ben Joseph (ca.50–ca.135 AD) (Hebrew: ?????) 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). Although a full history of Akiba, based
upon authentic sources, will probably never be written, he—to a
degree beyond any other—deserves to be called the father of rabbinical
Legend, which delights in embellishing the memory of epoch-marking
personages, has not neglected Akiva. Despite the rich mass of material
afforded by rabbinical sources, only an incomplete portrait can
be drawn of the man who marked out a path for rabbinical Judaism
for almost two thousand years.
ben Joseph (written ????? in the Babylonian talmud, and ????? in
the Jerusalem talmud—another form for ?????) who is usually called
simply Akiba, was of comparatively humble parentage. A misunderstanding
of the expression "Zechus Avos" (Ber. l.c.), joined to
a tradition concerning Sisera, captain of the army of Hazor (Gi?.
57b, Sanh. 96b), is the source of another tradition (Nissim Gaon
to Ber. l.c.), which makes Akiva a descendant of Sisera. Of the
romantic story of Akiva's marriage with the daughter of the wealthy
Jerusalemite, Kalba Savua, whose shepherd he is said to have been
(see below "Akiba and his wife" and "His relationship
with his wife"), only this is known to be true: that Akiva
was a shepherd (Yeb. 86b; compare ibid. 16a). His wife's name was
Rachel (Ab. R. N. ed. S. Schechter, vi. 29), and she was the daughter
of an entirely unknown man named Joshua, who is specifically mentioned
(Yad. iii. 5) as Akiva's father-in-law. She stood loyally by her
husband during that critical period of his life in which Akiva,
thitherto the mortal enemy of the rabbis and an am ha-aretz (ignoramus)
(Pes. 49b), decided to place himself at the feet of those previously
detested men. Prior to this change of heart, he used to say: "O
that I would find a Talmid Chacham and bite him like a donkey"
[Exact quote needed.] (Pesachim, 49b).
reliable tradition (Ab. R. N. l.c.) narrates that Akiva at the age
of 40, and when he was the father of a numerous family dependent
upon him, eagerly attended the academy of his native town, Lod,
presided over by Eliezer ben Hyrkanus. According to the Talmud[citation
needed], Hyrcanus was a neighbor of Joseph, the father of Akiva.
The fact that Eliezer was his first teacher, and the only one whom
Akiva later designates as "rabbi," is of importance in
settling the date of Akiva's birth. It is known that in 95–96 Akiba
had already attained great prominence (H. Grätz, Gesch. d.
Juden, 2d ed., iv. 121), and, further, that he studied for 13 years
before becoming a teacher himself (Ab. R. N. l.c.). Thus the beginning
of his years of study would fall about 75–80.
than this, Yochanan ben Zakai was living, and Eliezer, being his
pupil, would have been held of no authority in Johanan's lifetime.
Consequently, if we accept the tradition that Akiva was 40 when
beginning the study of the Law, he must have been born about 40–50.
Eliezer, Akiva had other teachers—principally Joshua ben Hananiah
(Ab. R. N. l.c.) and Nahum Ish Gamzu (Hag. 12a). He was on equal
footing with Rabban Gamaliel II, whom he met later. In a certain
sense, Tarphon was considered as one of Akiba's masters (Ket. 84b),
but the pupil outranked his teacher, and Tarphon became one of Akiba's
greatest admirers (Sifre, Num. 75). Akiba probably remained in Lod
(R. H. i. 6), as long as Eliezer dwelt there, and then removed his
own school to Bene Berak, five Roman miles from Jaffa (Sanh. 32b;
Tosef., Shab. iii. [iv.] 3). Akiba also lived for some time at Ziphron
(Num. xxxiv. 9), the modern Zafrân (Z. P. V. viii. 28), near
Hamath (see Sifre, Num. iv., and the parallel passages quoted in
the Talmudical dictionaries of Levy and M. Jastrow). For another
identification of the place, and other forms of its name, see A.
