THE HIGHEST PLACE OF HONOR among all of our national heroes undoubtedly belongs to Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph. Like the lives of all historically outstanding personalities, Rabbi Akiba’s life history is also surrounded with legends which shed a saintly halo on his origin and personal development.
Rabbi Akiba’s father was a proselyte, or the son of a proselyte, and he traced his descent from Sisera, the commander of Jabin the king of Hazor. In his youth Rabbi Akiba was a shepherd in the service of the wealthy Kalba Savua.
Kalba Savua (sometimes referred to as Ben Kalba Savua) was one of the wealthiest men of Jerusalem before its destruction and he was renowned for his charities. During the war against the Romans he undertook to supply the inhabitants of Jerusalem with food for the duration of the siege of the city. There exist differing opinions regarding the meaning of the name. Some explain it to indicate that he was a descendant of Kaleb ben Jephuneh while others say that he obtained it because of his generosity—if a poor man came to his house hungry as a dog, he left it filled. But there is the much simpler explanation that the name Kalba Savua meant a “storeroom filled with grain.”
Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua, loved Akiba and promised to become his wife if he would agree to devote himself to learning. It is told that Akiba was at that time already a man close to forty years of age and he did not even know the Alphabet. He had a son by a previous wife who was also an uneducated man. The love of Kalba Savua’s daughter was variously interpreted. Some said that it was but the whim of a spoiled rich man’s daughter who became infatuated with a shepherd. Others reasoned that the shepherd must have possessed such noble traits as would captivate even so noble a lady as the daughter of Kalba Savua.
When Kalba Savua heard of this he disowned his daughter and vowed to disinherit her.1)כתובות ס״ב ב׳.
It is necessary to mention that when Rachel asked Akiba to devote himself to learning he at first doubted the wisdom of her request. At that time he felt a considerable disdain for scholars and also doubted his own capabilities of learning. But one day he happened to see how falling drops of water had, in time, hollowed out a stone and he said to himself: “If water, which is soft, could hollow out the hard stone, the words of the Torah, which are hard, will certainly make an impression on my soft heart.”
Together with his son he went to a teacher and began his studies. But after he finished studying the Torah, history makes no more mention of the development of his son and continues to relate of Rabbi Akiba alone. For many years he was a disciple of Nahum of Gimso, then he turned to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah to show him the ways of the oral law. Rabbi Eliezer paid not the slightest attention to him. He only allowed him to audit his expositions but otherwise he ignored him. Rabbi Joshua, on the other hand, treated him seriously, for he appreciated his great desire to learn.
For a long time Rabbi Akiba sat at the feet of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. In later life he told that he served them both and did whatever they commanded him to do and even kneaded the dough for their bread. From this we may conclude how difficult were Rabbi Akiba’s circumstances. He was a poor man and his father-in-law would not aid him in the least. He gained his livelihood by picking a bundle of wood every day, half of which he sold while from the other half he would make faggots to light the house while studying. His neighbors then complained that the smoke from the faggots inconvenienced them at night and they advised him to sell all the wood and to buy oil instead.2)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ו׳.
When, despite his work, there still was not enough food in the house, his wife Rachel cut off her beautiful braids and sold them to aid her husband and to enable him to devote more time to the Torah.3)ירושלמי שבת פרק ו׳ הלכה א׳.
For thirteen years Rabbi Akiba studied with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and the latter never deigned to ask an opinion of him until one day Rabbi Akiba began to ask questions of his master and he could find no answer to them. Rabbi Joshua then addressed Rabbi Eliezer with the following verse, “Is not this the people that you have disdained? Go and contend with them,” by which he meant to say that here was one whom Rabbi Eliezer constantly ignored and now he posed questions which could not be answered.4)ירושלמי פּסחים פרק ו׳ הלכה ג׳.
Another description of those events relates that after an absence of twelve years Rabbi Akiba returned to his native city accompanied by twelve thousand disciples. Listening to what was going on within his house he heard his wife arguing with a neighbor who asked her, “How much longer will you lead the life of a widow,” and she replied that if she were sure that her husband was devoting himself to learning she would gladly wait another twelve years.5)כתובות ס״ב ב׳. Upon hearing this Rabbi Akiba returned to his studies for another twelve years and then he came accompanied by twenty-four thousand disciples.
One can easily imagine what the poor woman felt when she saw her husband surrounded by so many thousands of disciples. As she made her way through the throngs and fell at his feet Rabbi Akiba’s disciples wanted to push her away, but he said to them: “Leave her be, that which I possess today and from which you can benefit I acquired only through her.”
When Kalba Savua heard that one of the outstanding Jewish scholars arrived, he came to him that he may absolve him of his vow regarding his daughter. At that time Kalba Savua repented having allowed his daughter to suffer hunger for twenty-four years. Rabbi Akiba made himself known to his father-in-law and they were reconciled and Kalba Savua gave him half of his wealth.
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiba then possessed golden and silver tables in his house and that he ascended his bed on golden stairs. As a reward for his wife who cut off and sold her hair to help him, he bought for her the most expensive adornments, one which was an image of Jerusalem engraved in gold which she wore on her head in place of the hair which she had cut off. But such ornaments were not allowed, at that time, to be worn by married women because of the mourning for the destroyed Temple, and the wife of Rabban Gamliel the Nasi envied the wife of Rabbi Akiba and told her husband. But Rabban Gamliel said to her, “If you had done for your husband what she did for hers I would buy you an ornament just like it.”6)ירושלמי שבת פרק ו׳ הלכה א׳, סוטה פרק ט׳ הלכה ט״ו.
