Akiva ben Joseph (Hebrew: עקיבא) or simply Rabbi Akiva—also spelled Akiba or Aqiba—was a Judean sage of the late first and early second century (c. 50–135 C.E.). He was a great authority in the matter of Jewish tradition, and one of the most central and essential contributors to the Mishnah and Midrash Halakha—the precursors of the Talmud. He is referred to in the Talmud as Rosh la-Chachomim (Head of all the Sages) and the "father of the Mishna."
Akiva set the standard of Judaism's strong yet flexible adherence to a tradition which refused to compromise on basic points of the Mosaic Law yet was willing to change with the times. He argued for the liberalization of oppressive rules regarding female purity, the strengthening of rules limiting slavery, and an open attitude toward formerly hated categories of people such as Samaritans and tax-collectors.
Rising from a humble background as a poor shepherd, Akiva was supported by his wife, Rachel, in his studies, from which he emerged as one of the greatest teachers of his age. Akiva was also a supporter of the revolt of Simon Bar Kochba, to whom he gave great credibility when he declared the rebel leader to be the promised Messiah of the Jews. Akiva later died a martyr's death at the hands of the Romans. He is revered in Judaism today both in story and liturgy and is considered by many to be the father of rabbinic Judaism.
Akiva ben Joseph, usually called simply Akiba or Akiva, was of comparatively humble parentage. Akiva was a shepherd (Yeb. 86b) by trade, and was referred to as an am ha'ertz —meaning literally one of the "people of the land" but also a term of derision for an uneducated person. His wife's name was Rachel, the daughter of a wealthy man named Joshua.
At the age of 40 when he was already the father of a large family, Akiva attended the academy of his native town, Lydda, presided over by Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Besides Eliezer, Akiva had other teachers—-principally Joshua ben Hananiah (Ab. R. N. l.c.) and Nahum of Gimzo (Hag. 12a). In reputation he was on equal footing with the great Rabban Gamaliel II, whom he met later. Akiva probably remained in Lydda (R. H. i. 6) as long as Eliezer dwelled there, and then established his own school in Bene Berak, five Roman miles from Jaffa (Sanh. 32b). Akiva also lived for some time at Ziphron, the modern Zafrân, near Hamath.
According to the Talmud, Akiva owed almost everything to his wife Rachel. He was still a mere shepherd when she consented to secret betrothal on the condition that he devote himself to study. When his wealthy father-in-law learned of this betrothal, he drove his daughter from his house and swore that he would never help her while Akiva remained her husband. Akiva and his young wife were so poverty-stricken that the bride had to sell her hair to enable her husband to pursue his studies. However these difficulties only served to bring out Akiva's greatness of character. It is related that once, when a bundle of straw was the only bed they possessed, a poor man came to beg some straw to make a bed for his sick wife. Akiva at once divided with him his scanty possession, remarking to his wife, "Thou seest, my child, there are those poorer than we!" Legend has it that this supposedly poor man turned out to be none other than the prophet Elijah, who had come to earth to test Akiva (Ned. 50a).
By agreement with his wife, Akiva spent 12 years away from her, pursuing his studies under Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah at her expense. Returning at the end of that time, he was just about to enter his wretched home, when he overheard Rachel replying to a neighbor who was bitterly censuring him for his long absence: "If I had my wish, he should stay another 12 years at the academy." Without crossing the threshold, Akiva turned and went back to the academy, returning home only after another 12 years. The second time, however, he came back as a most famous scholar, escorted by a huge throng of disciples, who reverently followed their beloved master. When his poorly clad wife was about to embrace him, some of his students, not knowing who she was, sought to restrain her. But Akiva exclaimed, "Let her alone; for what I am, and for what you are, is hers." (Ned. 50a, Ket. 62b et seq.)
The greatest rabbis of the middle of the second century came from Akiva's school, notably Rabbi Meir, Judah ben Ilai, Simeon ben Yohai, Jose ben Halafta, Eleazar ben Shammai, and Rabbi Nehemiah. Besides these, who all attained great renown, Akiva undoubtedly had many disciples whose names have not been handed down. Their number is variously stated at 12,000 (Gen. R. lxi. 3), 24,000 (Yeb. 62b), and 48,000 (Ned. 50a). These figures are likely exaggerations, but they are also an indication of his unquestioned renown as a teacher.
