Rabbi Akiva – Part I
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
3:17 - Rabbi Akiva said:
Mockery and levity accustom a man to immorality. The transmitted Oral Torah is
a protective fence around the Torah; tithes are a protective fence for wealth;
vows are a protective fence for abstinence; a protective fence for wisdom is
3:18 - He used to say,
Beloved is man, for he was created in G’ds image; it is indicative of a greater
love that it was made known to him that he was created in G’d’s image…Beloved
are the people Israel, for they are described as children of Hashem….Beloved
are the people Israel, for a cherished utensil was given to them…
The first Mishnah deals with
“Sur mei Ra”, the bad things that one needs to separate from. The second
Mishnah deals with “Osei Tov”, the things that we should be drawn to and
cherish. The purpose of the fences here
are to protect what is inside the fence.
It iss interesting that Rabbi Akiva speaks against levity, because in
the Gemorah Rabbi Akiva is often seen laughing.
When he saw the ruins of the Bais Hamikdosh, the others were crying, and
he was laughing. When he saw the wife of
a Roman general, it said he laughed.
Let’s begin with the Gemorah
in Menochos. This Gemorah says that when
Moshe Rabenu was in Shemayim, he saw Hashem tying crowns onto the letters of
the Torah. He asked, “What are those
crowns?” Hashem answered by showing him
a classroom in the future where Rabbi Akiva was teaching his students about the
the crowns on the letters of the Torah.
These crowns are called the “Mesorah”. Moshe sat in the 8th
row of the class, and someone asked Rabbi Akiva where his knowledge of the
crowns of the letters comes from. Rabbi
Akivs answered, “It’s from Moshe Rabenu at Har Sinai”. When Moshe Rabenu heard this, he was
One way to understand this,
is that that someone once visited the Baal Hatanya, who was learning the book
that the Baal Hatanya had himself written.
He pointed to something in the book and asked, “Do you what Pshat in
this sentence is?” The visitor responded
by saying, “But you wrote it.” The Baal
Hatanya said, “This was a gift from Hashem, and now I have to understand it
just like everyone else.”. The Torah was
given as a package from Hashem to Moshe Rabenu, and Rabbi Akiva helped unwrap
the package. In the Gemorah, Moshe then
asked, “What is the reward for such a great man?” Hashem showed him how Rabbi
Akiva died, with Romans raking iron combs over his flesh. Moshe asked how this could be, and Hashem
said, “Be quiet.”
Let’s review some of what we know
about the life of Rabbi Akiva. Though we
all know these stores, It pays to review them at least once a year. Rabbi Akiva
was the son of Gerim. His father Yoseph
was a Ger. We can assume, though it
doesn’t say so explicitly, that his mother was Jewish. He was a descendent of Sisera Harasha. We know the story where Sisera, the enemy of
Israel, was returning from a battle against the Jews, when Yael enticed him
into her tent. There’s a machlochet
whether Yael was Jewish, but she was certainly an Ohaiv Yisroel. She had relations with Sisera – the Gemorah
brings this as an example of Godol Averah Leshema – and while he was sleeping,
she drove a tent spike through his head and killed him. From that union, Yael became pregnant, and
Rabbi Akiva is a descendent from that child..
So Rabbi Akiva was the son of Gerim, and descended from Siseara Harasha
– he had humble beginnings.
Now let’s learn the Gemorah
in Kesubos, with additions from Pirkei of Rabbi Nosson. It says that Rabbi Akiva worked for Kalva Savua,
one of the 10 richest men in Israel.
Kalva had many sheep, and Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd – just as Moshe
Rabenu was a shepherd, before he became Moshe Rabenu. Kalva’s daughter Rochel saw great potential
in Rabbi Akiva, and told him, “If I accept Kidushin from you, will you
learn?” Rabbi Akiva agreed, and they
made Kidushin in secret. Kalva sent to
Rochel many suitors – she was a good catch – but she rejected them all. After a while, he asked her what she was
looking for, and she admitted that she was already Mekadesh to Akiva, his
shepherd. What was he going to tell his
friends, that his daughter married Akiva his shepherd, the son of Gerim and the
descendent of Sisera Harasha. Kalva
disowned her, and made a neder that she should not get Hanah from any of his
Rochel and Rabbi Akiva then
did Nesuin, and moved into a barn. It
says that in the morning, Rabbi Akiva would take the straw out of Rochel’s
hair. He told her that in the future he
hoped to get for her an Ir Shel Zahav, a large piece of gold jewelry with a
picture of Yerushalyim on it. The
Gemorah says that Eliyahu came to the door of the barn, disguised as a pauper.