Neubauer, Géographie, p. 391, and M. Jastrow, l.c.
Akiva's other contemporaries were Elisha ben Avuya, Eliezer ben
Tzodok, Eleazar ben Azaria, Gamliel II, Yehuda ben Betheira, Yochanan
ben Nuri, Yosi Haglili, Rabbi Yishmael and Chanina ben Dosa.
and his wife
to the Talmud, it would appear that 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).
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.).
"His relationship with his wife" below for the full story
from the Talmud.
His Relations with Bar Kokba
The greatest tannaim of the middle of the 2nd century came from
Akiba's school, notably Rabbi Meir, Judah ben Ilai, Simeon ben Yohai,
Jose ben Halafta, Eleazar ben Shammai, and Rabbi Nehemiah. Besides
these, who all attained great renown, Akiba undoubtedly had many
disciples whose names have not been handed down, but whose number
is variously stated by the Aggadah at 12,000 (Gen. R. lxi. 3), 24,000
(Yeb. 62b), and 48,000 (Ned. 50a). That these figures are to be
regarded merely as haggadic exaggerations, and not, as some modern
historians insist, as the actual numbers of Akiba's political followers,
is evident from the passage, Ket. 106a, in which there are similar
exaggerations concerning the disciples of other rabbis.
part which Akiba is said to have taken in the Bar Kokba revolt cannot
be historically determined. The only established fact concerning
his connection with Bar Kokba is that the venerable teacher regarded
the patriot as the promised Jewish Messiah (Yer. Ta'anit, iv. 68d),
and this is absolutely all there is in evidence of an active participation
by Akiba in the revolution. In this regard, Akiva expounded the
following verse homiletically: "A star has shot off Jacob"
(Numbers 24:17) and so nicknamed the rebel as Kochva, "the
star", rather than Kozieva. When Akiva would see bar Kochba,
he would say: "Dein hu Malka Meshiecha!" (This is the
King Messiah) (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit 4:8). The numerous journeys
which, according to rabbinical sources, Akiba is said to have made,
cannot have been in any way connected with politics. In 95–96 Akiba
was in Rome (H. Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, iv. 121), and some
time before 110 he was in Nehardea (Yeb. xvi. 7), which journeys
cannot be made to coincide with revolutionary plans.
view of the mode of traveling then in vogue, it is not at all improbable
that Akiba visited en route numerous other places having important
Jewish communities (Neuburger in Monatsschrift, 1873, p. 393), but
information on this point is lacking. The statement that he dwelt
in Gazaka in Media rests upon a false reading in Gen. R. xxxiii.
5, and Ab. Zarah, 34a, where for "Akiba" should be read
"U?ba," the Babylonian, as Rashi on Ta'anit, 11b, points
out. Similarly the passage in Ber. 8b should read "Simon ben
Gamaliel" instead of Akiba, just as the Pesi?ta (ed. S. Buber,
iv. 33b) has it. A sufficient ground for refusing credence in any
participation by Akiba in the political anti-Roman movements of
his day is the statement of the Baraita (Ber. 61b) that he suffered
martyrdom on account of his transgression of Hadrian's edicts against
the practice and the teaching of the Jewish religion, a religious
and not a political reason for his death being given.
death, which according to Sanh. 12a occurred after several years
of imprisonment, must have taken place about 132, before the suppression
of the Bar Kokhba revolt, otherwise, as Z. Frankel (Darke ha-Mishnah,
p. 121) remarks, the delay of the Romans in executing him would
be quite inexplicable. That the religious interdicts of Hadrian
preceded the overthrow of Bar Kokba, is shown by Mek., Mishpa?im,
18, where Akiba regards the martyrdom of two of his friends as ominous
of his own fate. After the fall of Bethar no omens were needed to
predict evil days. Legends concerning the date and manner of Akiba's
death are numerous, but according to Crawford Howell Toy and Louis
Ginzberg in the Jewish Encyclopedia, they must all be disregarded
as being without historical foundation.
