Scholars in Jewish studies refer to the great Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, who lived during the first and second centuries of the Common Era, as one of the founders of the Talmudic tradition. Akiva rose from a humble background as an illiterate shepherd to become one of the most renowned sages in Jewish history. In addition, Akiva taught others who went on to make their own significant contributions to Jewish religion, ethics, and law.
Here are capsule portraits of five of Akiva’s most illustrious students, all of whom kept Jewish learning alive through the dark times of Roman persecution:
1. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was foremost among Akiva’s students. He remained faithful to his studies with Akiva, even visiting his teacher in prison after the occupying Roman forces had thrown him into jail for continuing to publicly teach the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva went on to meet martyrdom at the hands of the conquerors. Shimon bar Yochai then became one of five prominent scholars—along with the other four profiled here—to receive official rabbinic ordination under the supervision of Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba, in further defiance of Roman edict.
After the death of the Emperor Hadrian, Shimon was one of a few rabbis who gathered at Yavne to discuss how to deal with Roman persecution in the days ahead. Shimon advocated bitter resistance. A spy overheard his words, and Shimon and his son fled to the wilderness to escape death, hiding in a cave for 13 years. Shimon later founded his own school and became an ambassador to Rome, persuading the government to ease prohibitions against Jewish observance. Tradition attributes authorship of the mystical Sefer ha-Zohar to Shimon, although later scholarship identified the author as medieval mystic Moses de Leόn.
2. Rabbi Meir
Rabbi Meir exceeded even Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in earning the admiration of those who attended Rabbi Akiva’s academy. Meir, whose name references his ability to bring enlightenment, expanded on the work of Akiva by creating a listing by subject of the Halachic laws incorporated into the Mishna (the early portion of the Talmud) in the second century.
After the murder of Akiva, Meir went into Babylonian exile, later returning to assist in rebuilding the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of law in the Holy Land. Meir’s scholarship was so renowned that fellow rabbis said that watching him study Torah was akin to observing someone break mountains and grind them to dust. The Talmud honors his intellectual dexterity by noting that he could produce 150 reasons why an object should be considered ritually pure, and another 150 to demonstrate the impurity of the same object. His influence throughout the compilation of the Talmud is so prominent that traditional authorities regard any law given without attribution as emanating from Rabbi Meir.
3. Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai
Rabbi Yehudah was, with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the sages in conference at Yavne to discuss the appropriate response to the Romans. The Babylonian Talmud relates that, because the spy reported back that Yehudah had praised the Romans’ construction of infrastructure in Palestine and had argued for a conciliatory stance toward them, they named him the leading spokesman for the Jewish people.
In any case, Yehudah was known during his lifetime for his angelic temperament as well as his devotion to learning, teaching, and Shabbat observance. Some authorities have attributed a large part of the compilation of the Sifra, also known as the Law of the Priests, to Yehudah, although Maimonides and others disputed this attribution.
4. Rabbi Yose ben Halafta
Another member of the group that convened at Yavne after Akiva’s death, Rabbi Yose (known as “the Galilite,” or “one from Galilee”) is said to have steered his opinions into a middle course between those of Rabbis Yehudah and Shimon. The Babylonian Talmud states that Yose remained silent during the conversation about a response to Rome, and that therefore the Romans decreed he should be exiled. While there are many rabbis in the Talmud named “Yose,” this particular Yose is referred to without his patronymic, indicating his status as one of the first tannaim, or early sages.
When there is a rabbinic dispute in the pages of the Talmud, Yose’s opinion typically prevails. Among the most profound sayings attributed to Yose in the Talmud is his description of why God is called ha-Makom (“the Place”). Yose states that this is because God represents the place in which the world exists, yet the world is not “His place.”
5. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua
Rabbi Elazar’s students were particularly known for their dedication to studying with him. Tradition says that six of them often crowded into only a couple of feet of space to listen to him. He was beloved for his warm heart and for his emphasis on respecting teachers, colleagues, and students. Among the sayings attributed to Elazar is one that instructs teachers to always hold the honor of their pupils in as high esteem as they do their own.
A Midrash recounts how Elazar once encountered a Roman who had washed up on a beach after a shipwreck. Others ignored the Roman’s pleas for help, because the Jews at that time despised their Roman conquerors. Yet Elazar gave the man money, clothing, and food, and went with him on his way towards home. Later, this refugee became emperor of Rome and instituted harsh anti-Jewish legislation. Elazar traveled to Rome to offer 4,000 dinars if the new ruler would rescind his edicts. The emperor recognized his rescuer, sent him home with rich gifts, and annulled the harsh decrees.
Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (“Judah the Prince”), the editor of the final version of the Mishna, studied at one time or another with each of these five illustrious rabbis. They and their teacher Akiva are among the most frequently mentioned sages in the entire Talmud.