Eliyahu said that his wife didn’t have straw to sleep on. Rabbi Akiva said to Rochel, “Look how
fortunate we are, at least we have straw to sleep on”, and they gave Eliyahu
half of the straw they had.
After a year, Rochel told
Akiva that he should go and learn. So
Akiva went to learn in the Yeshivas of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer ben
Hurkanus, who were having many Machloches between themselves. He asked them, “What’s the meaning of the
shape of the Aleph, what’s the meaning of the shape of the Bet”. This is often misquoted – he didn’t ask what
Aleph and the Bet was – he wouldn’t have gone to the Yeshivas of Yehoshua and
Eliezer if he didn’t know Aleph Bet. He
wanted to know the meaning of the shapes of the letters. For example, we learn from Rabbi Akiva that
an Aleph is made up of two yuds and a vav, and the significance of what that
means. This puts into perspective the
story that he knew the meanings of the crowns on the letters in the Torah.
While Rabbi Akiva was
learning in yeshiva, Rochel worked as a maid, and sent her meager wages to
Rabbi Akiva so he could continue learning.
After learning for 12 years, Rabbi Akiva returned home to his town of
Lud. We all know the story that he
overheard Rochel say, “I would prefer that Akiva learn another 12 years.” So he turned around, and learned another 12
years. The meforshim ask, why didn’t he
at least say hello. They answer, to
learn 24 years straight is much more than learning 12 years and 12 years.
After the 24 years of
learning, he returned home to Rochel in Lud.
He was followed by 24,000 Talmidim who wanted to learn with him. He went to Bnei Brak to open a Yeshiva where
these 24,000 Talmidim could learn under him.
The Gemara in Psachim quotes
Rabbi Akiva who said that before learned, he hated the Chochomim so much that
he wanted to bite them like a donkey.
The Gemora asks, why didn’t he say he wanted to bite them like a
dog? It answers that a bite of a dog
just draws blood. A bite of a donkey can
crush a person’s bone. What’s going on
here? Was Rabbi Akiva a good guy, or
wasn’t he? There’s a penetrating Tosfos on this Gemorah that you should learn
with the Meharshah. Tosfos says that the
Chochomim at that time hated the Am Haretzim, and the Am Haretzim hated them
back. The Chochomim were elitist, and
the Am Haretzim sensed that they were despised, and they hated being looked
down on. So the Am Haratezim wanted to
get back at the Etzem – the bone – of the Chochimim.
Rabbi Akiva was 68 years old
when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, and he lived until he was 120. He started learning when he was 40, so he had
been running his own yeshiva in Bnei Brak only 4 years when the Churban took
place. He saw that the reason the Bais
Hamikdosh was destroyed was Sinas Chinum.
The Chochomim were elitist, and they and the ordinary people hated each
other. When Rabbi Shimon Gamliel opened
up the Yeshiva in Yavneh, he posted guards to keep out anyone who’s outside was
not the same as their inside.
Having been one of the Am
Haretzim, he saw the problem clearly, and he wanted to create a culture
change. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a
chance to do that with his 24,000 talmidim in his Yeshiva, because they had
already been affected by this attitude. They didn’t give koved to each other,
and as a result, they died between the period of Pesach and Shavuous. So Rabbi Akiva had to start over, and teach
new people his perspective.
Rabbi Akiva summarized what
he saw as his task with the words, “Ahavta Lerecha Kemocha”, you should love
your fellow as yourself. The Torah we
have is from Rabbi Akiva, it all goes through Rabbi Akiva. The Gemorah says that when someone met Rabbi
Akiva, the person said, “You are known from one end of the world to the
other.” One of the meforshim says that
the Gematria of this phrase in Hebrew is 564, which corresponds to the 564
times that Rabbi Akiva is mentioned in Shas.