As might have been expected, Rabbi Eliezer was dissatisfied with the appearance of a new star on the firmament of Jewish learning, for it was obvious that he would tread new paths. Rabbi Eliezer clung strictly and without questioning to the traditional interpretations of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, evolved a new method. He believed that the oral law was not a predetermined matter without spirit and incapable of further development. Not adduced from the text and the letters of the Torah.
The Torah as we have it, Rabbi Akiba said, is complete and there is nothing lacking or superfluous in it. In its entirety it is all content without embellishment; it contains no artistic descriptions and no useless words. Every letter and every dot possesses some special significance.
Wherever there occurs a repetition of a word it probably serves to indicate a special meaning. Even the connecting words and articles such as “if,” “the,” “but” and “also” are subject to interpretation. When it seems to one that there is a superfluous word in the Torah it is only because the person cannot grasp its meaning with his limited intelligence. Even the word לאמר״„ which frequently occurs in the Bible has its significance and could be expounded. The article את״„ in the verse “you shall fear the Lord your God (את ה׳ אלהיך תירא) he explained to indicate that man must fear both God and his Torah. Another time he modified his explanation to mean that man must fear God and the scholars.
Until that time the scholars only considered the content of the law and not its form. The oral law was not classified according to content and it was necessary to study much and to possess a tremendous memory in order to retain the rulings of all the scholars. Rabbi Akiba began to classify each law according to its content and he laid the foundation for the compilation of the Mishna which was finally written down and edited many years later.
Regarding the significance of the interpretations of Rabbi Akiba to the Torah there exists a legend7)מנחות כ״ט ב׳. which relates that when Moses ascended heaven to receive the Torah he saw God attaching little crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moses thereupon said to God: “Lord of the world! What prevents you from giving the Torah without these crowns?” and God answered him: “Some day after many generations there will arise a man Akiba ben Joseph who will derive heaps of laws from every little dash and it is for his sake that I prepare these little crowns.” Moses then said, “Will you show him to me? I would gladly look upon him.” God commanded Moses to look among the scholars sitting on the eighth bench and he saw there a man and he heard him expound to his disciples but he did not understand a word of what was being said although he heard the man conclude, “This I received as law to Moses from Mount Sinai.”
Then Moses said, “Lord of the world! You have such a great man and You give the Torah through me?” and God replied, “It is My will.” Moses thereupon said, “You have shown me the man, now reveal to me his end,” and God answered, “Turn backwards and you will see.” Moses looked and saw the body of Rabbi Akiba being torn to pieces.
A similar legend is also related in the Talmud that God revealed to Adam the record of all coming generations which will descend from him together with their scholars and their leaders and He also showed him the generation of Rabbi Akiba. Adam greatly enjoyed his learning but was saddened at sight of the death which awaited Rabbi Akiba. He attempted to obtain an easier death for him, but his request was denied.8)עבודה זרה ח׳ א׳, סנהדרין ל״ח ב׳.
Rabbi Akiba headed an academy in Bnei Brak which was located south-east of Jaffa. He frequently came to the sessions of the Sanhedrin in Jabneh and no important law was ever adopted without his participation. Once he arrived late at the academy and remained sitting outside. It was then said that “the Torah is outside” and no decisions were adopted until he came in.
Attempting to describe the work of Rabbi Akiba, the scholars said that he was like a man who goes through the streets with a basket in his hand and picks up whatever he can find. If he finds wheat he puts it in his basket; if he finds barley he picks it up; the same with beans and lentils. Rabbi Akiba did likewise when he sought to introduce order into the laws.9)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק י״ח.
It is claimed that Rabbi Akiba was versed in the various sciences, such as medicine and astronomy. He also spoke several languages and on several occasions he accompanied Rabban Gamliel on the latter’s trips to Rome in the cause of the Jewish people. When Rufus (or Tyranos Rufus as he is called in the Talmud) was governor of Palestine, he frequently debated with Rabbi Akiba many matters pertaining to the Jewish faith and the Torah. And when the Roman government began to suppress the observance of the Torah Rabbi Akiba could easily counteract these decrees.
One of the brightest phases of the life of Rabbi Akiba, perhaps the outstanding event, was his participation in the revolt of Bar Kochba. Some historians claim that Rabbi Akiba was one of the leaders of the revolt, but this is probably an exaggeration just as the statements of others that Rabbi Akiba merely preached about Bar Kochba but took no active part in the revolt.
Rabbi Akiba was already too old to take his place in the foremost ranks of the revolution. But his twenty-four thousand disciples, which according to legend died between the Passover and Lag B’Omer, probably joined the forces of Bar Kochba. The trip of Rabbi Akiba throughout the cities of Palestine and also to those beyond the frontier in order to establish which year is to be “Ibur” (a year containing thirteen months which occurs thrice every eight years according to the lunar calendar) was probably undertaken as a journey of agitation for the cause of the revolution. The same may be said with a large degree of certainty regarding the “Seder” in Bnei Brak where the most prominent Jewish leaders were assembled in Rabbi Akiba’s house.
