Rabbi Akiva's tomb in Tiberias, Israel. (Israel GPO)

Who Was Rabbi Akiva?

The second-century sage was the inspiration for many legends and may have died as a martyr.

Life and Legend

Rabbi Akiva (sometimes spelled Akiba) is considered to be one of the greatest rabbinic sages, yet the biographical details of his life remain somewhat of a mystery. It is believed that he died during the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132 CE, but his date of birth is unclear, as the only sources for his life appear in the Talmud and are not corroborated by historical evidence. He was born in Lod, near what is now Tel Aviv, and while nothing is known of his family origins (other than his father’s name, Yosef), sources allude to the fact that he likely came from humble beginnings. In the Babylonian Talmud Akiva mentions having once been an am ha-aretz, a term that refers to a country person, but later came to denote someone who was illiterate. It is generally believed that he learned to read and to study Torah at the age of 40.

Akiva’s wife, who one source refers to by the name Rachel (according to Reuven Hammer’s 2015 biography Akiva: Life, Legend and Legacy ) was an instrumental force in his development as a scholar. While earlier sources in the Jerusalem Talmud (third to fifth centuries CE) have little to say about Akiva’s wife, other than that she suffered in order to support his Torah study (even going so far as to sell her hair in order to do so), the Babylonian Talmud (sixth century CE) fills in the gaps by crafting a portrait of a woman devoted to her husband and determined to cultivate his innate intellectual talents. Akiva married the daughter of his wealthy employer, Kalba Savua, for whom he worked as a shepherd. In response to their marriage, Savua disowned his daughter and cut her off financially, presumably objecting because of Akiva’s lowly economic status. Although the two were impoverished, Akiva’s wife encouraged him to study Torah (one source relates that his studying Torah was a condition she insisted upon in order to marry him), and through a combination of his own gifts and volition and her support he educated himself and grew to become a recognized scholar.

What we know of Rabbi Akiva is more legend than historical fact, and these legends serve to fill in the outlines of a character who represents the quintessential scholar and lover of Torah. An oft-cited source in Avot de-Rabbi Natan relates the following story:

What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiva? They say that he was 40 years old and had not learned a thing. One time, he was standing at the mouth of the well and said, “Who carved this rock?” They said to him, “The water that consistently falls on it every day.” They said to him, “Akiva, did you not read water wears away stones (Job 14:15)?” Immediately Rabbi Akiva ruled… : Just as the soft sculpts the hard, words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, will all the more so carve my heart/mind, which is but flesh and blood! Immediately he returned to learn Torah. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, commentary on Pirkei Avot 1:4, translated by Rabbi Kelilah Miller)

The Mishnah relates the following story that demonstrates Akiva’s deep commitment to Torah:

The Sages taught: One time, after the Bar Kochba rebellion, the evil empire of Rome decreed that Israel may not engage in the study and practice of Torah. Pappos ben Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva, who was convening assemblies in public and engaging in Torah study. Pappos said to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire?”

Rabbi Akiva answered him: “I will relate a parable. To what can this be compared? It is like a fox walking along a riverbank when he sees fish gathering and fleeing from place to place. The fox said to them: ‘From what are you fleeing?’ They said to him: ‘We are fleeing from the nets that people cast upon us.’ The fox said to them: ‘Do you wish to come up onto dry land, and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors?’ The fish said to him: ‘You are the one of whom they say, he is the cleverest of animals? You are not clever; you are a fool. If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a habitat that causes our death, all the more so.’

The moral is: So too, we Jews, now that we sit and engage in Torah study about which it is written: “For that is your life, and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:20), we fear the empire to this extent; if we proceed to sit idle from its study, as its abandonment is the habitat that causes our death, all the more so will we fear the empire.” (Berakhot 61b, Translation from the William Davidson Talmud via Sefaria.org)

Rabbinic Achievements

Akiva developed as a sage during the period after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), a time of transformation for the Jewish community as Rabbinic Judaism began to take shape. Since the Temple no longer served as the focal point of Jewish life, the Sages (who later became known as rabbis) reconstructed Judaism with Torah study at its center. The rabbinic academy at Yavneh, near what is now the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, became the new center of Jewish life, while other academies sprung up across the land of Israel. Akiva studied with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus and Rabbi Joshua at a rabbinic academy in Lod for 13 years. He was ordained in 93 CE by Rabbi Joshua and then became a teacher in his own right, founding his own academy in B’nai Brak. Rabban Gamliel II, the nasi (“prince” or leader) of the Jewish people, who, according to Hammer, treated Yavneh as “a semi-autonomous Jewish government,” appointed Akiva as an organizer and representative of the Jewish people and also as a judge in the rabbinic court.

Akiva, Hammer notes, was the first rabbi to assert that the Torah in its entirety (not just the Ten Commandments) came directly from heaven. His methodology in interpreting the Torah was highly meticulous and detailed; one legend relates that the reason God placed “crowns” on the letters of the Torah, a calligraphic detail, was so that Akiva would later find meaning in these ornamental marks. He was also known to have been well versed in mystical studies and practice, as exemplified by the famous legend of the Pardes, in which four rabbis enter the so-called mystical paradise and Akiva is the only one to survive the experience unscathed.

Akiva helped to systematize the Mishnah, which was still in development at the time. “The Mishnah as we know it is ascribed to the work of Akiva as interpreted by his students,” notes Hammer in Akiva: Life, Legend and Legacy. Akiva organized and categorized these uncollected oral teachings in order to make them easier to memorize and pass down. His work, and that of his disciples, would help to establish Rabbinic Judaism as the new normative version of Judaism that would last to this day. Considering he accomplished this task at the same time that Christianity was evolving from a fringe Jewish sect into a competing religion, Akiva’s work was a major achievement in this history of Judaism.

Martyrdom

Though Rabbinic Judaism would ultimately take the place of the Temple, during the period after the destruction of the Second Temple Jews still hoped and prayed that the Temple might be rebuilt. This hope eventually took the form of military resistance to the Roman Empire’s oppressive anti-Jewish laws. Shimon bar Kosiva, also known as Bar Kochba, led the rebellion. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Akiva believed that Bar Kochba was the Messiah. However, there is no historical evidence of Akiva taking part in the revolt. Akiva was eventually imprisoned for publicly teaching Torah, a practice the Romans forbade. There are multiple accounts of his death. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that when Akiva stood before the Roman judge Tineius Rufus, the time to recite the Shema prayer (another forbidden practice) had arrived. Akiva recited the Shema with a smile. When Rufus asked him why he smiled, Akiva replied that all his life he had read the verse, “And you shall love your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your possessions,” but was never able to fulfill the obligation to love God with all his soul — that is, his life — until now. Other accounts relate a similar dialogue taking place while Akiva was being tortured to death, thereby establishing the legend that Akiva was a martyr who died while standing up for his right to practice Judaism in the face of oppression. Whichever account is accurate, Akiva became a legendary figure who represents the love of Torah and devotion to Jewish identity and practice against all odds.

Books About Rabbi Akiva

Holtz, Barry W. Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud (2017)

Hammer, Reuven. Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (2015)

Nadich, Judah. Rabbi Akiba and his Contemporaries (1998)

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