Akiva ben Joseph (Hebrew: עקיבא בן יוסף; c. 40 – c. 137 CE), widely known as Rabbi Akiva (Hebrew: רבי עקיבא), was a tanna of the latter part of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd century (3rd tannaitic generation). Rabbi Akiva was a leading contributor to the Mishnah and Midrash Halakha. He is referred to in the Talmud as Rosh la-Chachamim (Head of all the Sages).
He recognized Bar Kokhba as Messiah, and was executed by the Romans in the disastrous aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Akiva ben Joseph (written עקיבא in the Babylonian Talmud, and עקיבה in the Jerusalem Talmud — another form for עקביה) came of humble parentage. When he married the daughter of Kalba Savu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, Akiva was an uneducated shepherd in Kalba Savua’s employ. His wife’s first name is not given in the earlier sources, but a later version of the tradition gives it as Rachel (Ab. R. N. ed. S. Schechter, vi. 29). She stood loyally by her husband during that critical period of his life in which Akiva dedicated himself to the study of Torah. Rabbi Akiva has many famous quotes in the Babylonian Talmud.
A different tradition (Ab. R. N. l.c.) narrates that at the age of 40, Akiva attended the academy of his native town, Lod, presided over by Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus was a neighbor of Joseph, the father of Akiva. The fact that Eliezer was his first teacher, and the only one whom Akiva later designates as “rabbi”, is of importance in settling the date of Akiva’s birth. These legends set the beginning of his years of study at about 75–80. Besides Eliezer, Akiva studied under Joshua ben Hananiah (Ab. R. N. l.c.) and Nahum Ish Gamzu (Ḥag. 12a). He was on equal footing with Rabban Gamaliel II, whom he met later. Tarphon was considered as one of Akiva’s masters (Ket. 84b), but the pupil outranked his teacher and he became one of Akiva’s greatest admirers (Sifre, Num. 75). Akiva remained in Lod (R. H. i. 6) as long as Eliezer dwelt there, and then removed his own school to Beneberak, five Roman miles from Jaffa (Sanh. 32b; Tosef., Shab. iii. [iv.] 3). Akiva also lived for some time at Ziphron (Num. xxxiv. 9), the modern Zafrân (Z. P. V. viii. 28), near Hamath.
According to the Talmud, Akiva was a shepherd when Kalba Savu’a’s daughter took a liking to him. She consented to a secret betrothal on the condition that he thenceforth devote himself to study. When the wealthy father-in-law learned of their betrothal, he drove his daughter from his house and swore that he would never help her while Akiva remained her husband. Akiva and his wife lived in such poverty that she sold her hair to enable Akiva to pursue his studies. A story tells that once, when they had only a bundle of straw for a bed, a poor man came to beg some straw for a bed for his sick wife. Akiva at once divided with him his scanty possession, remarking to his wife, “Thou seest, my child, there are those poorer than we!”  This pretended poor man was none other than the prophet Elijah, who had come to test Akiva (Ned. 50a).
By agreement with his wife, Akiva spent twelve years away from home, pursuing his studies. Returning at the end of that time and on the point of entering his home, he overheard his wife say to a neighbor who was critical of his long absence: “If I had my wish, he should stay another twelve years at the academy.” Without crossing the threshold, Akiva went back to the academy, returning twelve years later as a famous scholar, escorted by 24,000 disciples. When his wife went to embrace him, some of his students, not knowing who she was, sought to restrain her. But Akiva exclaimed, “Let her alone; for what I am, and for what you are, is hers” (she deserves the credit) (Ned. 50a, Ket. 62b et seq.).
Rabbi Akiva’s tomb, Tiberias
The greatest tannaim of the middle of the 2nd century came from Akiva’s school, notably Rabbi Meir, Judah ben Ilai, Simeon bar Yohai, Jose ben Halafta, Eleazar ben Shammai, and Rabbi Nehemiah. Besides these, Akiva had many disciples whose names have not been handed down, but the Aggadah variously gives their number as 12,000 (Gen. R. lxi. 3), 24,000 (Yeb. 62b), and 48,000 (Ned. 50a).
