Why is a Detailed and True Biography of R. Akiva Missing? by Alexander Zephyr (ch.3 in "Akiva and Ephraim")
Â Why is a detailed and true biography of R. Akiva Â missing? Instead, we are reduced to reading the same legends and stories over and over again: How he met his wife Rachel, daughter of the rich and respected Kalba Sabua who employed him as a shepherd of his flock, the same as Jacob, Moses and David before him; How the episode with the stone worn away by drops of water changed his life; How his wife was dedicated to his learning and sent him to the Yeshiva of the great Rabbi Eliezer; And how from having been an illiterate and ignorant person this poor shepherd (Yebamoth 86b) become the most famous teacher in Judaea, one of the greatest authorities on Jewish Tradition and Law. It is hard to believe that at the age of forty R. Akiva had not even known the Hebrew alphabet and had not been able to write his own name.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â "Why would a man of such depth, intelligence and creative genius never step foot into the vibrant study halls until his middle-age years? He never felt even the slightest sense of curiosity as to what Torah wisdom was all about?Â How can we reconcile Akiva the shepherd's violent fantasies of abusing the rabbis with our gentle, softhearted image of Rabbi Akiva? - wonders R. David Silverberg in his Article 'Rabbi Akiva's Students: What Went Wrong?'
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â After careful and thorough painstaking research we have found here and there some pieces of information concerning theÂ personality ofÂ R. Akiva. If we put the pieces together they may shed more light on the said questions.
Having been an ignoramus during his first forty years, and never having studied any religious text, as he later confessed to his students, his attitude towards the rabbis had been hostile to the point that he wanted to bite them so badly as to crush their bones. He used to say: 'O that I would find a Torah scholar and bite him like a donkey' (Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, 49b). He was ignored by the students at the Academy and the leading rabbis for a long period of time, well over a decade. It is known that R. Akiva's teacher, R. Eliezer, 'was very severe and somewhat domineering with his pupils and colleagues, a characteristic which led occasionally to unpleasant encounters' (Sifra, Shemini 1:33; Erubin 68a; Hagigah 3b; Megillah 25b). Who knows how many such encounters R. Akiva had had during the years of his initial studies?
What emotions could possibly motivate a forty year old, illiterate and ignorant shepherd, who had been constantly abused, rejected, and humiliated by his fellow students and teachers? His animosity towards learned men of Torah, may have involved feelings ofÂ revengefulness, hatred and jealousy.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â It is known that R. Akiva's masters were R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. As soon as he become the head of the Academy at Bnei Brak and reached influence and prominence among the rabbinical religious aristocracy and scholarly social hierarchy, R. Akiva consistently disputed his teachers by innovative methods of interpretation on matters of Tradition and Jewish Law. 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.
There are many stories in the Talmud speaking of numerous disputations of R. Akiva versus sages of the older generation, especially against his own teacher and mentor, R. Eliezer, and his conservatism. The urge 'to bite' Torah scholars and revenge the abuses and humiliations of the earlier years in his learning career motivated R. Akiva all his life. He was a descendant of General Sisera, a Biblical enemy of the Israelites. R Akiva inherited his bravery and militarism manifested in ardent support of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and armed challenge against the Roman Empire. He sent his spiritual army of 24,000 Torah scholars to fight the Romans to the death for the freedom and independence of Judaea. As Maimonides wrote, R Akiva was a 'vessel carrier' for Bar Kokhba, who disseminated Messianic ideas among the nations and become the official ideologue of the Rebellion. By the proclamation of Bar Kokhba as the Jewish Messiah, R. Akiva legitimized the uprising and made himself Â the spiritual leader of it.
