Towards the end of the Second Temple Period, the Land of Israel was in tumult. Following a bloody civil war, the Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire, which had ruled the land for decades prior. Jews were divided into four radically different factions. Unable to unite, the country soon fell to Rome. The Second Temple was burnt to the ground, and, according to a few accounts, more than a million Jews were massacred. After the rebellion, the Romans suffocated Jewish practice by making certain traditions and rituals illegal. The Jewish people needed a hero to give them air and life, and their man was Rabbi Akiva.
As Barry Holtz writes in his new biography, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Akiva taught Torah in public to ensure the continuity of the Jewish religion, even though this violated the Roman laws. He was arrested, tortured and killed by the Romans as a result. This act of bravery set an example for Jews throughout exile, and taught them how to persevere. It taught the importance of preserving our Jewish identity in order to survive as a nation, even at great risk to the individual.
Most of our hero’s childhood is unknown. Scholars assume that Rabbi Akiva was born around the year 50 CE. The Talmud has a few passing references to his father, Joseph, but his mother’s name remains unknown. Although Rabbi Akiva is often associated with the city of Beni Brak, where he spent most of his adult life, his birth place is also not known. The first sense we get of Rabbi Akiva was when he was a man of forty, illiterate, poor, and without prospects. He worked for a spectacularly wealthy man, Kalba Sabua, as a shepherd. Kalba Sabua’s daughter, Rachel, fell in love with Akiva, and married him secretly on condition that he devoted himself to becoming a Torah scholar. Despite his deep hatred for Torah scholars, Akiva left his wife to learn Torah. Starting with the Hebrew alphabet at the age of 40, Akiva was dismissed as a nobody by the sages who had spent their entire lives in study.
Soon, though, Rabbi Akiva grew to prominence by revolutionizing Torah learning, studying passages by questioning every concept, every detail, and every letter. After 24 years of learning, Rabbi Akiva had amassed 24,000 students. He returned home to Rachel, now widely recognized as one of the greatest Torah scholars of the generation.
Rabbi Akiva was known for his emphasis on the commandment to love your neighbor. Rabbi Youshoa, his teacher, was publicly embarrassed by the head of the Jewish court, Raban Gamliel, when Raban Gamliel forced Rabbi Youshoa to attend court on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Akiva cited a verse from Torah to show Rabbi Youshoa that attending court on Yom Kippur was not in fact shameful. His empathy and love for his teacher was aided by his vast knowledge, and he was able to comfort him. Along with being a caring individual, Rabbi Akiva was also an incredible Torah scholar. Rabbi Yehuda, who compiled the Mishnah, noted that Rabbi Akiva organized and sorted Torah to make it accessible for everyone. Rav Acha, a Talmudic sage, added that Rabbi Akiva was so profound a thinker that he understood concepts in the Torah that had not even been revealed to Moshe, who received the Torah from God’s own mouth on Sinai.
Rav Acha related the following story to illustrate Rabbi Akiva’s vast knowledge: When Moshe received the Torah, he saw that God added calligraphic flourishes to every letter. Moshe asked God why He was doing this. God responded that a great sage in the future will eventually explain and explicate every flourish. Curious, Moshe requested that God show him this individual. God transported him to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. The class was so intense that Moshe soon was lost and grew despondent. He asked God why he was chosen to receive the Torah, and not Rabbi Akiva, who was clearly a greater scholar. God responded that He does not reveal his reasoning to mankind. Nonetheless, Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom was plain and obvious. Rabbi Akiva’s ability to connect with people, which united the Jewish nation in a time of great divide, along with his greatness in Torah study, allowed such a sacrifice of his life to be effective.
The destruction of the Temple brought spiritual ruin to Israel. The Romans banned the study of Torah among other commandments. Despite this decree, Rabbi Akiva continued teaching Torah to the public. Other rabbis warned Rabbi Akiva against this violation because it would probably result in his death. But their warnings went unheeded. Predictably, Rabbi Akiva was soon arrested and sentenced to death. As his flesh was being raked with an iron comb, Rabbi Akiva was smiling and saying the Shema, a Jewish prayer. His students asked, how can you be smiling in such a time of great pain?Rabbi Akiva answered that his whole life he struggled with a passage in the Shema. The prayer states that a Jew must serve Hashem with all of their possessions, with their whole heart, and with their whole soul. Rabbi Akiva explained he had served God with all his possessions and all of his heart, but he was never able to serve Hashem with all of his soul. Now, Rabbi Akiva was finally able to sacrifice his life to the continuity of Torah, the ultimate sacrifice to God. This message was ingrained in the minds of every Jew throughout their 2000-year exile.
A question now presents itself: was this act of martyrdom necessary, or even allowed? In Jewish law it is pretty clear that someone is not allowed to take their own life or put themselves in danger, but Rabbi Akiva intentionally put himself in a life-threatening situation. The Rambam, a great Jewish sage from the Middle Ages, writes on this issue that in a case like Rabbi Akiva’s, one would be allowed to put their own life in danger. The question still remains, however: why didn’t Akiva just teach Torah in private? He didn’t need to teach in public to ensure the continuity of Torah; a few students would have sufficed. I think to best answer this, we must look at the bigger picture. While Rabbi Akiva was nearing his death, he witnessed the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt. A few decades after the destruction of the temple, the charismatic leader Bar Kochba, who many, including Rabbi Akiva, thought was the messiah, sought to regain Jewish independence. For a few years he succeeded, but the Romans soon crushed the rebellion, killing even more Jews and exiling the few that still remained in Israel.
Now the Jews were to face a harsh, brutal 2,000-year exile. Rabbi Akiva recognized this and knew he had to set an example for the Jews of generations to come, who would have to face centuries of wandering in the diaspora. Rabbi Akiva’s public violation of Roman law was necessary. Jews wouldn’t have been able to maintain their Jewish identity in private. As we have seen in retrospect, the Jews who have tried to maintain only a private Jewish identity have disappeared due to assimilation and outside pressures. Their only choice was to practice their religion in public, despite the hatred and possible death it brought. To maintain the Jewish religion and Torah observance, self-sacrifice was essential. Rabbi Akiva provided his fellow Jews an example of what it meant to be willing to give up their life for their religion, as each of them said in the Shema every day. Rabbi Akiva was a beacon of courage for the Jews who would endure through the long exile.
After 2,000 years, Jews have miraculously been able to preserve the Torah and Judaism as a whole. This came about through the tremendous self-sacrifice of every Jew who was willing to give up his life for his religion. This was made possible by the importance of the Torah, which was at the center of every Jewish town and community. It was what made the Jewish people unique and different. There is a passage in Proverbs that compares the Torah to a tree of life for anyone who grasps it. The Torah will give life to anyone who tries to cherish it. This passage encapsulates how Jews managed to survive exile. As much as the Jews kept the Torah alive, the Torah kept the Jews alive. Barry Holtz’s book explored the essence of who Rabbi Akiva was and what effect he had on the Jewish community, while painting a tragic and at times beautiful picture of what life was like around the destruction of the Temple. It gave me a real window into what Jews were going through around that time. I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the transitional period for Jews between the destruction of the Second Temple and the long exile that was awaiting the Jewish people.
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