It is regrettable that the records of this revolt are so meager. In the description of the destruction of the Temple are included some events of the destruction of Betar and it is very difficult to separate them. Conclusive descriptions of Bar Kochba’s activities are found only in the Jerusalem Talmud10)תענית פרק ד׳ הלכה ו׳. and in Midrash Eicha Rabathi. But these are also complicated and mixed with terrifying legends. In addition there exists a description of Bar Kochba’s revolutionary wars in the writings of the Roman historian Dio Cassius who described the Jewish hero in a horrifying form. It thus becomes necessary to glean the events from various other occurrences of that time and still more is left for the imagination.
When Rabbi Akiba saw Bar Kochba in all his glory he is said to have exclaimed, “This is the king the Messiah.” He invoked the verse from the prophet (Haggai, 2:21) which foretold that God would cause the heaven and the earth and the sea and the dry land to quake and that He would destroy the thrones of the Gentile kingdoms; their strength would be made to naught and their chariots and horses would be overthrown so that one would be slain by the sword of the other. Rabbi Akiba thus exerted a profound influence on the people. Hosts of people arrived daily to pledge their allegiance to Bar Kochba, for they all believed the words of Rabbi Akiba that Bar Kochba was the long awaited Messiah and that he would bring about the redemption of his people.
Because of his belief in Bar Kochba, Rabbi Akiba allowed himself to be insulted by an obscure colleague, Rabbi Jochanan ben Toratha, who said to him: “Akiba, grass will grow out of your cheek bones and the Messiah will still not have arrived.”
In explanation of the cause of Bar Kochba’s immediate popularity, Talmudic sources relate that when the Roman soldiers hurled stones at the walls of the Jewish cities with their machines, Bar Kochba ascended the walls and, catching the stones between his knees, he hurled them back at the enemy killing a few of them with each stone. Dio Cassius, on the other hand, relates that Bar Kochba would light a flaxen faggot and keep it in his mouth to convince his followers that he was a fire eater.
Today we definitely know that the political situation of that time was intolerable. The Temple was destroyed and the Jewish state was no longer in existence for sixty years. Only a handful of the older generation who remembered the temple still survived, but its memory lived in the heart of the people and everyone dreamed of its restoration. The temple hill was transformed into a Roman soldiers’ camp and the Jews were in a worse position than slaves in their own country. The Roman governor of Palestine was the murderous despot whom the Jews named Tyranos Rufus and he persecuted them relentlessly and ridiculed their suffering. As the conditions became unbearable, the Jews thought constantly of liberation and whenever they gathered they would ask each other: “Will the Roman legions always keep their foot upon the neck of Judea? How much longer will the Roman eagle sink its claws into the living body of the Jewish people?”
Bar Kochba then undertook to organize a Jewish army of hundreds of thousands of men with the consent of Rabbi Akiba and he succeeded in maintaining his revolt for three and a half years. Talmudic sources estimate the number of Bar Kochba’s soldiers at 400,000. Dio Cassius relates that the number was 580,000 or nearly two hundred thousand more than the Talmudic figure. People streamed from all sides and even the Samaritans, the traditional enemies of the Jews, forgot their hatred and joined the Jews in the struggle against Rome. Numerous neighboring people also joined the uprising in the hope that the liberation of Judea would also bring freedom from the Roman yoke for them.
Wishing to test the bravery of his soldiers, Bar Kochba commanded each of them to cut off, or, with his own teeth, to bite off one of their fingers. But the scholars sent the following message to Bar Kochba, “Why do you cause your people to cripple themselves?” Bar Kochba replied by asking, “What other method shall I use to test their bravery?” and he was advised to command that each soldier must uproot a cedar of Lebanon with his bare hands while riding on a horse. Bar Kochba subsequently had 220,000 soldiers with cut off fingers and another 200,000 who uprooted trees bare handed while riding by on a horse.
Sometime after this experiment Bar Kochba is said to have addressed the following words to God: “Since You have forsaken us and no longer go with us in our wars, we ask of You that You should not intervene. We do not require Your aid but only ask that You should not aid our enemies.”
It was already remarked above that the descriptions of that war are very meager and at times contradictory. Nearly all the scholars of that time, with the exception of Rabbi Akiba, did not support the revolution and when it ended in failure they condemned Bar Kochba, and of the saying of Rabbi Akiba concerning Bar Kochba that “a star has arisen from Jacob,” they declared that he should not have used the word כוכב״„ (a star) but rather the word כוזב״„ (a deceiver).
The revolt was prepared during the famous “Seder” night which is mentioned in the Hagada. Several Tanaim met in the home of Rabbi Akiba in Bnei Brak, where he headed a large academy with many thousands of students, to discuss the miracles of the departure from Egypt because it was necessary to come to a final decision regarding the burning question of that day—the impatience of the younger Jewish generation and their spirit of rebellion against Roman tyranny.
The Roman authorities knew the mood of the people and attempted to suppress it. Informers mingled with the Jewish young men and every suspicious remark was reported to the Romans. They therefore feared to discuss openly the problem of Roman oppression and they spent the whole night discussing the “exodus from Egypt” and the great number of plagues which were visited on Pharaoh, to the number of 250, for they considered ten plagues insufficient in view of the suffering of the Jews. They also sought to console themselves with the hope that God would punish the enemies of his people as they deserved.
