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Akiba 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 Judaism[1].

Parentage and youth

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.

Akiba 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[2]. 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).

A 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.

Earlier 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.

Besides 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.

Among 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.

Akiba and his wife

According 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).

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

See "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.

The 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.

In 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.

Akiba's 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.

However 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).

Brethren 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. xxv. 7).

Though 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[3]. 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[4].

Eminent 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.

He 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.

Aquila 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.

The 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.

Johanan 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 Midrash.

The 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 school.

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

– Avot deRabbi Natan ch. 18; see also Gittin, 67a

Akiba's Halakah
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 needed]

The 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.

It 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.

If 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.

But 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

Akiba 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).

He 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 clear:

The 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. 64b).
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.

Love 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.

Religious Philosophy

Goethe's 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).

Akiba's utterances (Abot, iii. 14, 15) may serve to present the essence of his religious conviction. They run:

How 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 man.
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

Against 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."

Next 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

But 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

As 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. xxviii. 7).

From 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

His 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).


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

His innovative method

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

His transformation

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

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

His martydom

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. [citation needed]

There 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. [citation needed]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Talmud also enumerates six occasions in which Akiva gained his wealth (Nedarim, 50a-b). Akiba's many journeys brought numerous adventures, some of which are embellished by legend. Thus in Ethiopia he was once called upon to decide between the swarthy king and the king's wife; the latter having been accused of infidelity because she had borne her lord a white child. Akiba ascertained that the royal chamber was adorned with white marble statuary, and, basing his decision upon a well known physiological theory, he exonerated the queen from suspicion (Num. R. ix. 34). It is related that during his stay in Rome Akiba became intimately acquainted with the Jewish proselyte ?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).

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

His relationship with his wife

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Akiva was the shepherd of a rich man nicknamed Kalba Savua because anyone who entered his house hungry like a dog (kalba) went out satiated (savua) (a reference to his hospitality toward guests). Kalba Savua's daughter, whose name was Rachel, noticed his modesty and good nature. She saw that he had a great mind, and that if he would put his mind to The Almighty's Divine Torah, he would flourish into a great teacher in Israel. She spoke with Akiva about 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,

"The 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." [citation needed]
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.

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

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

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

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."

Akiba inquired the man's name and that of his wife and her dwelling-place; and when, in the course of his travels, he reached the place, Akiba sought for information concerning the man's family. The neighbors very freely expressed their opinion that both the deceased and his wife deserved to inhabit the infernal regions for all time—the latter because she had not even initiated her child into the Abrahamic covenant. Akiba, however, was not to be turned from his purpose; he sought the son of the tax-gatherer and labored long and assiduously in teaching him the word of God. After fasting 40 days, and praying to God to bless his efforts, he heard a heavenly voice (bat ?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).


This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.. The JE cites the following sources:
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. 5-12;
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, 1880;
J. Wittkind, ?u? ha-Meshulash, Wilna, 1877;
Braunschweiger, Die Lehrer der Mischnah, pp. 92-110

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