"In this world, one who is a dog can become a lion, and one who is a lion can become a dog" (Midrash: Ruth Rabbah 3:2).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Yes, it is true; all kinds of transformation are possible for a man in this world. But, it is also true, that the luggage of moral, ethical, and innate traits of personal character, no matter how they change with time, remain the private property of the new man. Every honest man can confirm this. As the Talmudic wisdom says, 'If a peasant becomes king, he will not take his basket off his shoulders' (Megilah 7b).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The same luggage of personal values, the 'basket of a peasant King', R. Akiva brought with him together with his greatness as the Spiritual leader of the nation and the most influential Teacher of Israel. Â According to the customary conception of the Pharisees, one would imagine him as being a typically proud and arrogant rabbi, looking down with contempt upon the common people. The rabbinical sources however do not confirm this but say that R. Akiva left the image of a good, kind, and humble man. Nevertheless, the Jewish Encyclopedia indicates otherwise. Rabbi Eliezer lived at Lydda (Yad. iv. 3; Sanh. 32b); R. Tarfon taught there (B. M. 49b); and it was also the scene of R. Akiva's activity (R. H. i. 6). Responsa from Lydda are often mentioned (Tosef., Mi . vii. [viii.], end). Despite the reputation which the teachers at the academy enjoyed, there seems to have been a certain feeling of animosity against them in consequence of their arrogance, and it was therefore denied that they possessed any deep knowledge of the Law (comp. Pes. 62b; Yer. Pes. 32a; Yer. Sanh. 18c, d; Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." i. 60, iii. 16).Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From Talmudic stories about R. Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Trial of R. Eliezar we are going to further demonstrate the negative role R. Akiva played in those events, the influence of his past, the dark and secretive traits of his distinguished character and how these affected the tragic fate of his 24,000 disciples.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â One of the earliest stories of R. Akiva's humiliation by the earlier generation of sages happened in the town of Jericho, when Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, hosted a gathering of scholars. The guests were served dates, and Rabban Gamliel honored young scholar Rabbi Akiva with reciting the brachah achronah, the blessing after eating. Meanwhile, Rabban Gamliel and the other sages disagreed about which blessing should be said after eating dates. The young scholar quickly made the blessing in accordance with the opinion of the other rabbis.
'Akiva!' exclaimed Rabban Gamliel. 'When will you stop butting your head into Halachic disagreements?'
'Our master,' Rabbi Akiva replied calmly, 'it is true that you and your colleagues disagree in this matter. But did you not teach us that the Law is decided according to the majority opinion?' (Berachot 37a). Even at this early stage of his career R. Akiva 'fell in love' with majority rules. Instead of conducting a proper analysis and examining the issue at hand to find the right solution, R. Akiva chose the easier way of pleasing the majority and avoiding disagreement and conflict. Rabban Gamliel was upset that R. Akiva decided issues that were beyond his expertise and knowledge. Hence, his didactic tone, 'When will you stop butting your head into Halachic disagreements?' It seems that similar incidents that had displeased and irritated the President of the Sanhedrin had happened on other few occasions.
Very little has been found about the years of his childhood and youth. Even this is shrouded in legend and the subject of many controversies.Â
"Other than the barest of details, we lack any thorough account of his life. What we have, rather, are snapshots, stories about R. Akiva that appear here and there in the rabbinic literature. Pieced together like parts of a puzzle, they allow us a glimpse of his unusual personality, most notably a singular character trait: His extraordinary optimism" (Rabbi Meir Soloveichik).
