The story of Rabbi Rehumi and his wife that we encountered on yesterdays’ daf received wide attention in 2013 when Ruth Calderon shared it in her first speech as a newly-elected member of the Knesset. In that story, Rabbi Rehumi spent 364 days a year in the yeshiva and came home to his wife only on Yom Kippur. One year, he failed to appear and she shed a tear. At that same moment, he fell to his death. In her address, Calderon reminisced about how the study of Talmud had once been beyond her reach, but had subsequently come to fill an intellectual and spiritual hole in her life. She drew motivation from this story — in which she saw two sides that were tragically unable to understand one another’s perspectives — to call for a more cooperative and productive government.
Growing up, I was not familiar with the story of Rabbi Rehumi and his wife. I was, however, very familiar with the story of Rabbi Akiva that comes after it. Like Rabbi Rehumi, Rabbi Akiva also left his wife for long periods to study. But this story has a much happier ending. Since it is such a classic, I’m going to share it in full:
Rabbi Akiva was the shepherd of Ben Kalba Savua (one of the wealthy residents of Jerusalem). The daughter of Ben Kalba Savua saw that he was humble and refined.
She said to him: “If I betroth myself to you, will you go to the study hall to learn Torah?”
He said to her: “Yes.” She became betrothed to him privately and sent him off to study. Her father heard this and became angry. He removed her from his house and took a vow prohibiting her from benefiting from his property.
Rabbi Akiva went and sat for 12 years in the study hall. When he came back to his house he brought 12,000 students with him, and as he approached he heard an old man saying to his wife: “For how long will you lead the life of a widow of a living man?”
She said to him: “If he would listen to me, he would sit and study for another 12 years.” When Rabbi Akiva heard this he said: “I have permission to do this.” He went back and sat for another 12 years in the study hall.
When he came back he brought 24,000 students with him. His wife heard and went out toward him to greet him. Her neighbors said: “Borrow some clothes and wear them.”
She said to them: “A righteous man understands the life of his beast.” (Proverbs 12:10) When she came to him she fell on her face and kissed his feet. His attendants pushed her away, but he said to them: “Leave her alone, as my Torah knowledge and yours is actually hers.”
Her father heard that a great man came to the town. He said: “I will go to him. Maybe he will nullify my vow (and I will be able to support my daughter).”
He came to him, and Rabbi Akiva said to him: “Did you vow thinking that this Akiva would become a great man?”
He said to him: “If I had believed he would know even one chapter or even one halakhah I would not have been so harsh.” He said to him: “I am he.” Ben Kalba Savua fell on his face and kissed his feet and gave him half of his money.
Rabbi Akiva’s wife grows up rich, falls for the poor shepherd boy her father disapproves of, and gives up everything to enable his education. Decades later, Rabbi Akiva returns a towering triumph of Torah learning and credits her with all the learning he and his disciples have amassed. Her father humbly hands over half his riches.
In my childhood, Rabbi Akiva was always held up as a role model, a scholar with a deep sense of humility. He was a man who was willing to attend first grade as a grown adult. His wife was selfless, to be sure, but at least he appreciated her — and later unhesitatingly credited her with his success as a scholar.
It was not until I was an adult that I found something more deeply troubling in the story. When Rabbi Akiva returns home after his first 12 years away, he does not actually speak to his wife. Instead, he overhears her statement to someone else: “If he would listen to me, he would sit and study for another twelve years.” At this point, Rabbi Akiva understands that he has permission to return for another dozen years of study.
Rabbi Akiva’s wife is clearly trying to impress on her interlocutor that she and her husband have discussed his study schedule and that she is not only supportive, but wishes him to study more. But it is equally clear from Rabbi Akiva’s private response that the pair have not actually spoken about this. So we cannot take her words at face value. Was she just trying to put on a brave face? To be gracious? And what of Rabbi Akiva’s response? Was he really unable to spare a moment to thank his wife or ask how she is doing? Or, indeed, ask her how she truly feels about his long absences? Perhaps he was worried that she would, in a private exchange, ask him to choose her over the yeshiva.
The story of Rabbi Rehumi and his wife ends in tragedy. Derive this lesson from it: “I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings.” I found today’s daf troubling because it seems that Rabbi Akiva has made that exact mistake with respect to his wife.
But reading further into today’s daf, I had another thought. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s wife actually was happy with their arrangement. As we also learn today, her own daughter chose a similar path:
Rabbi Akiva’s daughter did the same thing for Ben Azzai. This explains what people say: The ewe follows the ewe; the daughter’s actions are the same as her mother’s.
Did the women in Rabbi Akiva’s life support their husbands grueling programs of study without regret? Or did they wish for a different arrangement? We’ll never know — the Talmud makes room for both possibilities.
Read all of Ketubot 63 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 7th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.