Akiva was an uneducated shepherd until the age of 30. He began studying Torah with the encouragement and heroic support of his wife, Rachel, the daughter of a wealthy Jerusalemite who agreed to marry him if he devoted himself to learning Torah.
Akiva was committed but doubted his ability. He was inspired by the sight of a rock hollowed out by the steady dripping of water. “If water, which is soft, could wear away a hard stone, surely the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, can make an impression on my soft heart” (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan).
Rabbi Akiva was a Tanna, one of the initial teachers of the Mishna in the 1st and 2nd century of the Common Era. During the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), sages under the leadership of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai fled to Yavneh to establish an academy of Torah learning. Rabbi Yochanan passed the leadership to Rabban Gamliel. Akiva went to Yavneh and studied under two of Rabban Gamliel’s students: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, and Nachum Ish Gamzu.
Akiva’s greatness was recognized early and when Rabban Gamliel was briefly deposed as the leader of the academy, the still young Akiva was considered as a successor (Berachot 27b).
After twelve years of study, Akiva returned home with 12,000 disciples. Overhearing his wife tell a neighbor that she would happily wait another 12 years so that Akiva could continue learning, he returned to the academy and 12 years later, had acquired 24,000 disciples.
Akiva was the first rabbi to declare that the entire Torah came directly from heaven and taught the concept of Hakares Hatov: a person should always say, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for the good.”
Rabbi Akiva’s philosophy captured the partnership between man and God that is central to Judaism: “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, yet everything depends on the abundance of good deeds (Pirkei Avos 3:19).
Nahum Glatzer summarized his impact:
Akiva perfected the method of biblical interpretation called “Midrash,” whereby legal, sacral, and ethical tenets that had been sanctioned by Jewish oral tradition were viewed as being implied in Scripture. Thus, Scripture, in addition to its overt meaning, is understood as replete with implied teaching; it is, in fact, all-encompassing. The “Written Law” of Scripture and the “Oral Law” of tradition are ultimately one….In addition, he collected the oral traditions that regulated the conduct of Jewish personal, social, and religious life and arranged them systematically.”
His work inspired subsequent editors of the Mishnah and the Shulchan Arukh.
Orchard of Pardes
A fearless seeker of the deepest meanings for the Torah, Rabbi Akiva once led three Tannaim (Shimon ben Zoma, Shimon ben Azai, and Elisha ben Abuya) on a journey through Pardes, which either means “the orchard” or refers to the four levels of interpreting the Torah (Pshat, Remes, Drash and Sod). Only Akiva returned unscathed (Hag. 14b): Ben Azai died, Ben Zoma, lost his reason, and Ben Abuya became a heretic.
Bar Kochba Affair
Rabbi Akiva supported rebellion Bar Kochba led against the Romans (132-135 C.E.). He saw Bar Kochba as the Messiah, in the context of a man who would wage battle and regain Jewish sovereignty. Some rabbis openly ridiculed Akiva for his belief and the Talmud records one rabbi as saying, “Akiva, grass will grow in your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.”
Akiva explained the verse, “a star will come from Jacob” as “Kochba will come from Jacob” since Bar Kochba’s name literally means, “Son of a Star.” After initial victories, the more powerful Romans prevailed, and the Jewish people suffered casualties both physical and religious. Hundreds of thousands were killed and restrictions were placed on Torah study. After the rebellion was quashed, other rabbis called Bar Kochba Bar Koziba, “son of deceit” or “son of disappointment.”
The later years of Akiva’s life give a puzzling sense of the degree that humans can understand God’s justice. Many of Akiva’s 24,000 disciples died in what is termed a plague but is also seen as caused by their dissension.
Akiva died a martyr for ignoring the Roman decree against Jewish study. He was flayed alive with metal combs according to tradition. As he died in agony, he recited the Shema to fulfil the commandment to “love the Lord you God with all your soul.”
Seeing his gruesome death at the hands of the Romans, Moses, in heaven, asked God “So much Torah and this is his reward?” God responded “Be silent, for such is my decree” (Men. 29b).
Rabbi Akiva provides one model for Jewish learning: a poor person who starts late and transforms his life through learning. His numerous disciples showed the power of Rabbinic Judaism after the despairing loss of the Temple. His passionate desire for Jewish self-rule and his mistaken understanding of Bar Kochba’s mission led to national suffering. His martyrdom showed the strength of Jewish practice against the miltarily insurmountable Roman Empire.
Like Moses, three sages lived to age 120: Hillel, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, and Rabbi Akiva (Sukka 28a). While Akiva’s death caused “fountains of wisdom to be stopped up” (Sot. 49a-b), the tradition continued for “when Akiva dies, Judah ha-Nasi (Rabbi) was born (Kid 7a-b).
Sources: Judaism 101.
Louis Ginzberg, “Akiba Ben Joseph,” JewishEncyclopedia.com.
Adin Steinsaltz, s, (Basic Books, 2006).
Ronald L. Eisenberg, Essential Figures in the Talmud, (Jason Aronson, 2012).
Ari Goldstein, “The Life of Rabbi Akiva,” Sefaria.
Nahum N. Glatzer, “Akiva ben Yosef,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (May 3, 2021).
Hila Ratzabi, “Who Was Rabbi Akiva?” My Jewish Learning.