This “debate” lasted all night while crowds of impatient people stood outside and waited for the decision of the scholars. In the light of the Passover moon, this group of men who came to celebrate the “Seder” in the home of Rabbi Akiba and told each other of the wondrous valor of Bar Kochba, seemed strange indeed. But the hours meanwhile passed. As the moon paled and the horizon became suffused with crimson, the pupils of Rabbi Akiba began to look into the house where the scholars sat and still debated the “departure from Egypt.” The people realized the danger of the situation, for Roman soldiers might arrive at any moment and inquire the reason why the “Seder” lasts so long. Their patience finally exhausted, they opened the doors and shouted, “Our teachers, the time for the morning ‘Shema’ has arrived,” hinting that it was time to end the debate.
This exclamation put an end to the discussion. The impatience of the younger men triumphed over the weariness of the old. A ray of light penetrated the house and the scholars together with their disciples began to chant the old hymn of revenge, “Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that have not known You.”
The echo of the chant resounded from the hills of Judea. Like one man the people arose from Gilead to Bashan to cast off the yoke of the Romans. Young men armed themselves and the blacksmiths forged swords out of scythes.
The Roman legions which were stationed in Palestine were too weak to withstand the army of Bar Kochba and the governor Rufus was forced to withdraw from the fortresses. Dio Cassius relates that the Jews immediately occupied fifty fortified cities and 985 open towns and villages. The Romans then withdrew from Judea, Samaria and Galilee and the Jews took over the government.
When the first reports of the revolt were brought to Hadrian, he ridiculed them; but when other messengers arrived one after another reporting the defeat of the Roman legions and the danger that the revolt may spread to other provinces of the Roman empire in Asia, Hadrian became concerned and dispatched still other legions. But the reinforcements could achieve nothing.
The victories of the Jews inspired within them the belief that they have regained their national freedom. Many Jews, who previously denied their origin and adopted heathen faiths to escape persecution, returned to the religion of their forefathers. Bar Kochba also wanted to immortalize the event of Judea’s liberation and he had coins minted in honor of the victory with the Hebrew inscription (in Samaritan alphabet) “to the liberty of Israel” (לחירות ישראל״„).
It is not known whether Bar Kochba occupied Jerusalem or whether he planned to restore the temple. There are grounds to believe that he was willing to forego Jerusalem and that he planned to move the boundaries of the land of Israel toward Galilee because of the condescending attitude and the ridicule with which the inhabitants of Jerusalem treated the people of Galilee. It is even told that the people of Betar celebrated with lighted torches the day that Jerusalem was destroyed.”11)ירושלמי תענית פרק ד׳ הלכה ה׳.
With deep concern Hadrian heard of the spread of the revolt and all the forces which he sent against it met with failure. The Jews were victorious in over fifty encounters with the Romans and the commanders whom Hadrian sent had to return to Rome defeated and shamed.
Hadrian then recalled his greatest military commander, Julius Severus, who was then engaged in war in the British isles and placed him in command of the war in Palestine. Despite the bravery of Severus and the number of his troops which outnumbered the Jews two or three to one, he did not venture to meet the Jews in open conflict after the experience of his predecessors, and he waited for an opportunity to employ his strategy of small attacks. This type of warfare wearied the Jewish soldiers. The Samaritans, who fought alongside of the Jews at first, betrayed their allies. Severus persisted in attacking the Jewish forces on several sides at one time in order to force them to concentrate their armies in one place where he could finally engage them in a decisive struggle.
This strategy forced the Jews to concentrate in the fortress of Betar which Severus then besieged. The inhabitants of Tiberias and Sephoris also deserted the cause of Bar Kochba and joined the Romans. An unusual drought affected the land and deprived the people of water. But all of these circumstances proved of no avail until Severus bribed the treasonable Samaritans. Bar Kochba was wary of the Samaritans and probably guessed that their loyalty was doubtful. But since the Samaritans could enter and leave the fortress freely they had an opportunity to show the Romans the secret entrances and their treason succeeded.
The immediate cause of the fall of Betar is given by the Talmud as the blow which Bar Kochba delivered to Rabbi Eliezer of Modiin and which resulted in his instantaneous death. Throughout the siege of Betar, Rabbi Eliezer of Modiin shielded the city with his piety and everyone was convinced that the fortress would not fall as long as he lived. As Rabbi Eliezer was standing deeply immersed in prayer, a Samaritan came up and whispered to him something which he could not hear. This was related to Bar Kochba who questioned the Samaritan as to the secret which he whispered to Rabbi Eliezer. The Samaritan replied: “If I will not tell you what I said to Rabbi Eliezer, you will kill me; if I do, Emperor Hadrian will have me executed.” Bar Kochba guessed that Rabbi Eliezer was negotiating peace with the Romans and he therefore delivered the blow which caused his death. But this resulted in a moral defeat for Bar Kochba. The people within the fortress lost their war spirit and the Samaritans found it a relatively easy task to bring in the Romans.
The horror of the Roman occupation of Betar is described in the story that their horses waded in blood and that the river which flows around Betar was two-thirds full of blood. The blood of the victims flowed in a mighty stream to the Meditaranean Sea and in its onrush it swept tremendous obstacles.