"The complete biography of R. Akiva ben Joseph, based upon authentic sources, will probably never be written, despite the rich mass of material gathered by rabbinical sources. Only an incomplete portrait can be drawn of the great scholar who marked out a path for rabbinical Judaism for almost two thousand years" (Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We all familiar with the story of Rachel, the wife of R. Akiva and their romantic love story. She was the daughter of Jerusalem's wealthiest man, Kalba Sabua and played a role in the husband's achievements. There is a story, related byÂ Rashi, how R. Akiva married the wife of Rufus. "At the end of R. Akiva's life, there was one Roman personage whose name was Rufus, brutal Roman procurator of Judaea, and he would often debate matters of Torah with R. Akiva; R. Akiva always bested him. The Roman personage felt humiliated and, upon his return home, told his wife. She said to him: 'I will tempt R. Akiva and cause him to stumble!' She was a very beautiful woman and, coming before R. Akiva when they were alone, revealed her [naked] thigh before him. Rabbi Akiva spat, laughed and wept. She said to him, 'Why did you act in such a [strange] manner?' He said to her: 'I will explain two of my three activities: I spat because you came from a fetid drop [of sperm, of which I had to remind myself]. I wept because in the end your beauty will decay beneath the earth.' But why he laughed, he did not want to tell her. Only after she entreated him many times did he explain that it was because she would eventually convert to Judaism and he would marry her. Whereupon she said to him: 'You mean there is the possibility of repentance?' He said there was, and after her husband died, she married R. Akiva and brought him the great wealth of Turnus Rufus" (Kesuvos 62b-63a). She was the third wife of R. Akiva.
The truthfulness of this Talmudic story is very problematic. Just the fact that R. Akiva married the wife of the Procurator Rufus after his death, causes the reader to shake his head in perplexity. Other accounts tells us that it was the Roman Procurator of Judaea, Rufus, who arrested R. Akiva and sentenced him to a torturous death. One story excludes the other.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Did Rabbi Akiva have children? The Talmudic sources say, Yes. In Tractate Moed Katan 21b it mentions that his sons died during his life time. One of his sons was Rabbi Shimon (Yalkut Shimoni Shmot 18:171). Some scholars suggest that Rabbi Yehoshua was also a son of R. Akiva (Shvuot 6a; Seder Hadorot) but other Talmudic sources prove this wrong saying that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha was not the son of R. Akiva (Tosfot; Shabbat 150a).
In the Talmud R. Akiva is referred to as 'Head of all the Sages'. He is considered one of the earliest founders of Rabbinical Judaism and his name is the seventh most frequently mentioned Sage in the Mishnah.
He was the son of Joseph, from a family of converts, linked in genealogical lineage to General Sisera, captain of the army of Hazor (Gittin 57b; Sanhedrin 96b) and to the well known personage Haman and even had partial ethnicity from Amalek (Rav Nissim Gaon commentary to Berakhot 27b).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The exact years of his birth or death are unknown. One source gives the years of his live c. 50-135 CE, the other c. 40-137 CE. Many scholars think that R. Akiva lived for 120 years in the manner of Moses, Hillel the Elder,Â and Yochanan Ben Zakkai. The idea of this is to equate him with these famous giants of the Bible and Judaism (Menachot 29b; Yalkut Shimoni; Sifrei # 357). This is Midrashic material, not historical reality. We know from history that R. Akiva was killed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (118-138 CE). If he was born in 40-50 CE, the years of his life are easily estimated to be in the 80s, not in the 120s. In order to count his years of life as 120, he would need to have been born in 15 CE and die in 135 CE.
Legends concerning the actual date and manner of R. Akiva's death are numerous and unreliable. Some authors (Howell Toy and Louis Ginsburg, Jewish Encyclopedia) even advise us to disregard them as being without historical foundation. It is said that he died in Caesarea in 135or 136 CE, subjected to Roman torture where his skin was flayed with iron combs. As this was happening, he recited the Shema prayer. From other sources we learn that he died in 132 CE after several years of imprisonment (Sanhedrin 12a).
The year 135 CE is most likely the actual date of his death because there is a Talmudic tradition saying that R. Judah the Prince was born in the same year and even on the same day that R. Akiva died a martyr's death. There is a suggestion that this happened as a result of Divine Providence: God had granted the Jewish People another leader of great stature to succeed R. Akiva (Mishna Chagiga 2:2). Rebbi or Rabbeinu HaKadosh (our Master, the Holy One) was the only Tanna (early Torah sage) known as 'Our Holy Teacher' due to his deep piety.
