What was R' Akiva's role in developing and giving form to the Oral Torah?
How did the story of his life influence this role?
What can the midrashic relationship between R' Akiva and Moshe teach us about the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah?
Learners will gain an appreciation of the critical and complex role which R' Akiva played in the history of the Oral Torah.
Learners will explore the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah in the midrash.
The following texts can be used as a basis for history lectures which integrate the traditional Jewish narrative with a more academic historical perspective, especially if the educator accesses the supplementary articles linked in the comments.
They can also be used a series of chevruta based classes on the relationship between R' Akiva and Moshe as an expression of the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah, or on R' Akiva's unique role in the development of Oral Torah.
They can also be approached as springboard texts for discussions around the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah, the meaning of revelation and the power of Torah learning.
Teaching these lessons through Sefaria offers the opportunity for an additional student research component. Consider incorporating one of these possibilities:
- Ask students to search for Rabbi Akiva in Sefaria's database, and to create their own sheet with three sources about him that do not appear in these materials. Students use those sheets to engage in peer-teaching in hevruta or in small groups.
- Alternatively, discuss the various character traits of Rabbi Akiva's that emerge from studying these materials. Ask groups of students to co-create sheets around these character traits, and to add at least five sources that epitomize the way they think about this character trait. These sources can range from texts within Sefaria's library to video clips, songs, poems, artwork, etc.
- Once students have created their own sheets, create a group on Sefaria and add all the sheets to it to create a "Rabbi Akiva Gallery" space, so that the students can benefit from one another's work and/or share with the larger community.
Oral Torah - revelation or exegesis?
The relationship between the written and the oral Torah finds one of its most powerful expressions in the midrashic relationship between Moshe and R' Akiva.
How can you reconcile the following two midrashim, one of which says that God gave Moshe the whole oral Torah along with the written and the other which says that God taught Moshe general principles?
What is the difference between knowledge which is received and that which is derived? Can you derive revelation? See the Rambam's introduction to the Mishna (in particular 8:17-18) for some insight on this question
Keep these questions in mind as we explore R' Akiva's relationship to Moshe, and his role in the revelation of the whole Torah.
How do you understand the tension between Gd dictating to Moshe everything the Oral Law would ever say and the need to teach it to Am Yisrael in a fashion that would still allow a student to ask a good question? Compare this to R' Akiva's dictum in Pirke Avot 3:15 "Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted."
The second half of this text emphasizes that the orality of the Oral Law is what saves it from being appropriated by the nations, as will happen to the Written Law when the Christians claim to replace Am Yisrael. It is interesting to note that the Bar Kochba revolt, whose connection to R' Akiva is explored below, was in the eyes of many scholars the event which marks the definitive break between the Jewish followers of Jesus and rabbinic Judaism. See this article for more on that.
In light of the previous two midrashim, what could R' Akiva have beheld that Moshe did not see? Do you think this was a revelation or an act of learning?
2. How R' Akiva learned
There are few Sages who compare with R' Akiva in terms of the richness of narrative material which appears in the midrash, and the episodes of his personal story are also closely bound up with his approach to learning.
This text emphasizes that R' Akiva's learning began with a desire and no background. Compare this with the tradition that he is descended from converts (Berachot 27b and Intro to Mishna Torah). What is the relationship between having 'beginners eyes' and greatness in learning? What is the connection between R' Akiva's determination to overcome major obstacles (including the embarrassment of sitting in class with his child) and his ultimate greatness? How does his lack of traditional upbringing connect to his role as the master of exegesis as opposed to tradition? Finally, consider the fact that Moshe too was raised 'outside the tradition.'
What causes or allows a Torah scholar to transition between cistern and flowing well?
How does this transition relate to the end of the previous source, where after learning one mishna from his teachers R' Akiva 'went off to reason with himself'?
R' Eliezer was one of R' Akiva's teachers. He is characterized in Pirkei Avot 2:8 as a 'plastered cistern which never loses a drop.' Do you a see a parallel between student and teacher and Moshe and R' Akiva? Also see the end of that mishna in Avot. What can the argument there about the greatness of R' Eliezer versus that of R' Elazar teach about this transition from receiver of knowledge to educator?