Severus was anxious to capture Bar Kochba alive in order to lead him in his triumphal entry into Rome just as Titus did to the heroes of Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple. When he failed in this he promised a great reward to the one who would bring to him the body of Bar Kochba. A Samaritan brought Bar Kochba’s head and claimed that he had killed him. But Severus commanded him to bring the body of Bar Kochba, for he did not believe that the Samaritan could have killed the Jewish hero. When the body of Bar Kochba was discovered, a snake was found coiled around it and Severus declared: “I knew that only God could kill such a man, for no man could avail against him.”
After the destruction of Betar Hadrian undertook to annihilate the whole Jewish people and wherever one was met he was put to death. If the person captured was of some importance he was tortured first and the tortures increased in brutality in proportion to the importance of the captive. Rabbi Akiba was one of the first victims. While still alive, his body was cut with iron combs. When the angels in heaven saw this they wept bitterly and their tears fell into the great sea and caused it to boil and the whole world was shaken by their voices as they asked God: “Is this Your reward to a man who observed Your Torah?”
When Rabbi Akiba only began his career the aged Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas said of him that “his name resounds from one end of the world to the other.” Rabbi Tarphon similarly said to him, “Whoever departs from you is like one who departs from life.” When Rabbi Akiba was dead, all the scholars agreed that “the arms of the Torah were severed and the springs of wisdom were sealed.”
Rabbi Akiba often said, “Whatever God does, man must believe that it will end well. Whatever happens has been foreseen from above, but man nevertheless possesses a free will to control his actions. The world should be judged according to its virtues and whatever one receives in this world is but a small share of the reward which is to come. If one sees a wicked man who is happy, he must be sure that his end will be evil.”12)אבות פרק ג׳ משנה ט״ו, אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ל״ט.
If people are satisfied with a person, Rabbi Akiba said, it must be taken as a sign that God is also pleased with him, and if a person displeases his fellow men, it is a sign that he also displeases God. If one is satisfied with his possessions, it is a good sign for him, but if one is displeased with his possessions, it is a bad omen.
Rabbi Akiba laid down seven rules of conduct which he taught his son. 1) Do not reside on the busiest street of the city if you wish to study undisturbed. 2) Do not reside in a city whose rulers are scholars, for they will be busy with their studies and will not devote themselves to the needs of the city. 3) Do not enter your house, and especially your friend’s house, suddenly, for its occupants may be engaged in some action which you should not see. 4) Do not go about barefoot in the streets, for it is unseemly. 5) It is better to rise and to dine early during the summer on account of the heat and during the winter because of the cold. 6) It is better to set your Sabbath table as poorly as on a week day rather than to ask for human aid. 7) Always endeavor to gain the friendship of men who are successful in their enterprises.13)פּסחים קי״ב א׳.
Although Rabbi Akiba instructed his son not to go about barefoot, it happened that on one of his trips to Rome to interceed for the Jews he walked about the city without boots. He was met by one of the emperor’s eunuchs who said to him, “You are a teacher among the Jews and I will tell you three things: If a man rides on a horse he is a king; if he rides on an ass, he is a free citizen; if he wears boots, he is an ordinary man. But one who possesses none of these would be better off dead.” To this Rabbi Akiba replied. “Three things you have told me and I will say three things to you: the ornament on a man’s face is a beard; the joy of a man’s heart is a wife, and the gift of God are children. Woe to the man who possesses none of these.”14)מדרש קהלת רבה פּרשה י׳ פּיסקא ט׳.
During all of his lectures Rabbi Akiba moralized his listeners in an inspiring fashion and the maxims which he expressed were repeated in every Jewish home and every man tried to regulate his life according to Rabbi Akiba’s moral precepts. In one such lecture he formulated six rules for his audience: 1) Do not associate with the scornful that you may not copy their deeds. 2) Do not partake of food with an ignorant priest lest he give of the tithes to eat and you will be guilty of benefiting from the “holies.” 3) Do not indulge in too many vows, for you may not be able to fulfill them and you will be guilty of breaking your oath. 4) Refrain from eating at all feasts, for some day you may have to depend on charity. 5) Refrain from actions the sinfulness of which you doubt and you will be preserved from certain sin. 6) Avoid leaving the Land of Israel, for it may lead you to idolatry.15)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק כ״ו.
On another occasion Rabbi Akiba said: “For their three good habits I love the Medians: 1) When they cut meat, they do so on a table. 2) When they kiss each other, they kiss the hand. 3) When they have to confer with each other, they go out into the fields.16)ברכות ח׳ ב׳.
The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Akiba was imprisoned17)פּסחים קי״ב א׳. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai came to visit him and said to him, “Rabbi, teach me.” But Rabbi Akiba refused and Rabbi Simeon said, “If you will not teach me I will tell this to my father Yochai and he will report you to the government.”*It would seem that Yochai, the father of Rabbi Simeon, was an official of the Roman government and that it was his duty to prevent the Jews from studying the Torah. Those who engaged in such study were sentenced to death. But the political role of Yochai is not entirely clear. The entire conversation between Rabbi Simeon and Rabbi Akiba is illogical. Since Rabbi Akiba was already imprisoned for teaching the Torah, it was no longer necessary to report him to the authorities, and since he refused to teach Rabbi Simeon, there was nothing to report.) Rabbi Akiba replied, “Much as the calf is willing to feed, the cow is even more anxious to feed it,” and Rabbi Simeon responded, “If feeding is dangerous, the calf is in greater peril.”