Jewish sources relate that he was subjected to a Roman torture where
his skin was flayed with iron combs. As this was happening, astonishingly
- especially for those performing the torture - he was saying the
Shema prayer. As they got to his forehead area where a Jewish man
lays Tefillin he expired.
His Personal Character
An example of his modesty is his funeral address over his son Simon.
To the large assembly gathered on the occasion from every quarter,
he said (Sem. viii., M. ?. 21b).
of the house of Israel, listen to me. Not because I am a scholar
have ye appeared here so numerously; for there are those here more
learned than I. Nor because I am a wealthy man; for there are many
more wealthy than I. The people of the south know Akiba; but whence
should the people of Galilee know him? The men are acquainted with
him; but how shall the women and children I see here be said to
be acquainted with him? Still I know that your reward shall be great,
for ye have given yourselves the trouble to come simply in order
to do honor to the Torah and to fulfill a religious duty.
Akiba and Gamaliel II
Modesty is a favorite theme with Akiba, and he reverts to it again
and again. "He who esteems himself highly on account of his
knowledge," he teaches, "is like a corpse lying on the
wayside: the traveler turns his head away in disgust, and walks
quickly by" (Ab. R. N., ed. S. Schechter, xi. 46). Another
of his sayings, quoted also in the name of Ben Azzai (Lev. R. i.
5), is specially interesting from the fact that Book of Luke, xiv.
8-12, is almost literally identical with it: "Take thy place
a few seats below thy rank until thou art bidden to take a higher
place; for it is better that they should say to thee 'Come up higher'
than that they should bid thee 'Go down lower'" (see Prov.
so modest, yet when an important matter and not a merely personal
one was concerned Akiba could not be cowed by the greatest, as is
evidenced by his attitude toward the patriarch Gamaliel II. Convinced
of the necessity of a central authority for Judaism, Akiba became
a devoted adherent and friend of Gamaliel, who aimed at constituting
the patriarch the true spiritual chief of the Jews (R. H. ii. 9).
But Akiba was just as firmly convinced that the power of the patriarch
must be limited both by the written and the oral law, the interpretation
of which lay in the hands of the learned; and he was accordingly
brave enough to act in ritual matters in Gamaliel's own house contrary
to the decisions of Gamaliel himself. Concerning Akiba's other
personal excellences, such as benevolence, and kindness toward the
sick and needy, see Ned. 40a, Lev. R. xxxiv.16, and Tosef., Meg.
iv. 16. Akiba filled the office of an overseer of the poor.
as Akiba was by his magnanimity and moral worthiness, he was still
more so by his intellectual capacity, by which he secured an enduring
influence upon his contemporaries and upon posterity. In the first
place, Akiba was the one who definitely fixed the canon of the Old
Testament books. He protested strongly against the canonicity of
certain of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus, for instance (Sanh. x.
1, Bab. ibid. 100b, Yer. ibid. x. 28a), in which passages ???? is
to be explained according to ?id. 49a, and ??????? according to
its Aramaic equivalent ??????; so that Akiba's utterance reads,
"He who reads aloud in the synagogue from books not belonging
to the canon as if they were canonical," etc.
has, however, no objection to the private reading of the Apocrypha,
as is evident from the fact that he himself makes frequent use of
Ecclesiasticus (W. Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 277; H. Grätz, Gnosticismus,
p. 120). Akiba stoutly defended, however, the canonicity of the
Song of Songs, and Esther (Yad. iii.5, Meg. 7a). Grätz's statements
(Shir ha-Shirim, p. 115, and Kohelet, p. 169) respecting Akiba's
attitude toward the canonicity of the Song of Songs are misconceptions,
as I.H. Weiss (Dor, ii. 97) has to some extent shown. To the same
motive underlying his antagonism to the Apocrypha, namely, the desire
to disarm Christians—especially Jewish Christians—who drew their
"proofs" from the Apocrypha, must also be attributed his
wish to emancipate the Jews of the Dispersion from the domination
of the Septuagint, the errors and inaccuracies in which frequently
distorted the true meaning of Scripture, and were even used as arguments
against the Jews by the Christians.
was a man after Akiba's own heart; under Akiba's guidance he gave
the Greek-speaking Jews a rabbinical Bible (Jerome on Isa. viii.
