Rabbi Akiva is among the most prominent and highly regarded sages in all of the Talmud. Rabbinic tradition says that he came from humble beginnings and rose to prominence only later in life. Today, the Gemara shares a series of tales that show how he became a wealthy man as well. Here’s one:
On one occasion he Rabbi Akiva gave four dinars to sailors and said to them: Bring me something. And they found only a log on the seashore. They brought it to him and said to him: May our master wait with this. He found that the log was full of dinars, as on one occasion a ship sunk and all the merchandise owned by the people on the ship was placed in that log, and it was found on that occasion.
Rabbi Akiva gives some money to a group of sailors headed overseas and asks them to bring him back a souvenir. The sailors don’t find anything of value, returning only with a log they found on the seashore. They seem cognizant of the fact that it is a sub-par gift and ask that Rabbi Akiva hold onto it until they find something more suitable. But upon inspection, Rabbi Akiva discovers that hidden inside is a great sum of money, which Rabbi Akiva decides to keep.
As I read the story, I began to wonder — why didn’t the sailors notice the money themselves? Surely the log was heavier than a typical log if it contained a substantial treasure. And more importantly, once Rabbi Akiva discovered it, why did he keep it? The sailors clearly thought the log was not an adequate exchange for the four dinars that Rabbi Akiva had given them. Since they were unaware of the actual value of the log, isn’t Akiva bound by ethics and rabbinic law (as we’ll learn in Seder Nezikin) to make them aware of his discovery and return it to them? If this is how Rabbi Akiva got rich, the details do not sit well with me.
And I might not be alone. Following the Akiva stories, the Gemara brings the following story about Rav Gamda, a sixth-generation Babylonian amora who is mentioned only a handful of times in the Talmud. He seems to have had the same luck as Rabbi Akiba:
Rav Gamda gave four dinars to sailors to bring him something (in exchange) for them. They did not find anything, so they (bought) a monkey and brought it to him. (The monkey) escaped and entered a hole. When they dug after it to retrieve it, they found it crouching over pearls, and they brought all of them (to Rav Gamda).
At first glance, these stories seem to be quite similar. In exchange for four dinars, a rabbi receives a not-so-perfect package from some sailors. But in the end, a treasure is uncovered and the rabbi becomes rich.
Except that Rav Gamda’s story is a little different. Unlike in the Rabbi Akiva story, where the sailors were unaware of the treasure they were giving, the sailors in the Rav Gamda story knew the monkey had discovered some pearls. The latter sailors offered the treasure to Rav Gamda willingly and with full knowledge of the value of the gift.
Improbable as the monkey story might be, its details do not raise the same questions as the story of the coin-filled log. Both stories suggest that good things happen to good rabbis, and suggest that there is a reward in this world for being one. But Rav Gamda’s decision to keep the pearls seems to be a more ethically sound choice than Rabbi Akiva’s decision to keep the money in the log. If it were me, I’d feel much more comfortable accepting a gift uncovered by a wayward monkey than a log whose true value is unknown to those who offered it, although I would hope that I would share the wealth with the sailors — and I’m sure I would let them keep the monkey.
Most of the time, Rabbi Akiva exemplifies the rabbinic ideal of deep learning and impeccable ethics. But today he is overshadowed by the lesser-known Rav Gamda, who finds himself a little more innocently in the lap of luxury.
Read all of Nedarim 50 on Sefaria.