Rabbi Akiba then told him the following five rules of life: 1) If you wish to hang yourself, you must do so on a high tree (meaning that if one wishes to quote someone he should quote the words of a great man). 2) When you teach your son, teach him from a correct book that he should not become accustomed to errors. 3) Do not use a pot which others have used before you (meaning that one should not marry a woman who was possessed by another man). 4) Observing a commandment, when one is certain of it, is like lending money on a field which bears fruit. 5) Observing a commandment with a clean body is like marrying a woman and begetting children.
Whoever takes even a cent from charity when he does not need it—Rabbi Akiba said—will certainly need charity before he dies. Whoever wraps his eyes or arms and legs with rags in order to deceive people and to beg for alms will certainly become a cripple. One who throws bread upon the ground or scatters his money in his anger will be forced to depend on charity before he dies. He who tears his clothes or breaks a dish in his anger should be considered like one who worships idols.18)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ג׳.
Loaning money for interest was always considered by the scholars to be a great sin. In defining interest Rabbi Akiba said that even an extra greeting may be considered as such, as, for example, when a person who never greeted another begins to greet him after he borrowed money from him. Such a greeting is equivalent to interest.19)תוספתא בבא מציעא פרק ו׳.
Rabbi Akiba believed that the Jewish people proved the greatness of God. When he redeemed them from captivity, He did so for His own benefit, for He redeemed Himself together with them. Wherever the Jews are in exile the “Shechinah” is with them, and when they leaxe exile it is as if God had been redeemed as well. God also obtained a “bargain” in choosing the Jews as his people because other peoples praise their gods when they prosper and curse them when their fortunes change; but the Jews praise God always, when they prosper and also when they are in difficulties.
He also compared the Jewish people to a bird; just as a bird depends on its wings to carry it, so also do Jews follow the teachings of their elders. He believed that even the poorest Jew could consider himself an aristocrat because of his descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.20)ויקרא רבה פּרשה י״א פּיסקא ח׳, בבא קמא צ׳ ב׳.
The highest phase of Jewish life is the Torah. This gift of God to the Jews deserves that people should sacrifice their lives for it. When Hadrian issued a severe edict imposing the death penalty on any one who devoted himself to its study, Rabbi Akiba gathered his disciples wherever he could to continue their studies. The people then asked him: “Are you not afraid of the government?” and he answered them with a fable:
A fox went near a river and saw the fish scurrying around in great fear. The fox said to them, “What do you fear and from whom are you fleeing?” and the fish replied, “We flee the nets which men have spread for us.” The fox then said, “It would be better if you came out on dry land and we would live together just as my forefathers once lived together with your forefathers.” But the fish answered, “Are you he who is reputed to be the wisest of the animals? You are not the wisest but the most foolish. If we are afraid of being caught here, in the water, which is the place of our life, how much more should we be afraid on the dry land where we would die?”
Rabbi Akiba finished his fable by saying: “The same is true of our learning. If we are in danger of being caught when we are engaged in the study of the holy Torah, how much greater would the danger be if we should cease to devote ourselves to it.”21)ברכות ס״א ב׳.
Terrible as the conditions were at that time, Rabbi Akiba did not give up hoping that the Jewish kingdom would be restored. This hope was so great that despite the might of Rome and the ruin of Jerusalem, when Tyranos Rufus ordered the site of the Temple to be plowed up at the command of Hadrian, he still believed in the happy future of his people. When other scholars mourned the destruction, Rabbi Akiba smiled, for in his imagination he visualized the future splendor of Israel’s land of which he was convinced.
We already related that the Roman governor, Tyranos Rufus, frequently debated with Rabbi Akiba questions of faith. Being informed about the Jewish scriptures, he loved to debate those matters which seemed contradictory to him. He thus once asked Rabbi Akiba, “If your God loves the poor, why does he not feed them?” Rabbi Akiba answered: “He does so to provide us an opportunity to show charity and to stave ourselves from Gehenna.” “On the contrary, believe that He condemns you to Gehenna,” Rufus replied. “Take as an example a king who is angered by his slave and has him put into prison and he commands that none of the servants should give the slave anything to eat or drink. If the king should hear that the slave was fed, would he not be displeased?”
But Rabbi Akiba replied: “Let us consider this example in a somewhat different version. A king was angry with his son and he had him put in prison and he commanded that none should give food or drink to his son. Then there came a servant and offered the prince food and drink. Would not the king give beautiful gifts to the servant, when he heard of his dead?”22)בבא בתרא י׳ א׳.
The verse “you shall drink water from your well” Rabbi Akiba explained to mean that the development of learning is based on a simple understanding of what one hears from others. Just as one can draw water from any side of the well without diminishing the water in the well, so also do students come to their teacher but they do not diminish their teacher’s knowledge any more than one who inhales the fragrance of an “ethrog” or one who lights his candle by the flame of another candle. But a scholar must remember that if he had disciples in his youth, he must also have disciples in his old age for one can never know which disciples will cling to their studies and which will abandon it.