Akiva and other rabbinic sages reportedly traveled to Rome around the year 95. When they saw the magnificence of the Roman Empire, his companions wept, recalling Rome's victory during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 C.E. Akiva's reaction was more hopeful. If God could be so kind to the evil Romans, he reasoned, He will be even more compassionate to his chosen people of Israel. A similar story is told of Akiva's response to the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem, which the Romans had destroyed at the end of the revolt in 70 C.E. Akiva did not mourn over the destruction of the Temple, but saw them as the fulfillment of prophecy. He reminded his companions that other prophecies concerning its rebuilding and Israel's future glory could only be fulfilled after such destruction had taken place.
Akiva's supported Simon Bar Kochba, the messianic figure who led a major revolt against Rome and briefly established an independent Jewish state (132–135). That the venerable teacher declared the patriot as the promised Jewish Messiah (Yer. Ta'anit, iv. 68d), is clear, but his role in the revolt beyond that is uncertain.
After the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, Akiva was arrested by the Roman authorities either for disobeying a ban against Jews returning to Jerusalem or for teaching the Torah when this activity, too, had been banned. He died imprisoned in Caesarea c. 135. Legends concerning the actual date and manner of Akiva's death are numerous. Jewish sources relate that he was subjected to a Roman torture where his skin was flayed with iron combs. As this was happening, he recited the Shema prayer.
His having supported the apparently false Messiah, however, in no way diminished his reputation, and he remains one of the most honored of the the tannaim—the great rabbinic sages of the early Talmudic period.
Akiva's intellectual capacity was unequaled, and he secured an enduring influence upon his contemporaries and upon posterity.
He is credited with being a rabbi who definitely fixed the canon of the Old Testament books. He protested strongly against the canonicity of certain of the [Apocrypha]]—Ecclesiasticus, for instance (Sanh. x. 1).
Although he forbade the reading of such books publicly in the synagogue service, he had no objection to the private reading of the Apocrypha. His antagonism to the Apocrypha, is apparently related to a desire to undermine the arguments of the Christians—especially Jewish Christians—who drew many of their proofs from the Apocrypha.
Akiva's true genius, however, is shown in his work in the domain of the halakah—Jewish law—both in his systematization of its traditional material and in its further development. It was Akiva who systematized the Mishnah, or halakic codex; the Midrash, or the exegesis of the Torah; and the halakot, the logical amplification of the Mishnah (Yer. SheḲ.)
The Talmud quotes Rabbi Johanan bar Nappaḥa (199–279) relative to Akiva's role in the the composition and editing of the Mishnah and other halakic works: "Our Mishnah comes directly from Rabbi Meir, the Tosefta from R. Nehemiah, the Sifra from R. Judah, and the Sifre from R. Simon; but they all took Akiva for a model in their works and followed him" (Sanh. 86a).
What was Rabbi Akiva like? A worker who goes out with his basket. He finds wheat, he puts it in; barley, he puts it in; spelt, he puts it in; beans, he puts it in; lentils, he puts it 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; he arranged the Torah rings by rings.(Avot deRabbi Natan ch. 18)
Modesty was a favorite theme with Akiba. "He who esteems himself highly on account of his knowledge," he taught, "is like a corpse lying on the wayside. The traveler turns his head away in disgust, and walks quickly by" (Ab. R. N.). Another of his sayings on humility is interesting in that the Gospel of Luke, 14:8-12, is almost literally identical with it: "Take thy place a few seats below thy rank until thou art bidden to take a higher place; for it is better that they should say to thee 'Come up higher' than that they should bid thee 'Go down lower'."
Though modest, when an important matter was concerned, Akiva could not be cowed, as is evidenced by his attitude toward the great Gamaliel II. Convinced of the necessity of a central authority for Judaism, Akiva became a devoted adherent and friend of Gamaliel, who was eventually recognized by Rome as the Jewish patriarch. But Akiva was just as firmly convinced that the power of the patriarch must be limited both by the written and the oral law, the interpretation of which lay in the hands of the learned rabbis. Accordingly, he intentionally acted in ritual matters contrary to the decisions of Gamaliel himself, even in Gamaliel's own house (Tosef., Ber. iv. 12).