14, Yer. ?id. i. 59a). Akiba probably also provided for a revised
text of the Targums; certainly, for the essential base of the so-called
Targum Onkelos, which in matters of Halakah reflects Akiba's opinions
completely (F. Rosenthal, Bet Talmud, ii. 280).
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 Christian century.
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
(Yer. She?. v. 48c, according to the correct text given by Rabbinowicz,
Di?du?e Soferim, p. 42; compare Gi?. 67a and Dünner, in Monatsschrift,
xx. 453, also W. Bacher, in Rev. Ét. Juives, xxxviii. 215.)
The Mishna of Akiva, as his pupil Meir had taken it from him, became
the basis of the Six Orders of the Mishna.
de?te??se?? t?? ?a???µ???? ?aßß? ???ß? mentioned
by Epiphanius (Adversus Hæreses, xxxiii. 9, and xv., end),
as well as the "great Mishnayot of Akiba" in the Midr.
Cant. R. viii. 2, Eccl. R. vi. 2, are probably not to be understood
as independent Mishnayot (de?te??se??) existing at that time, but
as the teachings and opinions of Akiba contained in the officially
recognized Mishnayot and Midrashim. But at the same time it is fair
to consider the Mishnah of Judah ha-Nasi (called simply "the
Mishnah") as derived from the school of Akiba; and the majority
of halakic Midrashim now extant are also to be thus credited.
bar Nappa?a (199–279) has left the following important note relative
to the composition and editing of the Mishnah and other halakic
works: "Our Mishnah comes directly from Rabbi Meir, the Tosefta
from R. Nehemiah, the Sifra from R. Judah, and the Sifre from R.
Simon; but they all took Akiba for a model in their works and followed
him" (Sanh. 86a). One recognizes here the threefold division
of the halakic material that emanated from Akiba: (1) The codified
Halakah (which is Mishnah); (2) the Tosefta, which in its original
form contains a concise logical argument for the Mishnah, somewhat
like the Lebush of Mordecai Jafe on the Shul?an 'Aruk; (3) the halakic
following may be mentioned here as the halakic Midrashim originating
in Akiba's school: the Mekilta of Rabbi Simon (in manuscript only)
on Exodus; Sifra on Leviticus; Sifre Zu??a on the Book of Numbers
(excerpts in Yal?. Shim'oni, and a manuscript in Midrash ha-Gadol,
(edited for the first time by B. Koenigsberger, 1894); and the Sifre
to Deuteronomy, the halakic portion of which belongs to Akiba's
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.
deRabbi Natan ch. 18; see also Gittin, 67a
Admirable as is the systematization of the Halakah by Akiba, his
hermeneutics and halakic exegesis—which form the foundation of all
Talmudic learning—surpassed it. A rule was later established: "whenever
Rabbi Akiva disputes a single sage, the halakhic ruling follows
him, but not so when he disputes more than one sage."[citation
enormous difference between the Halakah before and after Akiba may
be briefly described as follows: The old Halakah was, as its name
indicates, the religious practice sanctioned as binding by tradition,
to which were added extensions, and, in some cases, limitations,
of the Torah, arrived at by strict logical deduction. The opposition
offered by the Sadducees—which became especially strenuous in the
last century B.C.—originated the halakic Midrash, whose mission
it was to deduce these amplifications of the Law, by tradition and
logic, out of the Law itself.