Another point confirming the death of R. Akiva in the year 135 CE or even later, is the fact that he revoked his proclamation of Bar Kokhba as the Jewish Messiah after the incident in Bethar when Bar Kokhba killed the righteous R. Eleazar from Modiin, immediately followed by the Roman attack and killing of Bar Kokhba himself. These events happened in the summer (9 of Av) 135 CE.
The reason for R. Akiva's arrest by the Roman authorities is also not specified. Some say that he was arrested for disregarding Roman laws forbidding teaching the Torah; others say that he was charged as the spiritual leader and ardent supporter of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
There is also an opinion that following the failure of Bar Kokhba's revolt, the Romans prohibited the public study of Torah, functioning of the Sanhedrin and subsidiary religious courts, circumcision, observance of Sabbath, celebrating Jewish holidays, gathering in synagogues and other ritual practices. Rabbi Akiva defied these orders, and was imprisoned. The Roman officer Tornos Rufus sentenced him to death. What is important to note here is the suggestion that the Romans initiated religious persecutions against the Jews in the aftermath of the crashed rebellion.
The Encyclopedia JudaicaÂ ('Bar Kokhba', Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem) is of the same opinion: 'In the years following the revolt, Hadrian discriminated against all Judeo-Christian sects, but the worst persecution was directed against religious Jews. He made anti-religious decrees forbidding Torah study, Sabbath observance, circumcision, Jewish courts, meeting in synagogues and other ritual practices. Many Jews assimilated and many sages and prominent men were martyred including Rabbi Akiva and the rest of the Asara Harugei Malchut (ten martyrs). This age of persecution lasted throughout the remainder of Hadrian's reign, until 138 C.E.'
There is also an opinion that R. Akiva was arrested and executed by the Romans in the aftermath of the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt. After brutally crushing the revolt in 135 CE and devastating the Jewish People, Hadrian attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions. He prohibited teaching the Torah law, Sabbath observance, gathering in the synagogues, religious courts, the Jewish calendar, and he executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremoniously burned on the Temple Mount. In effect, he decided to 'solve the Jewish problem' once and for all.
In addition, Hadrian abolished circumcision, which was considered by the Romans and Greeks as a form of bodily mutilation and hence "barbaric". The timing of this Imperial decree may have been well before the Revolt as many sources indicate.
If R. Akiva was apprehended and kept in prison for several years and executed before the Revolt, then the reason for his arrest may have been for arousing and organizing the Revolt and being the spiritual leader of it. From the information above it is evident that religious prohibition laws were issued by the Romans after the Revolt. Even if he was arrested during the Revolt and executed at its end in 135 or 136 CE, he still could not have been charged with defiance of the Roman Laws prohibiting teaching the Torah, because the time of their issue was in the aftermath of the Revolt. Although officially theJewish guideline would lead us to believe that R. Akiva was arrested and executed on religious grounds, we think that the real charges against him by the Roman Authorities were mainly political ones as the ardent supporter of, and participant in, the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Just for declaring Bar Kokhba the Messiah, King of Israel, would have been enough for the Romans to arrest R. Akiva for a capital crime and sentence him to torturous death. By acknowledging Bar Kokhba as God's Messiah, R. Akiva had raised the flag of rebellion against Rome. After that, nothing could have prevented approaching disaster for the Jewish People. This declarative act alone served not only as a religious manifesto concerning the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies but primarily as a political rebellion against the Roman Empire and Emperor Hadrian in particular. It was an act of open defiance and military challenge to the Emperor and to the Imperial power of Rome. The Roman Government in Judaea had sufficient intelligence sources to learn about the popular Messianic Movement of the Jews, the announcement of R. Akiva that Bar Kokhba was God's appointed Messiah, and what effect this revelation was having on the Jewish People and on surrounding nations. Although the exact date of this proclamation is unknown, it most likely happened a few years before the Revolt. The Roman authorities could hardly have tolerated this situation because it threatened their political system. They may have tried to catch R. Akiva and Bar Kokhba, those two famous Judean leaders, and execute them.