Convinced both of the unchangeableness of Holy Scripture and of the necessity for development in Judaism, Akiva succeeded in reconciling these two apparent opposites by means of his remarkable method. The following illustrations will serve to make this clear:
Several of Akiba's well known utterances (Abot, iii. 14, 15) present the essence of his religious conviction. They run:
|“||Everything is foreseen; but freedom [of will] is given to every man.||”|
Akiva insists emphatically on the freedom of the will, to which he allows no limitations. This insistence is in opposition to the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness and depravity of fallen man. He derides those who find excuses for their sins in this supposed innate depravity (ḳid. 81a).
|“||The world is governed by mercy... but the divine decision is made by the preponderance of the good or bad in one's actions.||”|
Akiva teaches that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice (Ḥag. 14a). The idea of justice, however, so strongly dominates Akiva's system that he will not allow God's grace and kindness to be understood as arbitrary. “No pity in judgment!” he insisted.
|“||How favored is man, for he was created after an image; as Scripture says, "for in an image, Elohim made man". (Gen. ix. 6)||”|
Akiva's view of humankind is based upon the principle that man and woman were created not "in the image of God" but "after an image"—after a primordial type; or, philosophically speaking, after an Idea. Strict monotheist that Akiva was, he protested against any comparison of God with the angels.
As to the question concerning the frequent sufferings of the pious and the prosperity of the wicked—-truly a burning one in Akiva's time—-this is answered by the explanation that the pious are punished in this life for their few sins, in order that in the next they may receive only reward; while the wicked obtain in this world all the recompense for the little good they have done, and in the next world will receive only punishment for their misdeeds (Gen. R. xxxiii; PesiḲ ix. 73a). Justice as an attribute of God must also be exemplary for man. "No mercy in [civil] justice!" is his basic principle in the doctrine concerning law (Ket. ix. 3), and he does not conceal his opinion that even the action of the Jews of the Exodus in taking the spoil of the Egyptians is to be condemned (Gen. R. xxviii. 7).
He recognizes as the chief and greatest principle of Judaism the command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. xix. 18; Sifra, ḳedoshim, iv.). However, he does not maintain, as Hillel reportedly did, that the execution of this command is equivalent to the performance of the whole Law (Mek., Shirah, 3, 44a, ed. I.H. Weiss). For, in spite of his broad-minded philosophy, Akiba was an extremely strict and nationalistic Jew.
Likewise, Akiva's doctrine concerning the Messiah was the realistic and thoroughly Jewish one, as his declaration that Bar Kochba was the Messiah shows. He limited the messianic age to 40 years, as being within the scope of a man's life—similar to the reigns of David and Solomon—against the usual conception of a millennium (Midr. Teh. xc. 15). He distinguished, however, between the messianic age and the future world. This latter will come after the destruction of this world, lasting for 1,000 years (R. H. 31a). To the future world all Israel will be admitted, with the exception of the generation of the wilderness and the ten lost tribes (Sanh. xi. 3, 110b). Gentiles would also be admitted, they would be subjected to the judgment of the Jewish Messiah-king (Ḥag. 14a).
A man like Akiva would naturally be the subject of many legends, as the following examples show.
The following story gives a picture of Akiva's activity as the father of talmudic Judaism.
When Moses ascended into heaven, he saw God occupied in making little crowns for the letters of the Torah. Upon his inquiry as to what these might be for, he received the answer, "There will come a man, named Akiva ben Joseph, who will deduce halakot from every little curve and crown of the letters of the Law." Moses' request to be allowed to see this man was granted; but he became much dismayed as he listened to Akiva's teaching, for he could not understand it. (Men. 29b)
Akiva's martyrdom gave rise to many legends. One story relates that when he was about to be executed, Akiva recited his prayers calmly, though suffering agonies; and when his torturer asked him whether he was a sorcerer, Akiva replied, "I am no sorcerer; but I rejoice at the opportunity now given to me to love my God 'with all my life,' seeing that I have hitherto been able to love Him only 'with all my means' and 'with all my might.'" (Yer. Ber. ix. 14b, and somewhat modified in Bab. 61b).