might be thought that with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—which
event made an end of Sadduceeism—the halakic Midrash would also
have disappeared, seeing that the Halakah could now dispense with
the Midrash. This probably would have been the case had not Akiba
created his own Midrash, by means of which he was able "to
discover things that were even unknown to Moses" (Pesi?., Parah,
ed. S. Buber, 39b). Akiba made the accumulated treasure of the oral
law—which until his time was only a subject of knowledge, and not
a science—an inexhaustible mine from which, by the means he provided,
new treasures might be continually extracted.
the older Halakah is to be considered as the product of the internal
struggle between Phariseeism and Sadduceeism, the Halakah of Akiba
must be conceived as the result of an external contest between Judaism
on the one hand and Hellenism and Hellenistic Christianity on the
other. Akiba no doubt perceived that the intellectual bond uniting
the Jews—far from being allowed to disappear with the destruction
of the Jewish state—must be made to draw them closer together than
before. He pondered also the nature of that bond. The Bible could
never again fill the place alone; for the Christians also regarded
it as a divine revelation. Still less could dogma serve the purpose,
for dogmas were always repellent to rabbinical Judaism, whose very
essence is development and the susceptibility to development. Mention
has already been made of the fact that Akiba was the creator of
a rabbinical Bible version elaborated with the aid of his pupil,
Aquila, and designed to become the common property of all Jews,
thus Judaizing the Bible, as it were, in opposition to the Christians.
this was not sufficient to obviate all threatening danger. It was
to be feared that the Jews, by their facility in accommodating themselves
to surrounding circumstances—even then a marked characteristic—might
become entangled in the net of Grecian philosophy, and even in that
of Gnosticism. The example of his colleagues and friends, Elisha
ben Abuyah, Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma strengthened him still more
in his conviction of the necessity of providing some counterpoise
to the intellectual influence of the non-Jewish world.
Akiba's Hermeneutic System
sought to apply the system of isolation followed by the Pharisees
(?????? = those who "separate" themselves) to doctrine
as they did to practise, to the intellectual life as they did to
that of daily intercourse, and he succeeded in furnishing a firm
foundation for his system. As the fundamental principle of his system,
Akiba enunciates his conviction that the mode of expression used
by the Torah is quite different from that of every other book. In
the language of the Torah nothing is mere form; everything is essence.
It has nothing superfluous; not a word, not a syllable, not even
a letter. Every peculiarity of diction, every particle, every sign,
is to be considered as of higher importance, as having a wider relation
and as being of deeper meaning than it seems to have. Like Philo
(see Siegfried, Philo, p. 168), who saw in the Hebrew construction
of the infinitive with the finite form of the same verb—which is
readily recognizable in the Septuagint—and in certain particles
(adverbs, prepositions, etc.) some deep reference to philosophical
and ethical doctrines, Akiba perceived in them indications of many
important ceremonial laws, legal statutes, and ethical teachings
(compare D. Hoffmann, Zur Einleitung, pp. 5-12, and H. Grätz,
Gesch. iv. 427).
thus gave the Jewish mind not only a new field for its own employment,
but, convinced both of the unchangeableness of Holy Scripture and
of the necessity for development in Judaism, he succeeded in reconciling
these two apparently hopeless opposites by means of his remarkable
method. The following two illustrations will serve to make this
high conception of woman's dignity, which Akiba shared in common
with most other Pharisees, induced him to abolish the Oriental custom
that banished women at certain periods from all social intercourse.
He succeeded, moreover, in fully justifying his interpretation of
those Scriptural passages upon which this ostracism had been founded
by the older expounders of the Torah (Sifra, Me?ora, end, and Shab.
The Biblical legislation in Ex. xxi. 7 could not be reconciled by
Akiba with his view of Jewish ethics: for him a "Jewish slave"
is a contradiction in terms, for every Jew is to be regarded as
a prince (B. M. 113b). Akiba therefore teaches, in opposition to
the old Halakah, that the sale of a daughter under age by her father
conveys to her purchaser no legal title to marriage with her, but,
on the contrary, carries with it the duty to keep the female slave
until she is of age, and then to marry her (Mek., Mishpa?im, 3).
