NUMEROUS INDICATIONS in the Talmud suggest that during the life time of Hillel and Shammai there lived other spiritual leaders who followed an individual method in interpreting the Torah and who did not identify themselves with either of the above. Some of these are mentioned by name on a number of unimportant occasions. Others did not even attain this recognition.
Akabia ben Mahalalel was one of the scholars who developed an individual method of exposition. We possess but vague knowledge of his life and activities. One report states that he was excommunicated without naming the sin for which he was thus punished. But this report is immediately contradicted and it is said that whoever invented such a slanderous rumor about a saintly man such as Akabia was, deserves severe punishment.1)עדיות פרק ה׳ משנה ו׳.
Considering all references to Akabia ben Mahalalel in the Talmud one must conclude that he was an unusual man who was gifted by nature with great perseverance. The nation was then engaged in a great struggle to preserve its independence against outside enemies and was rent by an internal conflict over the observance of the Torah. In such a time Akabia ben Mahalalel succeeded in remaining above the inner and outer struggles and in maintaining his neutrality toward the contending sides.
So far as we know, Akabia ben Mahalalel did not hold any official position. In religious questions he contributed his opinion on only four subjects which are of such rare occurrence that a century may pass before such problems present themselves again. Since his point of view differed from that of the other scholars and he expressed his opinions with a certain disrespect for the leaders of a previous generation he was therefore excommunicated.
The original source of the four laws on which Akabia ben Mahalalel held dissenting views we find in the above mentioned Mishna. One dealt with special cases of leprosy, the other law concerned a woman who has an issue of blood, the third dealt with the wool shed by a clean first-born animal that was crippled, and the fourth concerned a woman suspected of infidelity who was a proselyte or a freed woman.
The first two laws come under the category of legislation pertaining to cleanliness and impurity and their interpretation involves medical considerations. We will, however, devote a few words to the third and fourth laws.
The first born of a clean animal had to be sacrificed in Jerusalem according to the prescribed custom for minor holy offerings (קדשים קלים). As long as such animal lived, one was not allowed to put it to work nor to shear its wool. In case such an animal became crippled it had to be slaughtered and given to a priest. As stated above, it was prohibited to shear the wool of such a first born animal, nor could the wool be utilized after it was slaughtered. But Akabia ruled that the priest was entitled to the use of that wool which the animal shed while it was still alive, while the other scholars disagreed with him.
The fourth law about which Akabia held a dissenting opinion concerned a “Sotah”. (Sotah is a woman who is suspected by her husband of infidelity.) The prescribed procedure in such a case was for the husband to bring the wife together with an offering of barley meal to the priest. The priest took a clay vessel filled with pure water and placed in it some earth from the temple; he then wrote the verses of the Torah pertaining to a Sotah on a paper and read them to the woman after which he washed the ink from the paper with the water which he gave to the woman to drink. If the water caused the woman no harm it was held as proof that she was innocent.
Akabia held that this procedure need not be applied to a Sotah who was a proselyte or a freed servant. In attempting to dissuade him, the scholars cited the case of Shemaiah and Abtalion who gave the water to a Sotah who was a freed servant. Akabia retorted that “they gave it to one like themselves.”
The exact meaning of the words of Akabia is not clear. (The Hebrew word “dugma” means similar.) They are interpreted to indicate that Akabia was of the opinion that Shemaiah and Abtalion did not give the woman the prescribed water to drink nor did they write the prescribed passage. They merely attempted to influence her psychologically in order to obtain the truth. But some scholars thought these words to be a slurring reference to the origin of Shemaiah and Abtalion and they placed him under the ban. When Akabia died the people stoned his casket.*)This story of the Sotah who was a freed woman is also related in Berachoth, 19. In commenting on it, Rashi states that when Akabia said ״דוגמא השקוה״ he referred to the fact that Shemaiah and Abtalion were proselytes and they therefore considered the freed servant equal to a Jewish woman and did give her the prescribed water.
