AKIVA (c. 50–135 c.e.), one of the most outstanding tannaim, probably the foremost scholar of his age. A teacher and martyr, he exercised a decisive influence in the development of the halakhah. A history of Akiva's scholarly activities – his relations to his teachers, R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, R. Joshua b. Hananiah, Rabban Gamaliel ii, and to his disciples, R. *Meir, R. *Simeon b. Yoḥai, R. *Yose b. Ḥalafta, R. *Eleazar b. Shammua, and R. *Nehemiah – would be virtually identical to a history of tannaitic literature itself. The content of Akiva's teaching is preserved for us in the many traditions transmitted and interpreted by his students, which make up the vast majority of the material included in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Midreshei Halakhah. Later tradition regarded Akiva as "one of the fathers of the world" (tj, Shek. 3:1, 47b), and credited him with systematizing the halakhot and the aggadot (tj, Shek. 5:1, 48c).
In the eyes of later storytellers, the period of the tannaim was a heroic age, and even the slightest scrap of information about the least of the tannaim can develop in the later aggadah into a tale of epic proportions. In the case of truly significant and heroic figures, like R. Akiva, this process of literary expansion and elaboration is inevitable. The resulting legends relating to Akiva's life and death are well known (see bibliography below), and we will summarize a few of them in outline here:
The Bavli tells that in his early years Akiva was not only unlearned, an am ha-areẓ, but also a bitter enemy of scholars: "When I was an am ha-areẓ I said, 'Had I a scholar in my power, I would maul him like an ass'" (Pes. 49b). Of relatively humble parentage (Ber. 27b), Akiva was employed as a shepherd in his early years by (Bar) Kalba Savu'a, one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem (Ned. 50a; Ket. 62b). The latter's opposition to his daughter Rachel's marriage to Akiva led him to cut them both off. Abandoned to extreme poverty, Rachel once even sold her hair for food. Rachel made her marriage to Akiva conditional upon his devoting himself to Torah study. Leaving his wife behind, Akiva was away from home for 12 years (according to Avot de-Rabbi Nathan – 13 years). The Talmud relates that when Akiva, accompanied by 12,000 students, returned home after an absence of 12 years he overheard his wife telling a neighbor that she would willingly wait another 12 years if within that time he could increase his learning twofold. Hearing this, he left without revealing himself to her, and returned 12 years later with 24,000 students. Later in his career, Akiva was imprisoned by the Romans for openly teaching the Torah in defiance of their edict (Sanh. 12a). When Pappos b. Judah urged him to desist from studying and teaching in view of the Roman decree making it a capital offense, he answered with the parable of the fox which urged a fish to come up on dry land to escape the fisherman's net. The fish answered "'If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more should we be afraid when we are out of that element. We should then surely die.' So it is with us with regard to the study of the Torah, which is 'thy life and the length of thy days'" (Ber. 61b). He was not immediately executed and was reportedly allowed visitors (Pes. 112a; but cf. tj, Yev. 12:5, 12d). Akiva was subsequently tortured to death by the Romans by having his flesh torn from his body with "iron combs." He bore his sufferings with fortitude, welcoming his martyrdom as a unique opportunity of fulfilling the precept, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul … even if you must pay for it with your life" (Ber. 61b).
Akiva also played a significant role in narratives which centered on the other great figures of his time. When R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus was excommunicated, it was Akiva who was chosen to break the news to him (bm 59b). In the controversy between Rabban Gamaliel ii and R. Joshua, Akiva attempted to effect a reconciliation between them (Ber. 27b–28c; cf. rh 2:9).