Another legend tells how Elijah, accompanied by Akiva's faithful servant, secretly entered the prison where Akiva's body lay. Priest though he was, Elijah took up the corpse—-for the dead body of such a saint could not defile—-and, escorted by many bands of angels, bore the body by night to Cæsarea. When they arrived there, they entered a cavern which contained a bed, table, chair, and lamp, and deposited Akiva's body there. As soon as they left it, the cavern closed of its own accord, so that one has found it since (Bet ha-Midrash, vi. 27, 28; ii. 67, 68).
Akiva's success as a teacher put an end to his poverty; for his wealthy father-in-law now rejoiced to acknowledge a son-in-law so distinguished as Akiva. There were, however, other circumstances which made a wealthy man of the former shepherd lad.
One relates that Akiva, authorized by certain rabbis, borrowed a large sum of money from a prominent Gentile woman. As bondsmen for the loan, Akiva named God and the sea. Akiva grew sick, however, and could not return the money at the appointed time. Meanwhile, an imperial princess suddenly became insane and threw a chest containing great treasures into the sea. It was cast upon the shore close to the house of Akiva's creditor, so that when she went to the shore to demand of the sea the amount she had lent Akiva, the ebbing tide left boundless riches at her feet. (Commentaries to Ned. l.c.).
Once, being unable to find any sleeping accommodation in a certain town, Akiva was compelled to pass the night outside its walls. Without a murmur he resigned himself to this hardship. During the night, a lion devoured his donkey, a cat killed the rooster whose crowing was to herald the dawn to him, and the wind extinguished his candle. The only remark Akiva made was, "This, likewise, must be for a good purpose!" When morning dawned, he learned how true his words were. A large band of robbers had fallen upon the town and carried its inhabitants into captivity. Akiva had escaped because his abiding place had not been noticed in the darkness, and neither beast nor fowl had betrayed him (Ber. 60b).
Akiva once met a coal-black man carrying a heavy load of wood and running with the speed of a horse. Akiva stopped him and inquired: "My son, wherefore dost thou labor so hard? If thou art a slave and hast a harsh master, I will purchase thee of him. If it be out of poverty that thou doest thus, I will care for thy requirements."
The man answered: "It is for neither of these. I am dead and am compelled because of my great sins to build my funeral pyre every day. In life I was a tax-gatherer and oppressed the poor. Let me go at once, lest the demon torture me for my delay."
Akiva asked: "Is there no help for thee?"
"Almost none," replied the deceased, "for I understand that my sufferings will end only when I have a pious son. When I died, my wife was pregnant; but I have little hope that she will give my child proper training."
Akiva found the man's former home and asked the neighbors about his family. They expressed their opinion that both the deceased and his wife deserved to inhabit the infernal regions for all time. Moreover the wife had not even initiated her child into the Abrahamic covenant by giving him his Bar Mitzvah. Akiva sought the son of the tax-collector and labored long and assiduously in teaching him the word of God. After fasting 40 days, and praying to God to bless his efforts, he heard a heavenly voice asking, "Wherefore givest thou thyself so much trouble concerning this one?" He immediately replied: "Because he is just the kind to work for."
Akiva persevered until his pupil was able to officiate as reader in the synagogue; and when there for the first time he recited the prayer, "Bless ye the Lord!" the father suddenly appeared to Akiva, and overwhelmed him with thanks for his deliverance from the pains of hell through the merit of his son (Kallah 4b).
Akiva is one of the most quoted sages in the Mishnah and the Talmud. His attitude helped set the basic tradition of Judaism to remain steadfast in adherence to the spirit of the Law while not remaining a slave to its letter. He argued effectively for the relaxation of oppressive restrictions against women and established the principle that Judaism could change with the times even as it remained faithful to the Law of Moses. He helped to firmly establish the long-hold Pharisaic principle that the Oral Law, as interpreted in each age by the rabbinic sages, held equal authority with the Written Law. Thus, both Reform and Orthodox Judaism look to Akiva as one of the greatest of the early rabbinic sages. In supporting Simon Bar Kochba as the Messiah, Akiva also established the principle that Jews can make serious mistakes and yet retain their good standing and reputation in the Jewish community—a principle which enabled the Jews to retain a relatively cohesive tradition over the centuries compared to their Christian and Islamic counterparts. His name is invoked frequently in Jewish literature and liturgy, particularly the Passover Seder, where he is prominently mentioned.
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