The worth of a scholar may also be likened to a golden vessel. When a golden vessel breaks it can be mended and made whole again; when a scholar forgets his learning he can win it back again.23)קהלת רבה פּרשה ח׳ פּיסקא ז׳. But a man must never be proud of his learning and one who prides himself on his knowledge of the Torah may be likened to a carcass which lies on the road and every passerby holds his nose to avoid the smell.24)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק י״א.
Much was spoken of Rabbi Akiba’s modesty which could serve as a model for all generations. When his son died Rabbi Akiba said the following words over his grave: “Jews have gathered here not because of my learning for greater scholars than myself have come; they also did not come because of my riches for there are present men richer than myself. The men of the South know me and they have come to the funeral, but the men of Galilee, how should they know me? There exist many Akibas like myself but they all came in honor of the Torah and to fulfill a commandment. This realization would console me were my sorrow sevenfold as great.”25)מועד קטן כ״א ב׳.
Of all the books of the Bible Rabbi Akiba loved the Song of Songs most and he said that “the whole world is worth less than the day on which the Song of Songs was given to the Jews,”26)מסכת ידים פרק ג׳ משנה ה׳. and “If God had not given the Torah, the Jewish people could conduct their spiritual world with the aid of the Song of Songs.” Rabbi Akiba was one of the first who visualized in the Song of Songs a description of the love of God for the Congregation of Israel. Among the people who lose their share in the life to come he listed those who attempt to transform the Song of Songs into an everyday tavern song.27)תוספתא סנהדרין פרק י״ב.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus once arose during a fast day to pray for rain. He recited 24 benedictions and still no rain descended. Rabbi Akiba then approached the pulpit and exclaimed: “Our father, our king, we have no other ruler but you. Our father, our king, do for your own sake and have mercy upon us.” Immediately rain began to fall. Those assembled were disappointed that God answered the prayer of the pupil instead of the prayer of the teacher, but Rabbi Akiba calmed them with a fable: “There was once a king who had two daughters, one of which was a quiet person while the other was loud in her demands. The king commanded his servants that when the insistent daughter will ask for anything her demands should be granted at once. But the quiet daughter never received what she wanted for she asked for it humbly and the king also loved to hear her suppliant voice.”
Rabbi Akiba was condemned to death immediately after the fall of Betar. At that time he had already been imprisoned for some time either as a hostage or he was captured during a raid on one of the gatherings where it was only necessary to say that the Jews should not obey the Roman decrees regarding the Jewish faith, or that one should sacrifice his life for his beliefs, in order to be arrested.
When Rabbi Akiba was in prison there arose a number of important problems which could not be decided before hearing his opinion. Since no one was allowed to visit Rabbi Akiba, the Talmud relates that the scholars once sent Rabbi Jochanan ha-Sandlar, a disciple of Rabbi Akiba, dressed up as a peddler with a bundle of merchandise on his back. Rabbi Jochanan walked by the prison where Rabbi Akiba was held and he called out: “Needles, who’ll buy needles? Hooks, who’ll buy hooks? And what is the law regarding a חליצה who has no witnesses?” Rabbi Akiba stuck his head out betwen the bars of his cell and called out, “Do you have any spindles? Yes, it is legal.”28)ירושלמי יבמות פרק ט׳ הלכה ה׳.
The reasons for this question dated back to the case of a man in prison who granted Halitza to the wife of his deceased brother not in the presence of a court and without witnesses for none were allowed into his cell and the people who accompanied the woman had to remain outside the prison and could not see what went on within.
On another occasion the decision of Rabbi Akiba was required in a case of (a woman who refuses to live with her husband to whom she was married before she reached maturity). It was then necessary to hire a person for forty dinars who should steal into the prison to ask Rabbi Akiba’s opinion.29)יבמות ק״ח ב׳.
Rabbi Akiba was imprisoned for a long time and during his incarceration he determined three consecutive leap years. This may indicate that he declared three successive years as leap years or—as is the opinion of some commentators—that he determined the three following leap years which were to be approved by the court although it was forbidden at that time to establish leap years in advance.30)סנהדרין י״ב א׳, תוספתא סנהדרין פרק ב׳.
Although Rabbi Akiba was closely guarded while in prison, he was sometimes allowed some liberties. He was probably closely watched that he should not continue to teach his disciples but he was allowed to have one person to serve him and that person was Rabbi Joshua Hagarsi, who stayed with him till the last minute.
It is told that Rabbi Joshua Hagarsi always brought water to Rabbi Akiba for his daily use. But one time the prison overseer met him while he was carrying the water and he was displeased, for it seemed to him that too much water was being brought for the use of one person. He thereupon remarked, “Why do you bring so much water to your teacher? Are you trying to undermine the prison?” and saying this he poured out half of the water.
Rabbi Akiba feared that if he would drink some of it there would not be enough water left with which to wash his hands and he would thus disobey the commandment to wash one’s hands, he therefore decided to suffer thirst rather than forego the commandment of washing one’s hands before a meal. The scholars afterward commented on this and said that if he was so observant while in prison one could easily imagine his conduct when he was at liberty.31)ערובין כ״א ב׳.