How Akiba endeavors to substantiate this from the Hebrew text is
shown by A. Geiger (Urschrift, p. 187).
How little he cared for the letter of the Law whenever he conceives
it to be antagonistic to the spirit of Judaism, is shown by his
attitude toward the Samaritans. He considered friendly intercourse
with these semi-Jews as desirable on political as well as on religious
grounds, and he permitted—in opposition to tradition—not only eating
their bread (Sheb. viii. 10) but also eventual intermarriage (?id.
75b). This is quite remarkable, seeing that in matrimonial legislation
he went so far as to declare every forbidden union as absolutely
void (Yeb. 92a) and the offspring as illegitimate (?id. 68a). For
similar reasons Akiba comes near abolishing the Biblical ordinance
of Kilaim; nearly every chapter in the treatise of that name contains
a mitigation by Akiba.
for the Holy Land, which he as a genuine nationalist frequently
and warmly expressed (see Ab. R. N. xxvi.), was so powerful with
him that he would have exempted agriculture from much of the rigor
of the Law. These examples will suffice to justify the opinion that
Akiba was the man to whom Judaism owes preeminently its activity
and its capacity for development.
saying, that "in self-restraint is the master shown,"
is contradicted by Akiba, who, though diametrically opposed to all
philosophical speculation, is nevertheless the only tanna to whom
we can attribute something like a religious philosophy. A tannaitic
tradition (?ag. 14b; Tosef., ?ag. ii. 3) mentions that of the four
who entered paradise, Akiba was the only one that returned unscathed.
This serves at least to show how strong in later ages was the recollection
of Akiba's philosophical speculation (see Elisha b. Abuya).
utterances (Abot, iii. 14, 15) may serve to present the essence
of his religious conviction. They run:
favored is man, for he was created after an image; as Scripture
says, "for in an image, Elohim made man" (Gen. ix. 6).
Everything is foreseen; but freedom [of will] is given to every
The world is governed by mercy... but the divine decision is made
by the preponderance of the good or bad in one's actions.
Akiba's anthropology is based upon the principle that man was created
????, that is, not in the image of God—which would be ???? ?????—but
after an image, after a primordial type; or, philosophically speaking,
after an Idea—what Philo calls in agreement with judean theology,
"the first heavenly man" (see Adam ?admon). Strict monotheist
that Akiba was, he protested against any comparison of God with
the angels, and declared the traditional interpretation of ????
???? (Gen. iii. 22) as meaning "like one of us" to be
arrant blasphemy (Mek., Beshalla?, 6). It is quite instructive to
read how a contemporary of Akiba, Justin Martyr, calls the old interpretation—thus
objected to by Akiba—a "Jewish heretical one" (Dial. cum
Tryph. lxii.). In his earnest endeavors to insist as strongly as
possible upon the incomparable nature of God, Akiba indeed lowers
the angels somewhat to the realms of mortals, and, alluding to Ps.
lxxviii. 25, maintains that manna is the actual food of the angels
(Yoma, 75b). This view of Akiba's, in spite of the energetic protests
of his colleague Rabbi Ishmael, became the one generally accepted
by his contemporaries, as Justin Martyr, l.c., lvii., indicates.
Freedom of Will
the Judæo-Gnostic doctrine (Recognit. iii. 30; Sifre, Num.