It is important to remember that most of the information aboutÂ R. Akiva, Bar Kokhba, and their contemporaries and the events of the Jewish Revolt of 132-135 CE have came to us from Talmudic and MedrashicÂ sources. These date from generations after the events. There is a trend in Rabbinical Literature to change some of the facts of R. Akiva's involvement in the Bar Kokhba Revolt to the extent of saying that he had no part in it whatsoever. Concerning his extensive travels abroad, these authors point out, that they were not politically motivated to enlist aid, collect money and weapons or to agitate and incite the Jews of the Diaspora for the upcoming Rebellion, but rather R. Akiva travelled outside Palestine for purely religious purposes, particularly to establish the times of the New Moon and the Leap Year. This was needed in order to extend the authority of the Nasi (the Palestinian Patriarch) over the whole of the Diaspora and ensure the correct observance of religious holidays at the same times. They say that the traditional passages about R. Akiva's proclamation of Bar Kokhba as the Jewish Messiah are not historical evidence, thereby removing the name of R. Akiva entirely from any connection to Bar Kokhba.
The political activities of R. Akiva against the Romans inside of Palestine as well as abroad, did not miss Roman attention. There were more than enough spies planted by the brutal Governor of Judaea, Tineius Rufus, among the Jews and the other inhabitants of Judaea. A good illustration of this is the story recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33a, about a meeting and a discussion concerning the Roman Authorities that took place among the three disciples of R. Akiva. These three were R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon. This secret conversation became known to Romans. The Sages were not aware that their secret disputation had been overheard by a certain young man, Judah ben Gerim. At one time a disciple of Rabbi Shimon, Judah ben Gerim later turned spy for the Romans. This treacherous man reported the conversation of the Sages to the Roman authorities. At once they decreed honor and rank for Rabbi Yehudah for speaking favorably of them, exile for Rabbi Jose for failing to do so, and death for Rabbi Shimon, who had dared to challenge them. There were many planted spies, such as Judah ben Gerim, among the Judeans.
The Secret Â IntelligenceÂ Service of the Roman Government in Judaea was to haunt R. Akiva and his closest circle of disciples and seek to bring them to Roman justice which most certainly meant a cruel execution. R. Akiva could not openly carry on in front of the Roman Authorities his everyday politico-Messianic activities as the avid supporter of Bar Kokhba the Messiah, and as the spiritual leader of the Revolt. The Romans would not have wasted much time in arresting and executing all the leadership of the Revolt, if they could have found them. All the organizational structure of the Revolt, and its military and spiritual leaders, went underground and conducted their revolutionary business through numerous secret networks of trustful and faithful members.
Was R. Akiva on the run from the Romans, who wanted to arrest and execute him as the main instigator and spiritual leader of the Revolt?
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav thinks so. He analyses the Talmudic story of Berakoth 60b about R. Akiva traveling and comes to the conclusion that the essence of this narrative is simply confirms that R. Akiva was hiding from the Romans who were looking for him all over the Palestine.
As the story goes, R. Akiva was traveling on the road. He stopped at a town and tried to get lodging at an inn but there was no room available. He went from house to house asking residents of the town for accommodation for the night but nobody would let him in. So what did he do? He therefore went into the neighboring woods and slept there. The next morning R. Akiva discovered that a band of robbers had attacked the town during the night, mercilessly killing the people and stealing their money. R. Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav understood this story a little bit differently. For him it is quite peculiar that R. Akiva, the greatest Torah scholar, the Father of all Sages, goes from house to house looking for a place to sleep and all the people refuse to let him in. What does it mean? Does not it mean that R. Akiva was running from the Roman Authorities? Yes, it does. And the fact that people refused to provide him accommodation, means that the Romans had imposed the death sentence on anyone who would help or hide R. Akiva. And they who had mercilessly killed the people of the town were not robbers.