Akiva allegedly took part in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136. In 95–96 Akiva was in Rome (H. Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, iv. 121), and some time before 110 he was in Nehardea (Yeb. xvi. 7). During his travels, it is believed he visited important Jewish communities, The Baraita (Ber. 61b) states that he suffered martyrdom on account of his transgression of Hadrian’s edicts against the practice and the teaching of the Jewish religion. Jewish sources relate that he was subjected to a Roman torture where his skin was flayed with iron combs.
An example of his modesty is his funeral address over his son Simon. To the large assembly gathered on the occasion from every quarter, he said (Sem. viii., M. ḳ. 21b): “Brethren of the house of Israel, listen to me. Not because I am a scholar have ye appeared here so numerously; for there are those here more learned than I. Nor because I am a wealthy man; for there are many more wealthy than I. The people of the south know Akiva; but whence should the people of Galilee know him? The men are acquainted with him; but how shall the women and children I see here be said to be acquainted with him? Still I know that your reward shall be great, for ye have given yourselves the trouble to come simply in order to do honor to the Torah and to fulfill a religious duty.”
Modesty is a favorite theme with Akiva, and he reverts to it again and again. “He who esteems himself highly on account of his knowledge,” he teaches, “is like a corpse lying on the wayside: the traveler turns his head away in disgust, and walks quickly by” (Ab. R. N., ed. S. Schechter, xi. 46). Another of his sayings, quoted also in the name of Ben Azzai (Lev. R. i. 5)is: “Take thy place a few seats below thy rank until thou art bidden to take a higher place; for it is better that they should say to thee ‘Come up higher’ than that they should bid thee ‘Go down lower'” (see Prov. xxv. 7).
Relationship with Gamaliel
Convinced of the necessity of a central authority for Judaism, Akiva became a devoted adherent and friend of Gamaliel, who aimed at constituting the patriarch the true spiritual chief of the Jews (R. H. ii. 9). But Akiva was just as firmly convinced that the power of the patriarch must be limited both by the written and the oral law, the interpretation of which lay in the hands of the learned; and he was accordingly brave enough to act in ritual matters in Gamaliel’s own house contrary to the decisions of Gamaliel himself. Concerning Akiva’s other personal excellences, such as benevolence, and kindness toward the sick and needy, see Ned. 40a, Lev. R. xxxiv.16, and Tosef., Meg. iv. 16. Akiva filled the office of an overseer of the poor.
Akiva was instrumental in drawing up the canon of the Tanakh. He protested strongly against the canonicity of certain of the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Sirach, for instance (Sanh. x. 1, Bab. ibid. 100b, Yer. ibid. x. 28a), in which passages קורא is to be explained according to ḳid. 49a, and חיצונים according to its Aramaic equivalent ברייתא; so that Akiva’s utterance reads, “He who reads aloud in the synagogue from books not belonging to the canon as if they were canonical,” etc. But he was not opposed to a private reading of the Apocrypha, as is evident from the fact that he himself makes frequent use of Sirach (W. Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 277; H. Grätz, Gnosticismus, p. 120). Akiva stoutly defended, however, the canonicity of the Song of Songs, and Esther (Yad. iii.5, Meg. 7a). Grätz’s statements (Shir ha-Shirim, p. 115, and Kohelet, p. 169) respecting Akiva’s attitude toward the canonicity of the Song of Songs are misconceptions, as I.H. Weiss (Dor, ii. 97) has to some extent shown. To the same motive underlying his antagonism to the Apocrypha, namely, the desire to disarm Christians—especially Jewish Christians—who drew their “proofs” from the Apocrypha, must also be attributed his wish to emancipate the Jews of the Dispersion from the domination of the Septuagint, the errors and inaccuracies in which frequently distorted the true meaning of Scripture, and were even used as arguments against the Jews by the Christians. Aquila was a man after Akiva’s own heart; under Akiva’s guidance he gave the Greek-speaking Jews a rabbinical Bible (Jerome on Isa. viii. 14, Yer. ḳid. i. 59a). Akiva probably also provided for a revised text of the Targums; certainly, for the essential base of the Targum Onkelos, which in matters of Halakah reflects Akiva’s opinions completely (F. Rosenthal, Bet Talmud, ii. 280)
Akiva as systematizer
Akiva worked in the domain of the Halakah, both in the systematization of its traditional material and in its further development. The condition of the Halakah, that is, of religious praxis, and indeed of Judaism in general, was a very precarious one at the turn of the 1st century of the common era. The lack of any systematized collection of the accumulated Halakot rendered impossible any presentation of them in form suitable for practical purposes. Means for the theoretical study of the Halakah were also scant; both logic and exegesis—the two props of the Halakah—being differently conceived by the various ruling tannaim, and differently taught. According to a tradition which has historical confirmation, it was Akiva who systematized and brought into methodic arrangement the Mishnah, or Halakah codex; the Midrash, or the exegesis of the Halakah; and the Halakot, the logical amplification of the Halakah (Yer. SheḲ. v. 48c, according to the correct text given by Rabbinowicz, DiḲduḲe Soferim, p. 42; compare Giṭ. 67a and Dünner, in Monatsschrift, xx. 453, also W. Bacher, in Rev. Ét. Juives, xxxviii. 215.) The Mishna of Akiva, as his pupil Meir had taken it from him, became the basis of the Six Orders of the Mishna.