103; Sifra, Wayikra, 2), which teaches that angels—who are spiritual
beings—and also that the departed pious, who are bereft of their
flesh, can see God, the words of Akiba, in Sifra, l.c., must be
noticed. He insists that not even the angels can see God's glory;
for he interprets the expression in Ex. xxxiii. 20, "no man
can see me and live" (???), as if it read "no man or any
living immortal can see me."
to the transcendental nature of God, Akiba insists emphatically,
as has been mentioned, on the freedom of the will, to which he allows
no limitations. This insistence is in opposition to the Christian
doctrine of the sinfulness and depravity of man, and apparently
controverts his view of divine predestination. He derides those
who find excuse for their sins in this supposed innate depravity
(?id. 81a). But Akiba's opposition to this genetically Jewish doctrine
is probably directed mainly against its Christian correlative, the
doctrine of the grace of God contingent upon faith in Christ, and
baptism. Referring to this, Akiba says, "Happy are ye, O Israelites,
that ye purify yourselves through your heavenly Father, as it is
said (Jer. xvii. 13, Heb.), 'Israel's hope is God'" (Mishnah
Yoma, end). This is a play on the Hebrew word ???? ("hope"
and "bath"). In opposition to the Christian insistence
on God's love, Akiba upholds God's retributive justice elevated
above all chance or arbitrariness (Mekilta, Beshalla?, 6).
God's Two Attributes
he is far from representing justice as the only attribute of God:
in agreement with the ancient Palestinian theology of the ??? ????
("the attribute of justice") and ??? ?????? ("the
attribute of mercy") (Gen. R. xii., end; the ?a??st??? and
???ast??? of Philo, Quis Rer. Div. Heres, 34 Mangey, i. 496), he
teaches that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice
(?ag. 14a). The idea of justice, however, so strongly dominates
Akiba's system that he will not allow God's grace and kindness to
be understood as arbitrary. Hence his maxim, referred to above,
"God rules the world in mercy, but according to the preponderance
of good or bad in human acts."
Eschatology and Ethics
to the question concerning the frequent sufferings of the pious
and the prosperity of the wicked —truly a burning one in Akiba's
time—this is answered by the explanation that the pious are punished
in this life for their few sins, in order that in the next they
may receive only reward; while the wicked obtain in this world all
the recompense for the little good they have done, and in the next
world will receive only punishment for their misdeeds (Gen. R. xxxiii.;
Pesi?. ed. S. Buber, ix. 73a). Consistent as Akiba always was, his
ethics and his views of justice were only the strict consequences
of his philosophical system. Justice as an attribute of God must
also be exemplary for man. "No mercy in [civil] justice!"
is his basic principle in the doctrine concerning law (Ket. ix.
3), and he does not conceal his opinion that the action of the Jews
in taking the spoil of the Egyptians is to be condemned (Gen. R.
his views as to the relation between God and man he deduces the
inference that he who sheds the blood of a fellow man is to be considered
as committing the crime against the divine archetype (????) of man
(Gen. R. xxxiv. 14). He therefore recognizes as the chief and greatest
principle of Judaism the command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor
as thyself" (Lev. xix. 18; Sifra, ?edoshim, iv.). He does not,
indeed, maintain thereby that the execution of this command is equivalent
to the performance of the whole Law; and in one of his polemic interpretations
of Scripture he protests strongly against a contrary opinion allegedly
held by Christians, according to which Judaism is "simply morality"
(Mek., Shirah, 3, 44a, ed. I.H. Weiss). For, in spite of his philosophy,
Akiba was an extremely strict and national Jew.
The Messianic Age and the Future World
doctrine concerning the Jewish Messiah was the realistic and thoroughly
Jewish one, as his declaration that Bar Kokba was the Messiah shows.
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). A distinction is, however, to be made between the
Messianic age and the future world (???? ???). This latter will
come after the destruction of this world, lasting for 1,000 years
(R. H. 31a). To the future world all Israel will be admitted, with
the exception of the generation of the Wilderness and the Ten Tribes
(Sanh. xi. 3, 110b). But even this future world is painted by Akiba
in colors selected by his nationalist inclinations, for he makes
Messiah (whom, according to Ezek. xxxvii. 24, he identifies with
King David) the judge of all the heathen world (?ag. 14a).
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.