"It is entirely possible that these were Roman soldiers who were carrying out searches for Rabbi Akiva and that a family caught giving him cover could be sentenced to death", says R. Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav.
Are we alone in representing such facts concerning the Bar Kokhba Revolt and its leadership? Are there any other sources confirming our position? Yes, there are plenty, and we are not alone! Rambam Â (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3) writes that R. Akiva was the weapons bearer of Bar Kochba the King, who, as is well known, fought against the Romans. It is also told that R. Akiva traveled the world in order to recruit Jewish youths and to collect money in order to help Bar Kokhba. The Talmud (Berakoth) indicates that he was on the run from the Romans. We indeed find that most of Rabbi Akiva's students were wanted by the authorities. R. Meir, his leading disciple, fled from the Romans (Iruvin 13) and died in exile (JT Kilayim 9:4). R. Eliezer ben Shammua was one of the known "Ten Martyrs" executed by the throne. R. Shimon bar Yochai was pursued by the Romans, and R. Yose was exiled. R. Yehuda was the only one who managed to remain on good terms with the authorities. As a result, R. Yehuda was able to teach Torah to the people of his generation "more so than any of his colleagues", says Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav in his work 'R. Yehuda the Head Speaker'. According to this author, R. Akiva was indeed the ardent supporter of Bar Kokhba whom he proclaimed as the Messiah; R. Akiva sent 24,000 disciples to help Bar Kokhba fight against the Romans; He did travel abroad to recruit Jewish (and Israelite) freedom fighters and collect money; His closest five students were following in the footsteps of their Master in the political struggle against Rome; and all of them were actively haunted and persecuted by the Roman Government, except for R. Yehuda.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â R. Judah ben Ilai was the only one from the five who did not support the military uprising against the Romans and was not involved politically or religiously in promoting it. The Romans appreciated his attitude towards them and allowed him teach Torah. He became the most important Tanna (Promulgator of the Mishna) of his generation, his name is the most frequently mentioned (more than 600 times) in the Mishnah. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of Hadrian's persecutions R. Judah had been forced to escape from his town Usha and hide himself until Hadrian's edicts were abrogated. It would seem, he got a lesson and later on was able to win the confidence of the Romans by 'his praise of their civilizing tendencies as shown in their construction of bridges, highways, and market-places' (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33a).
The Talmud relates that when a disputation between R. Shimon Bar Yochai and R. Yehudah arises the decision of R. Yehudah prevails. Rabbi Yehudah valued nothing more dearly than learning Torah.
Another prominent disciple ofÂ R. Akiva was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (100-160 CE), also known by the acronym Rashbi. He was the author of the Kabbalistic work, Zohar. His name is the fourth most mentioned in the Mishnah, and like his renowned master he was also involved in political activities harshly criticizing the Roman Government. The Romans placed a price on the heads of Rabbi Shimon and his son R. Elazar. To avoidÂ arrest and persecution by the Romans due to his political criticism Rabbi Shimon was forced to live in hiding together with his son in a cave for thirteen years. He had fought the Romans as much as he could and truly followed in the footsteps of his teacher. Both of them had actively participated in politics and in the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Rabbi Shimon continued to defy the Roman rulers even after Bar Kokhba's defeat, and was forced to flee for his life and spend years in solitary hiding. To paraphrase the words of R. Eleazar the Great (Sukkah 28a), R. Shimon could have proudly said, 'I do what I learned from my great teacher R. Akiva.'
Despite the mistake ofÂ R. Akiva in designating Bar Kokhba as the Jewish Messiah and taking an active part in the political Messianic struggle against the Roman Empire, which led to catastrophic defeat and slaughter of Jewish People, the highest tribute to this most beloved man in Jewish history whose heroism and influence is a source of inspiration throughout the ages is the fact that the Talmud (Menachos 29a) favorably compares him to Moses.