The δευτερώσεις τοῦ καλουμένου Ραββὶ Ακιβά mentioned by Epiphanius (Adversus Hæreses, xxxiii. 9, and xv., end), as well as the “great Mishnayot of Akiva” in the Midr. Cant. R. viii. 2, Eccl. R. vi. 2, are probably not to be understood as independent Mishnayot (δευτερώσεις) existing at that time, but as the teachings and opinions of Akiva contained in the officially recognized Mishnayot and Midrashim. But at the same time it is fair to consider the Mishnah of Judah ha-Nasi (called simply “the Mishnah”) as derived from the school of Akiva; and the majority of halakic Midrashim now extant are also to be thus credited.
Johanan bar Nappaḥa (199–279) has left the following important note relative to the composition and editing of the Mishnah and other halakic works: “Our Mishnah comes directly from Rabbi Meir, the Tosefta from R. Nehemiah, the Sifra from R. Judah, and the Sifre from R. Simon; but they all took Akiva for a model in their works and followed him” (Sanh. 86a). One recognizes here the threefold division of the halakic material that emanated from Akiva: (1) The codified Halakah (which is Mishnah); (2) the Tosefta, which in its original form contains a concise logical argument for the Mishnah, somewhat like the Lebush of Mordecai Jafe on the Shulḥan ‘Aruk; (3) the halakic Midrash.
The following may be mentioned here as the halakic Midrashim originating in Akiva’s school: the Mekilta of Rabbi Simon (in manuscript only) on Exodus; Sifra on Leviticus; Sifre Zuṭṭa on the Book of Numbers (excerpts in YalḲ. Shim’oni, and a manuscript in Midrash ha-Gadol, (edited for the first time by B. Koenigsberger, 1894); and the Sifre to Deuteronomy, the halakic portion of which belongs to Akiva’s school.
What was Rabbi Akiva like? – A worker who goes out with his basket. He finds wheat – he puts it in, barley – he puts it in, spelt – he puts it in, beans – he puts it in, lentils – he puts it in. When he arrives home he sorts out the wheat by itself, barley by itself, spelt by itself, beans by themselves, lentils by themselves. So did Rabbi Akiva; he arranged the Torah rings by rings.
— Avot deRabbi Natan ch. 18; see also Gittin, 67a
Admirable as is the systematization of the Halakha by Akiva, his hermeneutics and halachic exegesis—which form the foundation of all Talmudic learning—surpassed it.
The enormous difference between the Halacha before and after Akiva may be briefly described as follows: The old Halacha was, as its name indicates, the religious practice sanctioned as binding by tradition, to which were added extensions, and, in some cases, limitations, of the Torah, arrived at by strict logical deduction. The opposition offered by the Sadducees—which became especially strenuous in the last century BC.—originated the halakhic Midrash, whose mission it was to deduce these amplifications of the Law, by tradition and logic, out of the Law itself.
