Rabbi Akiva's tomb in Tiberias, Israel. (Israel Government Press Office/Wikimedia Commons)

Rabbi Akiva: Separating Fact from Legend

Second-century sage laid the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism.

Rabbi Akiva was the foremost teacher of the who lived in the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century C.E. As is the case with so many of the Tannaim and Amoraim (rabbis whose views are recorded in the ic literature), it is has proved difficult for historians to disentangle the facts of Akiva’s life from the pious legends with which it is surrounded.

The statement, for example, that Akiva was an ignoramus (am ha-aretz) until, at the age of 40, he was encouraged by his wife to study the Torah for 40 years, after which he taught for 40 years, is obviously far too neat to be anything but legendary, and was presumably intended to place Akiva among the great teachers who wore the mantle of Moses who lived to be 120. The same applies to the dialogues Akiva is supposed to have engaged in with Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor of Palestine, though these might reflect early rabbinic associations with the gentile authorities and the kind of queries Roman nobles might have addressed to the Rabbis.

Turnus Rufus is supposed to have asked Akiva why, if God loves the poor, He does not make them rich and why, if God wants man to be circumcised, He created him with a foreskin. Akiva replies that God allows the poor to remain in a state of poverty in order to provide the rich with the capacity to acquire merit by helping the poor, and He creates man with a foreskin in order for Jews to acquire merit by observing the rite of circumcision. In similar vein, when Turnus Rufus asks Akiva which is greater, the work of God or the work of man, Akiva replies that the work of man is greater in that God provides the wheat but it is man who has to do the sowing, harvesting, and baking before bread can satisfy the human need for food. The line running through such stories is that of human cooperation with the divine; it is a rejection, fathered on Akiva, of the philosophy of quietism.

The Bar Kochba Revolt (Arthur Szyk/Wikimedia Commons)
The Bar Kochba Revolt (Arthur Szyk/Wikimedia Commons)

School of Akiva

Akiva studied under Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua and among his foremost disciples were Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Simeon. Akiva is also acknowledged as an early compiler of teachings later used by Rabbi Judah the Prince (known in Hebrew as Yehuda Hanasi)  in his compilation of the Mishnah. There is no doubt a kernel of truth in the accounts of Akiva acknowledging Bar Kochba as the Messiah and of him continuing to teach the Torah when it had been proscribed by the Roman authorities, for which he suffered a martyr’s death, his soul expiring while he joyfully recited the Shema prayer.

In matters of halakha (Jewish law), too, it is difficult to know for certain how much is Akiva’s own and how much has simply been attributed to him as a pioneering teacher. There was an important difference, it is reported, on the question of hermeneutics, between the school of Akiva and the school of Akiva’s contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. The latter taught that even in the legal portions of the Pentateuch (Torah or Five Books of Moses) some words have no legal significance but are simply stylistic: “The Torah speaks in the language of men.”

But the school of Akiva held that there are no superfluous words in the legal passages, every word being intended to convey some additional rule. Words like “also” are intended to include some addition to the law not stated explicitly in the text and words like “however” are intended to exclude laws that it might otherwise have been imagined arc embraced by the implications of the text. Akiva is quoted as saying that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a great principle of the Torah. A saying attributed to him in a more universalistic vein is: “Beloved is man because he has been created in the image of God.”

Akiva is also depicted as belonging to the mystical tradition in ancient Israel. Of the four sages who entered the Pardes (Paradise) Akiva alone is said to have emerged unscathed by the tremendous experience. Akiva is held to be of the utmost significance in laying the foundations of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. He is the exemplar of complete devotion to the study, practice, and teaching of the Torah. He is described in the Talmud as “one of the fathers of the world.”

Reprinted from  The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Discover More

Rabbi Joshua

This early Rabbi of the Mishnah regularly debated Rabbi Eliezer.

Tale of Two Talmuds: Jerusalem and Babylonian

The two texts developed simultaneously in the two major Jewish communities of the rabbinic era.

Yohanan ben Zakkai

Student of Hillel contributed to the continued study of Torah and the protection of the Sanhedrin.