What role does humility play in learning? Is it possible to learn without ego at all? How about to teach? Does this statement apply to both learning and teaching?
Compare this text to the series of statements on Torah water found on Ta'anit 7a, starting here
Also note R' Akiva's emphasis on humility as another parallel to Moshe in Bamidbar 12:3
3. The mishna of R' Akiva
R' Yehudah HaNasi is known as the redactor of the Mishna, the first codification of the Oral Law which would become the 'portable homeland' (see here for podcast) of the Jewish people in the period of exile ahead. There were many Sages who contributed to the form and content of what R' Yehudah created, including R' Meir who the gemara declares as the author of any unattributed Mishna. Why then, in light of the sources above, is R' Akiva the link which connects the Mishna to the chain of Oral Torah stretching back to Sinai? And why does the gemara emphasize that the generational linkage is between righteous people and not learned ones?
These texts indicate that R' Akiva was a primary codifier of Jewish law and the methodology of rabbinic learning (see this article from Encyclopedia Judaica for the historical sources) as well as the bridge between the earlier generations and the great works of Tanaitic literature.
What is the difference between writing down his teachings (as R' Yehudah haNasi ultimately did in the Misha) and raising up many students (as R' Akiva did - see sources below)?
4. His students and the historical context of his teachings
R' Akiva was the spiritual leader of the the Bar Kochba revolt, the third Roman-Jewish War (see here for podcast). How do you think that the context of the struggle for national liberation and the threat of the annihilation of the keepers of the Oral Torah affected the role which R' Akiva played in passing on the tradition?
Flavius Josephus asserts that the revolt against Rome was ultimately sparked by “an ambiguous oracle, likewise found in their sacred scriptures” (Josephus, Jewish War, 6.312). In the studies of Second Temple literature this is known as a pesher, the application of ancient prophetic teachings to modern day situations, and is well documented in the Dead Seas Scrolls. Note that this is what R' Akiva does here as well.
Bar Kochba was judged in rabbinic eyes to be a false messiah and brought terrible destruction and suffering on the Jews (see the continuation of the above gemara.) Nevertheless, the Rambam in Kings and Wars 11:3 says that R' Akiva supported him. How do we understand such a great Sage backing a failed messianic movement? Compare R' Akiva's decision in this text to the decision of R' Yochanan ben Zakkai in fleeing Jerusalem which begins here. How does R' Akiva's decision to 'go for broke' by backing a messiah, rather than deciding like R' Yochanan to save what he can, relate to his statement about martyrdom in the text at the end of this sheet?
It is a classic question to ask why R' Akiva's students died. This comment from R' Sherira Gaon (906 CE- 1006 CE) is the only reference to R' Akiva's students dying due to religious persecution, which is perhaps a reference to the Bar Kochba revolt. Why would the Sages of the gemara not mention this?
The full context of this text makes it clear that the ordination of these students of R' Akiva preserved the full authority of the oral law for later generations. If such an act was so important, then how do you explain R' Akiva choosing martyrdom in order to keep teaching in Berachot 61b
5. R' Akiva's death
What does it mean that Moshe didn’t understand in light of R’ Akiva’s labeling his teaching ‘Halacha Moshe m’Sinai? How does this relate to the tension expressed in the two opening midrashim?
For an overview of the concept of Halacha Moshe m'Sinai, see this article
Compare Moshe’s reaction to R' Akiva's death and Gd’s answer to the parallel reaction and answer with the ministering angels in the story of R' Akiva's death at the end of Berachot 61b. Here is an excerpt -
The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: This is Torah and this its reward? As it is stated: “From death, by Your hand, O Lord, from death of the world” (Psalms 17:14); Your hand, God, kills and does not save. God said the end of the verse to the ministering angels: “Whose portion is in this life.” And then a Divine Voice emerged and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, as you are destined for life in the World-to-Come, as your portion is already in eternal life.
What can this teach us about R' Akiva's Torah, particularly in its relationship to the Torah of Moshe?