It might be thought that with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—which event made an end of Sadduceeism—the halakhic Midrash would also have disappeared, seeing that the Halacha could now dispense with the Midrash. This probably would have been the case had not Akiva created his own Midrash, by means of which he was able “to discover things that were even unknown to Moses” (PesiḲ., Parah, ed. S. Buber, 39b). Akiva made the accumulated treasure of the oral law—which until his time was only a subject of knowledge, and not a science—an inexhaustible mine from which, by the means he provided, new treasures might be continually extracted.
If the older Halacha is to be considered as the product of the internal struggle between Phariseeism and Sadduceeism, the Halacha of Akiva must be conceived as the result of an external contest between Judaism on the one hand and Hellenism and Hellenistic Christianity on the other. Akiva no doubt perceived that the intellectual bond uniting the Jews—far from being allowed to disappear with the destruction of the Jewish state—must be made to draw them closer together than before. He pondered also the nature of that bond. The Bible could never again fill the place alone; for the Christians also regarded it as a divine revelation. Still less could dogma serve the purpose, for dogmas were always repellent to rabbinical Judaism, whose very essence is development and the susceptibility to development. Mention has already been made of the fact that Akiva was the creator of a rabbinical Bible version elaborated with the aid of his pupil, Aquila (though this is traditionally debated), and designed to become the common property of all Jews.
But this was not sufficient to obviate all threatening danger. It was to be feared that the Jews, by their facility in accommodating themselves to surrounding —even then a marked characteristic—might become entangled in the net of Grecian philosophy, and even in that of Gnosticism. The example of his colleagues and friends, Elisha ben Abuyah, Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma strengthened him still more in his conviction of the necessity of providing some counterpoise to the intellectual influence of the non-Jewish world.
Akiva’s hermeneutic system
Akiva sought to apply the system of isolation followed by the Pharisees (פרושים = those who “separate” themselves) to doctrine as they did to practice, to the intellectual life as they did to that of daily discourse, and he succeeded in furnishing a firm foundation for his system. As the fundamental principle of his system, Akiva enunciates his conviction that the mode of expression used by the Torah is quite different from that of every other book. In the language of the Torah nothing is mere form; everything is essence. It has nothing superfluous; not a word, not a syllable, not even a letter. Every peculiarity of diction, every particle, every sign, is to be considered as of higher importance, as having a wider relation and as being of deeper meaning than it seems to have. Like Philo (see Siegfried, Philo, p. 168), who saw in the Hebrew construction of the infinitive with the finite form of the same verb and in certain particles (adverbs, prepositions, etc.) some deep reference to philosophical and ethical doctrines, Akiva perceived in them indications of many important ceremonial laws, legal statutes, and ethical teachings (compare D. Hoffmann, Zur Einleitung, pp. 5–12, and H. Grätz, Gesch. iv. 427).
He thus gave the Jewish mind not only a new field for its own employment, but, convinced both of the immutability of Holy Scripture and of the necessity for development in Judaism, he succeeded in reconciling these two apparently hopeless opposites by means of his remarkable method. The following two illustrations will serve to make this clear:
The high conception of woman’s dignity, which Akiva shared in common with most other Pharisees, induced him to abolish the Oriental custom that banished ritually impure women from all social intercourse. He succeeded, moreover, in fully justifying his interpretation of those Scriptural passages upon which this ostracism had been founded by the older expounders of the Torah (Sifra, Meẓora, end, and Shab. 64b).
The Biblical legislation in Ex. xxi. 7 could not be reconciled by Akiba with his view of Jewish ethics: for him a “Jewish slave” is a contradiction in terms, for every Jew is to be regarded as a prince (B. M. 113b). Akiba therefore teaches, in opposition to the old Halakah, that the sale of a daughter under age by her father conveys to her purchaser no legal title to marriage with her, but, on the contrary, carries with it the duty to keep the female slave until she is of age, and then to marry her (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 3). How Akiba endeavors to substantiate this from the Hebrew text is shown by A. Geiger (Urschrift, p. 187).
His hermeneutics frequently put him at odds with the letter of the law, as particularly demonstrated by his attitude toward the Samaritans. He considered friendly intercourse with these semi-Jews as desirable on political as well as on religious grounds, and he permitted—in opposition to tradition—not only eating their bread (Sheb. viii. 10) but also eventual intermarriage (ḳid. 75b). This is quite remarkable, seeing that in matrimonial legislation he went so far as to declare every forbidden union as absolutely void (Yeb. 92a) and the offspring as illegitimate (ḳid. 68a). For similar reasons Akiba comes near abolishing the Biblical ordinance of Kil’ayim; nearly every chapter in the treatise of that name contains a mitigation by Akiba.
