herald the dawn to him, and the wind extinguished his candle, the only remark he made was, "All that God does is for the good." When morning dawned he learned how true his words were. A band of robbers had fallen upon the city and carried its inhabitants into captivity, but he had escaped because his abiding place had not been noticed in the darkness, and neither beast nor fowl had betrayed him (Ber. 60b).

[edit] Akiba and the Dead

A legend according to which the gates of the infernal regions opened for Akiba is analogous to the more familiar tale that he entered paradise and was allowed to leave it unscathed (Ḥag. 14b). There exists the following tradition: Akiba once met a coal-black man carrying a heavy load of wood and running with the speed of a horse. Akiba stopped him and inquired: "My son, wherefore dost thou labor so hard? If thou art a slave and hast a harsh master, I will purchase thee of him. If it be out of poverty that thou doest thus, I will care for thy requirements." "It is for neither of these," the man replied; "I am dead and am compelled because of my great sins to build my funeral pyre every day. In life I was a tax-gatherer and oppressed the poor. Let me go at once, lest the demon torture me for my delay." "Is there no help for thee?" asked Akiba. "Almost none," replied the deceased; "for I understand that my sufferings will end only when I have a pious son. When I died, my wife was pregnant; but I have little hope that she will give my child proper training."

Akiba inquired the man’s name and that of his wife and her dwelling-place; and when, in the course of his travels, he reached the place, Akiba sought for information concerning the man’s family. The neighbors very freely expressed their opinion that both the deceased and his wife deserved to inhabit the infernal regions for all time—the latter because she had not even initiated her child into the Abrahamic covenant. Akiba, however, was not to be turned from his purpose; he sought the son of the tax-gatherer and labored long and assiduously in teaching him the word of God. After fasting 40 days, and praying to God to bless his efforts, he heard a heavenly voice (bat Ḳol) asking, "Wherefore givest thou thyself so much trouble concerning this one?" "Because he is just the kind to work for," was the prompt answer. Akiba persevered until his pupil was able to officiate as reader in the synagogue; and when there for the first time he recited the prayer, "Bless ye the Lord!" the father suddenly appeared to Akiba, and overwhelmed him with thanks for his deliverance from the pains of hell through the merit of his son (Kallah, ed. Coronel, 4b, and see quotations from Tan. in Isaac Aboab‘s Menorat ha-Maor, i. 1, 2, § 1, ed. Jacob Raphael Fürstenthal, p. 82; also Maḥzor Vitry, p. 112). This legend has been somewhat elaborately treated in Yiddish under the title, Ein ganz neie Maase vun dem Tanna R. Akiba, Lemberg, 1893 (compare Tanna debe Eliyahu Zuṭṭa, xvii., where Johanan ben Zakkai‘s name is given in place of Akiba).





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