Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, who was born in the year 40 of the Common Era and executed by the Romans in approximately 135 C.E., remains one of the most extraordinary human beings and role models in all of Jewish history. Akiva was one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. Scholars often refer to him as the “father” of the Mishna, the core of the Talmudic learning that has come down to us. He established an academy where he taught according to his midrashic method of elucidating legal and ethical principles by drawing them from implications in the Torah. Akiva’s students revered him, as have numerous Jews and non-Jews all the way back from his day to our modern world.
What follows is a summary of only a few of Akiva’s outstanding qualities that defined him in his time, and in our own:
- His teachings focus on love. The basis of Akiva’s teachings is the verse in Leviticus 19:18, in which we are commanded to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. He instructed his students that this verse is central to the Torah’s meaning and importance in human life. Akiva was widely known to distribute tzedakah (“charity” in English translation) freely to all those who were in need, and he directed the community’s efforts to provide for those who were underserved. Akiva considered the Song of Songs, attributed to King Solomon, to be the holiest book in the Hebrew scripture in that it describes the bonds of love between a man and a woman in such as way that it elevates the metaphor to also describe God’s love for all of humanity.
- He believed steadfastly in the goodness of God. Rabbi Akiva kept his focus on the love of God in good times and bad. One of his favorite teachings was that everything that happens is ultimately for our good. One Talmudic story tells how Akiva spent the night in the woods only to have his donkey eaten by a wild beast, his rooster slain by a cat, and his candle flame snuffed out by the wind. Dawn showed him that all the inhabitants of a nearby city had fallen prey to robbers and become enslaved. The fact that Akiva’s animals had been killed meant that they could not have made noise that would have drawn the robbers to him, nor did candlelight betray his location. What some would have viewed as a disaster had saved his life. A far more poignant and tragic story concerns the end of Akiva’s life. He was about to be tortured to death by the Romans for his persistence in teaching Torah after it had been forbidden. His incredulous students asked him why – even at that point – he continued to praise God. Akiva responded that he had been waiting all his life to demonstrate how strong his love was for God, and that he would not waste the opportunity. He died with the traditional words of Jewish faith, proclaiming belief in one God, on his lips.
- He underwent a remarkable personal transformation. Akiva was born into a family in need and made his living as a shepherd, remaining illiterate into early middle age. As a young man, he was so scornful of Torah scholars that he made bitter fun of them. His wife, Rachel, whom he had married in secret to avoid the wrath of her wealthy father, saw his potential to become a great sage. She insisted that he first learn the alphabet, then the basics of Torah, and so he became a student at the age of 40. Akiva went on to spend a dozen years away from home in further study. When he returned, he overheard his wife tell a neighbor that if he could learn even more, she was willing to part from him again. Akiva then turned back to study for an additional 12 years, becoming the most learned and respected man of his day.
- He devoted his life to studying and established a leading center of scholarship in the Holy Land. Akiva’s academy was situated near present-day Tel Aviv, in the town of Bene Beraq. Tradition has it that at the height of his influence, he taught some 24,000 students, numbering most of the major rabbinic figures of their generation – including Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai – among them. Akiva developed his style of exegetical inquiry into the biblical interpretation method we now call “midrash.” He drew connections between the traditional practices based in the oral law and verses in the Bible, creating a flexible and cogent system that grew into what we now know as the Mishna.
- He persevered. Akiva was a loyal supporter of the rebellion of Shimon Bar-Kokhba against the Roman occupation of Judea. Akiva even declared that Bar-Kokhba was the Messiah, the divinely inspired political leader whom tradition said would arise to champion the cause of Jewish freedom and security. But the Romans soundly defeated Bar-Kokhba and his supporters when Akiva was a very elderly man. Yet instead of quietly fading into the background after this disaster for his people, Akiva assembled a scant five students to teach them the Torah. Ancient wisdom has it that it was this small group that became the foundation for the rebuilding of Judean scholarship over the next few generations. Akiva may well have known in his heart that the flame of learning he tended would one day do what no political revolt could: It led to a more long-lasting defeat of Rome in that the rebirth and flourishing of Jewish civilization continues today.