Love for the Holy Land, which he as a genuine nationalist frequently and warmly expressed (see Ab. R. N. xxvi.), was so powerful with him that he would have exempted agriculture from much of the rigor of the Law. These examples will suffice to justify the opinion that Akiba was the man to whom Judaism owes preeminently its activity and its capacity for development.
A tannaitic tradition (Ḥag. 14b; Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 3) mentions that of the four who entered paradise, Akiva was the only one that returned unscathed. This serves at least to show how strong in later ages was the recollection of Akiva’s philosophical speculation (see Elisha b. Abuya).
Akiva’s utterances (Abot, iii. 14, 15) may serve to present the essence of his religious conviction. They run:
How favored is man, for he was created after an image; as Scripture says, “for in an image, Elohim made man” (Gen. ix. 6).
Everything is foreseen; but freedom [of will] is given to every man.
The world is governed by mercy… but the divine decision is made by the preponderance of the good or bad in one’s actions.
Akiva’s anthropology is based upon the principle that man was created בצלם, that is, not in the image of God—which would be בצלם אלהים—but after an image, after a primordial type; or, philosophically speaking, after an Idea—what Philo calls in agreement with Judean theology, “the first heavenly man” (see Adam ḳadmon). Strict monotheist that Akiba was, he protested against any comparison of God with the angels, and declared the plain interpretation of כאחד ממנו (Gen. iii. 22) as meaning “like one of us” to be arrant blasphemy (Mek., Beshallaḥ, 6). It is quite instructive to read how a Christian of Akiba’s generation, Justin Martyr, calls the literal interpretation—thus objected to by Akiba—a “Jewish heretical one” (Dial. cum Tryph. lxii.). In his earnest endeavors to insist as strongly as possible upon the incomparable nature of God, Akiba indeed lowers the angels somewhat to the realms of mortals, and, alluding to Ps. lxxviii. 25, maintains that manna is the actual food of the angels (Yoma, 75b). This view of Akiba’s, in spite of the energetic protests of his colleague Rabbi Ishmael, became the one generally accepted by his contemporaries, as Justin Martyr, l.c., lvii., indicates.
God’s two attributes
But he is far from representing strict justice as the only attribute of God: in agreement with the ancient Israel theology of the מדת הדין, “the attribute of justice”, and מדת הרחמים, “the attribute of mercy” (Gen. R. xii., end; the χαριστική and κολαστική of Philo, Quis Rer. Div. Heres, 34 Mangey, i. 496), he teaches that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice (Ḥag. 14a). Hence his maxim, referred to above, “God rules the world in mercy, but according to the preponderance of good or bad in human acts.”
Eschatology and ethics
As to the question concerning the frequent sufferings of the pious and the prosperity of the wicked —truly a burning one in Akiba’s time—this is answered by the explanation that the pious are punished in this life for their few sins, in order that in the next they may receive only reward; while the wicked obtain in this world all the recompense for the little good they have done, and in the next world will receive only punishment for their misdeeds (Gen. R. xxxiii.; PesiḲ. ed. S. Buber, ix. 73a). Consistent as Akiba always was, his ethics and his views of justice were only the strict consequences of his philosophical system. Justice as an attribute of God must also be exemplary for man. “No mercy in [civil] justice!” is his basic principle in the doctrine concerning law (Ket. ix. 3), and he does not conceal his opinion that the action of the Jews in taking the spoil of the Egyptians is to be condemned (Gen. R. xxviii. 7).
From his views as to the relation between God and man he deduces the inference that he who sheds the blood of a fellow man is to be considered as committing the crime against the divine archetype (דמות) of man (Gen. R. xxxiv. 14). He therefore recognizes as the chief and greatest principle of Judaism the command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. xix. 18; Sifra, ḳedoshim, iv.). He does not, indeed, maintain thereby that the execution of this command is equivalent to the performance of the whole Law; and in one of his polemic interpretations of Scripture he protests strongly against a contrary opinion allegedly held by Christians, and other non-Jews since the diaspora, according to which Judaism is at best “simply morality” (Mek., Shirah, 3, 44a, ed. I.H. Weiss). For, in spite of his philosophy, Akiba was an extremely strict and national Jew.