But the statement of one, Rabbi Jehudah, elsewhere referred to as Rabbi Jehudah of Bathyra, is immediately quoted to the effect that one must not believe that a just man like Akabia could have been put under the ban, nor could he have slandered the names of Shemaiah and Abtalion in the case of the freed servant. Whoever assumes that Akabia was excommunicated is deserving of punishment. Rabbi Jehudah maintains that the matter of the excommunication crept in through an error and involved another person named Elazar ben Chanoch who was put under the ban because he ignored the commandment of “washing hands” in the belief that this commandment was not implied in the Torah.
The respect in which Akabia was held by the Jews can be seen from the fact that he was offered the position of the head of the Court if he would recall his decisions in the matter of the four above mentioned laws. But Akabia answered: “I would rather be called a fool all the days of my life than be wicked in the eyes of God for one hour or that people should point at me and say that I betrayed my convictions in order to obtain an office.”
These four laws concerned subjects so rare that a court may have had no occasion to pass on them throughout its existence. We also find that later scholars held the same opinions as Akabia held.
We must also bear in mind that immorality was very widespread in the Judea of that day and the whole procedure of trial of a woman suspected of infidelity was done away with. The Biblical text, “the woman shall be a curse within her people,” was interpreted to apply only in case the people lead moral lives.2)ירושלמי סוטה פרק ט׳ הלכה ט׳. There is therefore some doubt whether Akabia passed on these questions or whether his decisions caused any serious opposition.
Before Akabia died he instructed his son not to observe these four laws according to his interpretation.
His son asked him: “Why then did you not recall your decisions?” Akabia answered: “I have heard them adopted by a majority and my opponents heard their views adopted by a majority. For this reason I clung to the law as I heard it and they observed it as they received it. But you heard the decisions from me, who am but one, and from my opponents who are many. It is therefore better that you give up the opinions of the individual and abide by the opinions of the majority.”
On this occasion Akabia’s son also asked his father to instruct his colleagues that they should treat him better, but Akabia answered that he would not speak to them about this matter. His son then asked him: “Have you found any evil in me?” The father answered: “I have seen no evil in you but I believe that intercession will not help you. Your own deeds will make you beloved among people and your own deeds will make them stay away from you.”
The editor of the Mishna in “Pirke Aboth” cites the following maxim in the name of Akabia ben Mahalalel: “Keep in view three things and you will not come to sin.” Expounders interpreted these to be that a man should refrain from pride and sinful desires. Akabia stated further, “Know whence you came, whither you go and before whom you have to give strict account. Consider how you came into the world, remember that you are bound for a place of dust and worms and that you will have to give account before the king of kings, the Holy one blest be He.”
In a somewhat different form we find this passage quoted in “Aboth d’Rabbi Nathan”: “Akabia ben Mahalalel said: ‘He who ponders the following four subjects will sin no more. Think of whence you come, whither you are going, what will become of you, and who will be your judge. Whence you come? From a place of darkness. Whither you are going? To a place of darkness. What will become of you? Dust and worms. Who will be your judge? The king of kings, the Holy one blest be He.’”
Some people claim that the request to Akabia to recall his four opinions did not refer to the above described decisions concerning cleanliness and impurity, the wool of a first born crippled animal and a Sotah who was a proselyte but rather to those four maxims which he held that a man must take to heart in order to be saved from sin. These teachings placed Akabia in the category of one who spreads ideas that are dangerous for the world. By having people think constantly of death and of the sufferings in their grave, their desire to live is undermined.
It was then that he was called upon to revoke the four maxims which deprive people of the desire to live and he would be appointed head of the court. However, it is difficult to explain how it could happen that a man who was under the ban for following an original system of interpreting the law should be considered a desirable candidate to head the Court.
But this explanation is not based in fact, for it seems evident that Akabia was excommunicated, despite the denial of Rabbi Jehudah ben Bathyra. In the Talmud we find a passage of a later date which seriously poses the question why Akabia was not executed, as was the law regarding a “dissenting elder,” if he really ridiculed Shemaiah and Abtalion. The answer given to this question was that Akabia’s words regarding a Sotah who was also a freed woman had only a theoretical implication and were not meant to be taken as a law to be practiced.3)סנהדרין פּ״ח א׳.
The time of Akabia’s life has not been definitely established. It is certain that he lived after the death of Shammai in whose stead he was to be appointed as head of the court. When Akabia refused this office, it was thenceforth abolished.