Finally the day of Rabbi Akiba’s trial by Tyranos Rufus came. This was a day of terror for all the Jews. Rabbi Joshua Hagarsi prayed to God for Rabbi Akiba until the minute that the sentence was passed and as he stood immersed in prayer a cloud overcast the sky. Rabbi Joshua remembered the verse of the Lamentations (3:44) and he addressed the following words to God: “You have covered yourself with a cloud that my prayer should not reach You and that You should not hear my appeal.”32)מדרש איכה רבתי פּרשה ג׳ פּיסקא ל״ה.
After a terrible judgment Tyranos Rufus condemned Rabbi Akiba to the most horrifying death. Ordinarily the Romans condemned their victims to be crucified; the prisoner would then be nailed to a wooden cross where he would hang until he died. Rabbi Akiba was condemned to be flayed alive with iron combs.
As Rabbi Akiba was being led to execution it was morning and time for reciting the “Shema.” Even as his flesh was being tom he did not allow this to interfere with his reciting the “Shema.” The execution was public and was witnessed by the whole population. When Rabbi Akiba’s disciples saw the suffering of their teacher they said: “Maybe it is enough?”, implying that perhaps it was time to pay more attention to the suffering of the body instead of the suffering of the soul. But he replied to them: “All the days of my life I have regretted that I had no opportunity to show my love for God in the manner which the Bible commands, that one must love God with his whole soul, even if He were to take that soul away. Now that I have an opportunity to fulfill this commandment shall I not do so?” And in reciting the “Shema” he prolonged the word אחד״„ until he expired.33)ברכות ס״א ב׳.
The Jerusalem Talmud34)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ט׳ הלכה ה׳. relates the events at the execution in a slightly different manner. It tells that Tyranos Rufus was personally present at the execution and when he saw Rabbi Akiba recite the “Shema” with a smile upon his lips he said to him: “Are you a sorcerer that you laugh at your suffering or are you doing so to hurt me?” Rabbi Akiba answered: “May you die. I am not a sorcerer nor am I insensible to my suffering, nor is it my wish to pain you with my smile. But we were commanded to love our God with our whole hearts, our whole souls and all our possessions. Until this day I have shown my love for God with my heart and my possessions. But this day I have an opportunity to show my love of God with my soul. I am therefore happy that I have attained this moment.”
But the Roman governor was not satisfied that the above described execution would permanently insure the death of Rabbi Akiba and he commanded that the dead body be cut into pieces.35)מנחות כ״ט ב׳.
Another legend describes the death of Rabbi Akiba in an idyllic manner. It relates that on the eve of a holiday Rabbi Joshua Hagarsi, who was always with Rabbi Akiba, went to his home for the holiday. But before he reached his house he found the prophet Elijah waiting at his door and he announced to him the news that Rabbi Akiba died in prison. They immediately hastened to the prison and they found the door of Rabbi Akiba’s cell wide open. They placed the body of Rabbi Akiba on the couch and they departed. That night they returned and took the body which they carried to Caesarea and there they buried it in a cave.
There exists an interesting legend regarding the relationship between Rabbi Akiba and the wife of Tyranos Rufus. It relates that Tyranos Rufus was always dejected after his arguments with Rabbi Akiba, for the latter always triumphed over him in the presence of the emperor. After one such debate the wife of Tyranos Rufus said to him: “Why are you so dejected?” and he replied, “This Rabbi Akiba always confuses me with his discourses and I can never conquer him.” The woman then said, “The God of the Jews hates immorality. If you will allow me, I will cause Rabbi Akiba to sin and he will lose his militant spirit.” “Do as you understand,” Tyranos Rufus said to her.
The woman then adorned herself and came to Rabbi Akiba. She tried with all her wiles to cause him to sin. But when Rabbi Akiba looked at her he spit, then he laughed and then he wept. The woman asked him, “What is the meaning of these things you do?” and he replied, “Two things I can explain to you but the third I cannot tell you. I spit because I remembered the process whereby a person is brought into the world. I wept because I thought of your beauty which will end by rotting in the ground.”
And why did he laugh? The legend concludes that he laughed because he foresaw with the aid of the Holy Spirit that she would become converted and that he would marry her. But this he refused to tell her.36)נדרים נ׳ ב׳.
Although learning was forbidden, Rabbi Akiba found frequent oportunities to express his teachings even when he was in prison. It may also be assumed that the six rules which he gave to his son were formulated in prison.
In addition there exist some maxims of Rabbi Akiba which bear the stamp of having been expressed in similar circumstances. Thus he said that five types of sinners can never be forgiven: 1) One who repents too much. 2) One who sins too often. 3) One who sins when others are pious. 4) One who sins with the intention of repenting. 5) One who causes the desecration of the name of God by his sins.37)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ל״ם.
Another time he poetically interpreted a verse of the Song of Songs that the Gentile nations ask the Jewish people, “How is your lover different from other lovers?”, how is your God different from other gods that you allow yourself to be killed for his sake? Such heroic people as you are could easily come and mingle with us. But the congregation of Israel replies: “My lover is clear and radiant, he is higher than ten thousand.”38)מכילתא פּרשה ט״ו.
It is characteristic of the end of Rabbi Akiba that Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus once foretold that he would meet a violent death. During an argument concerning the preparation of sacrifices for slaughter on the Sabbath, Rabbi Eliezer became annoyed at Rabbi Akiba’s numerous questions and he said angrily: “You have contradicted me in matters of slaughter and you will meet your death in slaughter.”39)פּסחים ס״ט א׳.