‘When Moses ascended into heaven, he saw God occupied in making little crowns for the letters of the Torah. Upon his inquiry as to what these might be for, he received the answer, “There will come a man, named Akiva ben Joseph, who will deduce Halakot from every little curve and crown of the letters of the Law.” Moses’ request to be allowed to see this man was granted; but he became much dismayed as he listened to Akiva’s teaching; for he could not understand it’ (Men. 29b). This story gives a picture of Akiva’s activity as the father of Talmudic Judaism.
The Aggadah explains how Akiva, in the prime of life, commenced his rabbinical studies. Legendary allusion to this change in Akiva’s life is made in two slightly varying forms, of which the following is probably the older:
Akiva, noticing a stone at a well that had been hollowed out by drippings from the buckets, said: “If these drippings can, by continuous action, penetrate this solid stone, how much more can the persistent word of God penetrate the pliant, fleshly human heart, if that word but be presented with patient insistency” (Ab. R. N. ed. S. Schechter, vi. 28).
The most common version of Akiva’s death is that the Roman government ordered him to stop teaching Torah, on pain of death, and that he refused. There is some disagreement about the extent of Akiva’s involvement in the Bar Kokhba rebellion. When Tyrannus Rufus, as he is called in Jewish sources, ordered Akiva’s execution, Akiva is said to have recited his prayers calmly, though suffering agonies; and when Rufus asked him whether he was a sorcerer, since he felt no pain, Akiva replied, “I am no sorcerer; but I rejoice at the opportunity now given to me to love my God ‘with all my life,’ seeing that I have hitherto been able to love Him only ‘with all my means’ and ‘with all my might,'” and with the word “One!” he expired (Yer. Ber. ix. 14b, and somewhat modified in Bab. 61b).
The version in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 61b) tells it as a response of Akiva to his students, who asked him how he could yet offer prayers to God. He says to them, “All my life I was worried about the verse, ‘with all your soul’ (and the sages expounded this to signify), even if He takes away your soul. And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?” Then he extended the final word Echad (“One”) until his life expired with that word. A heavenly voice went out and announced: “Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your life expired with “Echad”.
Another legend is that Elijah bore the body by night to Cæsarea. The night, however, was as bright as the finest summer’s day. When they arrived, Elijah and Joshua entered a cavern which contained a bed, table, chair, and lamp, and deposited Akiva’s body there. No sooner had they left it than the cavern closed of its own accord, so that no man has found it since (Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash, vi. 27, 28; ii. 67, 68; Braunschweiger, Lehrer der Mischnah, 192–206).
Akiva taught thousands of students: on one occasion, twenty-four thousand students of his died in a plague. His five main students were Judah bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua, Jose ben Halafta and Shimon bar Yochai.
Akiva’s success as a teacher put an end to his poverty; for the wealthy father-in-law now rejoiced to acknowledge such a distinguished son-in-law. Another source of his wealth was said to be a large sum of money borrowed from a heathen woman. a matrona. As bondsmen for the loan, Akiva named God and the sea, on the shore of which the matrona’s house stood. Akiva, being sick, could not return the money at the time appointed; but his bondsmen did not leave him in the lurch. An imperial princess suddenly became insane, in which condition she threw a chest containing imperial treasures into the sea. It was cast upon the shore close to the house of Akiva’s creditor, so that when the matrona went to the shore to demand of the sea the amount she had lent Akiba, the ebbing tide left boundless riches at her feet. Later, when Akiva arrived to discharge his indebtedness, the matrona not only refused to accept the money, but insisted upon Akiva’s receiving a large share of what the sea had brought to her (Commentaries to Ned. l.c.).