Some of the Chochomim we learn 7 things from, others 10 things from, and
from Rabbi Akiva we learn 564 things from. Our Torah comes through Rabbi Akiva,
the hallachah is like Rabbi Akiva. He saw that Sinas Chinum and Elitism were
essential problems, and his answer was Ahavta Lerecha Kemocha.
The Gemorah says that Kalva
Savua, Rochel’s father, went to Rabbi Akiva to ask for him to Mafer his Neder
about his daughter. Rabbi Akiva asked,
did you imagine that Roche’s husband would become a talmid chachim, and Kalva said
no. And through this opening, this
‘pesach’, Rabbi Akiva was able to Meafer Kalva’s neder. Kalva then gave to
Rabbi Akiva and Rochel half of his estate.
At the same time, a rich Roman gave to Rabbi Akiva his estate. So Rabbi
Akiva became rich. It says that Rabbi
Akiva’s ladders were made of gold, and his house was filled with silver and
gold. He then gave to Rochel the Ir Shel Zahav, this large piece of gold
jewelry that had carved onto it the city of Yerushalayim. Some of his talmidim said that their wives
now will want this piece of jewelry, it was causing a problem of sholom bais.
Rabbi Akiva answered that Rochel had worked very hard for him to become who he
was, and she deserved it.
To see the extent to which
Rabbi Akiva carried this principal of Ahavta Leracha Kemocha – and to see the
quality that Rochel had seen in him originally – let’s learn from a Midrash
Tanchuma from Parshat Noach. This
Medresh is also found in other places, and it’s brought down in the
It says that Rabbi was in a
graveyard, when he met someone who was all covered in black, like a coal miner
or chimney sweep. The person was carrying an enormous bundle of wood. Rabbi
Akiva said to the person, “If you are an evid, then your owner is mistreating
you, and I will redeem you. If you are a
worker, then I will make you an Osher.”
The person said, “It won’t help. I am dead. I did many averos in my life, and this is my
Gehenim. Every day, I have to gather
wood to make a big fire, and then I have to jump into it. I was a tax collector. I would make the life of the rich unbearable,
and I would kill the poor. (I can make
copies of this sheet, and you can bring it with you to the Arnona office). I once raped a Kalah on Yom Kippur.”
What do you say to someone
like this? Rabbi Akiva said, “Bni – my son - is there anything that I can do to
help you?” – after hearing all this, he called him ‘my son!” The person responded, “There is no Takanah,
no remedy.” But then he added, “But
there is one thing. When I died, my wife
was pregnant, and if she had a son, and if he says, ‘Baruch Hashem Mamvoroch’,
then I will get out of Gehenom.” Rabbi
Akiva asked, “What is your name?” The man answered, “Akiva” Rabbi Akiva then
asked, “What is your wife’s name, and what is the town you lived in?”, and he
told Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Akiva then went from
town to town, looking for the town that he mentioned. When he found the town, he asked for the
man’s wife. Someone answered, “Oh her. May she and her husband rot in hell.” Rabbi Akiva then found the boy, and he
started teaching him. But the boy
couldn’t learn. So Rabbi Akiva fasted for 40 days so that the boy would have
the siatah deshmahya to be able to learn.
After 40 days, a Bas Kol came down.
Usually a Bas Kol says something, this Bas Kol asked incredulously, “Is
this the boy you are fasting for?” Rabbi
Akiva simply answered, “Hain”, yes. So
the boy was able to start learning. Rabbi Akiva started teaching him Shema,
brochas, and davening. Finally, the boy
had reached the level where he could stand before an Aron Kodesh, and say,
“Boruch Hashem Hamvorach”. It wasn’t
enough just to say it, he had to understand what he was saying. After the boy said it, the boy’s father was
saved from Gehenim.
How many Rebbes when
confronted by a boy who can’t learn, will fast for 40 days so that the boy gets
the siatah deshmaya to be able to learn.
How many people, if they met someone who was a Rasha in Gehenim would
call the person, “Bni”, My son? Rabbi
Akiva knew that the Bais Hamikdosh had been destroyed due to Sinat Chinum. Before he was learning, Rabbi Akiva had been
on the receiving end of being despised by the Chochomim. He knew that the cure and the answer is
Ahavta Leracha Kemocha. The hallachah,
the mesorah, and the Torah we have today is from Rabbi Akiva.