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Rabbi Akiva

Rabbi Akiva is one of the most central and essential contributors to the early Oral Torah, mainly the Mishnah and the Midrash Halakha. He laid the foundations of the mishnaic dispute, by which pairs or larger groups of sages dispute points of Halakha or Bible interpretation.

A member of the third generation of the Mishnah sages, Akiba was a disciple of Nahum of Gimzo[?], Rabbi Eliezer[?] son of Hyrcanos, and Rabbi Yehoshua[?]. Some say that Rabbi Tarfon[?] was also a teacher of his; others claim he was his contemporary colleague.

Among his contemporary colleagues are: Elisha ben Avuya[?], Rabbi Eleazar ben Zadok[?], Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya[?], Rabban Gamliel[?], Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira[?], Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri[?], Rabbi Yosei Haglili[?], Rabbi Yishmael[?].

"What was Rabbi Akiva like? - A worker who goes out with his basket. He finds wheat - he puts it in, barley - he puts in, spelt - he puts in, beans - he puts in, lentils - he puts 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, and arranged the Torah rings by rings" (Avot deRabbi Natan ch.18; see also Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin, 67a).

Rabbi Akiva held countless disputes with his teachers and colleagues. 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.


Rabbi Akiva was born to a proselyte named Joseph. He was an am ha'aretz (Hebrew: ignoramus) during his first forty years. During that period he used to say: "O that I would find a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) and bite him like a donkey" (Talmud tractate Pesachim, 49b).

He was the shepherd of a rich man nicknamed Kalba Savua, because anyone who entered his house hungry like a dog (Kalba) went out sated (savua). kalba Savua's daughter, whose name was Rachel, noticed his modesty and good nature. She asked him: "If I marry you, will you go study at (a Torah) school?" He answered positively, and they married in secret and she sent him off (to study). Her father, hearing this, drove her out of his house and prohibited her by vow of having any share in his assets.

He went and sat twelve years at school. When he returned, he had twelve thousand disciples following him. He overheard an old man saying to Rachel: "How long will you live as a widow while still married?" She answered him: "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 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 his half his assets (tractate Ketubot, 62b-63a).

Rabbi Akiva was very rich. The Talmud enumerates (tractate Nedarim, 50a-b) six occasions in which he gained his riches.

When the Simon bar Kokhba revolt took place, Rabbi Akiva expounded the following verse homiletically: "A star has shot off Jacob" (Numbers 24:17) - "Kozeba has shot off Jacob" (a word-play based on the Rebel's nickname, bar kozeba). (It was because of this homily that bar Kokhba got his name). When Rabbi Akiva would see bar Kozeba, he'd say: "This is the Melekh Hamoshiach (Annointed King)!" (Jerusalem talmud, tractate Ta'anit 4:8).

Following the failure of bar Kokhba's revolt, the Romans prohibited the public study of Torah. Rabbi Akiva defied this order, and was imprisoned. The Roman officer Tornos Rufus sentenced him to death. It was the time of reciting the Shema (see: Jewish services). They ripped his flesh with iron spikes, and he acknowledged the "burden of the Kingdom of Heaven." His disciples asked him: "Rabbi, as far as this?" He replied: "All my life I was worried about this verse (from the Shema Yisrael), "(And you shall love the Lord your God) ...with all your soul," (and the sages expounded this to signify) even if he takes away your soul. I said: "When will I encounter such a situation and fulfil this!" Now that I encountered it, won't I fulfil it?" He laid out the 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" (Talmud Berachot 61b).

See also: Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud

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