His innovative method
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 in naive style a picture of
Akiba's activity as the father of Talmudical Judaism.
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:
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. The Roman judge who condemned him sentenced him to a punishment
that was unusually severe even by Roman standards: flaying alive.
is some disagreement about the extent of Akiva's involvement in
the Bar Kochba rebellion. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica online)
Participation in a rebellion would be a more serious threat to Roman
rule than merely teaching a deviant religion—even one that questions
the validity of worshipping the Emperor as a god. 
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).
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.
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).
Akiva taught thousands of students: on one occasion, twenty-four
thousand students of his died in a plague. His five main, last
remaining students were Judah bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Nehemiah,
Jose ben Halafta and Shimon bar Yochai.
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.
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.).
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
?e?ia' 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).
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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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 G-d 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 G-d's
Chosen people, had to suffer so much. She replied,
greater, the higher a man's task is, the more he must endure, the
more he must fight and suffer. An ordinary simple man who doesn't
bother about anything usually lives a quiet an undisturbed life.
The man who wants to do something, who is concerned with the general
welfare has troubles and worries. When G-d elevated Israel and chose
us from all the nations, He placed us in the midst of every conflict.
Wherever something great is being fought for, Israel must be there.
Few peoples rise above the others, to put their foot on the neck
of the nations. The various generations come up, grow, flourish
and disappear. Israel must play its part in all of them. Of course,
that involves suffering and sorrow. Sometimes we are hurled down
to earth, and the ploughs are drawn across our backs and we are
marked by long furrows. But G-d has always raised us up again. He
has never punished us as He has punished those who torment us. He
has never doomed us to die like those nations who oppress us. If
we must suffer more than other peoples, G-d has also given us the
strength to bear our troubles; to endure." 
Rachel's words 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 G-d'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.
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
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."
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).
His 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 ass, and a cat killed the cock whose
crowing was to herald the dawn to him, and the wind extinguished
his candle, the only remark he made was, "This, likewise, must
be for a good purpose!" 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).
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 (?ag. 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."
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 ?ol)
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 Ma?zor 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 Zu??a, xvii., where Johanan ben Zakkai's name
is given in place of Akiba).
article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia,
a publication now in the public domain.. The JE cites the following
Z. Frankel, Darke ha-Mishnah, pp. 111-123;
J. Brüll, Mebo ha-Mishnah, pp. 116-122;
Weiss, Dor, ii. 107-118;
H. Oppenheim, in Bet Talmud, ii. 237-246, 269-274;
Isaac Gastfreund, Biographie des R. Akiba, Lemberg, 1871;
J. S. Bloch, in Mimizra? u-Mima'Arab, 1894, pp. 47-54;
Heinrich Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, iv. (see index);
Ewald, Geschichte der Volkes Israel, vii. 367 et seq.;
Joseph Derenbourg, Essai, pp. 329-331, 395 et seq., 418 et seq.;
Hamburger, R. B. T. ii. 32-43;
W. Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 271-348;
Isaak Markus Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, ii.
59 et seq.;
Landau, in Monatsschrift, 1854, pp. 45-51, 81-93, 130-148;
Dünner, ibid. 1871, pp. 451-454;
Neubürger, ibid. 1873, pp. 385-397, 433-445, 529-536;
D. Hoffmann, Zur Einleitung in die Halachischen Midraschim, pp.
H. Grätz, Gnosticismus, pp. 83-120;
F. Rosenthal, Vier Apokryph. Bücher . . . R. Akiba's, especially
pp. 95-103, 124-131;
S. Funk, Akiba (Jena Dissertation), 1896;
M. Poper, Pir?e R. Akiba, Vienna, 1808;
M. Lehmann, Akiba, Historische Erzählung, Frankfort-on-the-Main,
J. Wittkind, ?u? ha-Meshulash, Wilna, 1877;
Braunschweiger, Die Lehrer der Mischnah, pp. 92-110