The Talmud enumerates six occasions in which Akiva gained wealth (Nedarim, 50a–b). In Ethiopia he was called upon to decide between the swarthy king and the king’s wife; the latter having been accused of infidelity because she had borne her lord a white child. Akiva ascertained that the royal chamber was adorned with white marble statuary, and, basing his decision upon a well known physiological theory[clarification needed], he exonerated the queen from suspicion (Num. R. ix. 34). It is related that, during his stay in Rome, Akiva became intimately acquainted with the Jewish proselyte ḳeṭia’ bar Shalom, a very influential Roman—according to some scholars identical with Flavius Clemens, Domitian’s nephew, who, before his execution for pleading the cause of the Jews, bequeathed to Akiva all his possessions (Ab. Zarah, 10b).
Tinnius Rufus asked: “Which is the more beautiful—God’s work or man’s?” “Undoubtedly man’s work is the better,” was Akiva’s reply; “for while nature at God’s command supplies us only with the raw material, human skill enables us to elaborate the same according to the requirements of art and good taste.” Rufus had hoped to drive Akiva into a corner by his strange question; for he expected quite a different answer and intended to compel Akiva to admit the wickedness of circumcision. He then put the question, “Why has God not made man just as He wanted him to be?” “For the very reason,” was Akiva’s ready answer, “that the duty of man is to perfect himself” (Tan., Tazri’a, 5, ed. S. Buber 7).
This was not the only occasion on which Akiva was made to feel the truth of his favorite maxim (“Whatever God doeth He doeth for the best”). Once, being unable to find any sleeping accommodation in a certain city, he was compelled to pass the night outside its walls. Without a murmur he resigned himself to this hardship; and even when a lion devoured his donkey, and a cat killed the rooster whose crowing was to herald the dawn to him, and the wind extinguished his candle, the only remark he made was, “All that God does is for the good.” When morning dawned he learned how true his words were. A band of robbers had fallen upon the city and carried its inhabitants into captivity, but he had escaped because his abiding place had not been noticed in the darkness, and neither beast nor fowl had betrayed him (Ber. 60b).
Akiva and the dead
A legend according to which the gates of the infernal regions opened for Akiva is analogous to the more familiar tale that he entered paradise and was allowed to leave it unscathed (Ḥag. 14b). There exists the following tradition: Akiva once met a coal-black man carrying a heavy load of wood and running with the speed of a horse. Akiva stopped him and inquired: “My son, why do you work so hard? If you are a slave and have a harsh master, I will buy you from him. If it be out of poverty that you do this, I will take care of your needs.” “It is for neither of these,” the man replied; “I am dead and am compelled because of my great sins to build my funeral pyre every day. In life I was a tax-gatherer and oppressed the poor. Let me go at once, lest the demon torture me for my delay.” “Is there no help for you?” asked Akiva. “Almost none,” replied the deceased; “for I understand that my sufferings will end only when I have a pious son. When I died, my wife was pregnant; but I have little hope that she will give my child proper training.”
Akiva inquired the man’s name and that of his wife and her dwelling-place; and when, in the course of his travels, he reached the place, Akiva sought for information concerning the man’s family. The neighbors very freely expressed their opinion that both the deceased and his wife deserved to inhabit the infernal regions for all time—the latter because she had not even initiated her child into the Abrahamic covenant. Akiva, however, was not to be turned from his purpose; he sought the son of the tax-gatherer and labored long and assiduously in teaching him the word of God. After fasting 40 days and praying to God to bless his efforts, he heard a heavenly voice (bat Ḳol) asking, “Why do you go to so much trouble on behalf of this person?” “Because he is just the kind to work for,” was the prompt answer. Akiva persevered until his pupil was able to officiate as reader in the synagogue; and when there for the first time he recited the prayer, “Bless the Lord!” the father suddenly appeared to Akiva and overwhelmed him with thanks for his deliverance from the pains of hell through the merit of his son (Kallah, ed. Coronel, 4b, and see quotations from Tan. in Isaac Aboab’s Menorat ha-Maor, i. 1, 2, § 1, ed. Jacob Raphael Fürstenthal, p. 82; also Maḥzor Vitry, p. 112). This legend has been somewhat elaborately treated in Yiddish under the title, Ein ganz neie Maase vun dem Tanna R. Akiba, Lemberg, 1893 (compare Tanna debe Eliyahu Zuṭṭa, xvii., where Johanan ben Zakkai’s name is given in place of Akiba).