Granting the literary and religious power of these legends, the modern critical reader must approach them with care. Take, for example, the tradition, brought above, which ascribes to Akiva in his early years a bitter hatred and antagonism toward rabbinic scholars. This tradition appears in the Bavli as part of an extended collection of similar traditions (Pes. 49a–b), ascribed to various rabbinic scholars from the Land of Israel in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. S. Wald has shown (Pesaḥim iii, 211–239) that this entire talmudic passage is a product of late tendentious revision of earlier sources, reflecting the antagonism between later Babylonian sages and their real or imagined interlocutors – ame ha-areẓ in their terminology. With regard to R. Akiva himself, this source must be viewed as pseudoepigraphic at best, and can neither be ascribed to him in any historical sense, nor can it be reconciled with other traditional accounts of his early life. For example, in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Naz. 7:1, 66a) we hear a very different story: "R. Akiva said: This is how I became a disciple of the sages. Once I was walking by the way and I came across a dead body [met mitzvah]. I carried it for four miles until I came to a cemetery and buried it. When I came to R. Yehoshua and R. Eliezer I told them what I had done. They told me: 'For every step you took, it is as if you spilled blood.' I said: 'If in a case where I intended to do good, I was found guilty, in a case where I did not intend to do good, I most certainly will be found guilty!' From that moment on, I became a disciple of the sages." The fact that Akiva in this story, while still an am ha-areẓ, both sought and expected the approval of the two sages who would in the future be his closest teachers, clearly contradicts the notion that at this stage in his life he both hated and held the sages in contempt.
Admittedly, we have no clear and compelling reason to accept the Yerushalmi's version of events as historically accurate. Nevertheless the very fact that it gives us an alternative version of how Akiva "became a disciple of the sages" raises questions – at the very least – about the historical reliability of the Bavli's story about Kalba Savu'a and his daughter. These traditions have themselves been the subject of intense study, most recently by S. Friedman, who traced the evolution of these stories within the Babylonian rabbinic tradition. Given the number and complexity of the traditions surrounding the figure of R. Akiva, it will in all likelihood be some time before it will be possible to evaluate their relative historical value and the religious, social, and literary tendencies imbedded in them.
Among the early traditions ascribed to Akiva in the Mishnah, we find him affirming the ideas of free will and God's omniscience, "Everything is foreseen, and free will is given" (Avot 3:15). He taught that a sinner achieves atonement by immersion in God's mercy, just as impurity is removed by the immersion in the waters of a mikveh (Yoma 8:9). Akiva is reported to have said: "Beloved is a man in that he was created in the image [of God]" (Avot 3:18), and held that "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" is the most fundamental principle of the Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim, Ch. 4:13). Akiva's insistence that the Song of Songs be regarded as an integral part of the canon – "All the Writings are holy; but the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies" (Yad, 3:5) – may be related to his mystical interests (Lieberman, Mishnat Shir ha-Shirim). According to Tosefta Hagigah (2:2), Akiva received instruction in the mystical traditions concerning the divine merkavah from R. Joshua, who himself received these traditions from R. Johanan b. Zakkai. In addition, R. Akiva is counted as one of the four sages who "entered the pardes," and was the only one of the four who "ascended in peace and descended in peace," i.e., participated in this mystical experience and emerged unharmed. As a result of these traditions, R. Akiva became the protagonist of Heikhalot Zuṭarti, one of the earlier works of the heikhalot literature, imparting instructions to the initiate concerning the dangers involved in ascending to heaven and concerning the techniques necessary for evading these dangers.
For Akiva's method of midrashic interpretation of scripture, and the school of Midrash Halakhah which bears his name, *Midrashei Halkhah.
See also *Bar Kochba.
L. Finkelstein, Akiva, Scholar, Saint and Martyr (1936, 19622); Bacher, Tann, 1 (1903); Weiss, Dor, 2 (1904), 97–106; Frankel, Mishnah (19232), 118–30; Halevi, Dorot, 7 (1923), 455–67, 620–9, 659–64; Derenbourg, Hist, 329ff., 395ff., 418ff.; Hyman, Toledot, 988–1008; J.S. Zuri, Rabbi Akiva (Heb., 1924); Alon, Toledot, 1 (1958), index; I. Konovitz, Rabbi Akiva (Heb., 19652). add. bibliography: S. Lieberman, in: Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960), 118–126; S. Friedman, in: Saul Lieberman Memorial Volume (Heb., 1988), 119–164; S. Friedman, in: jsij, 3 (2004), 1–39; D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel (1993); T. Ilan, in: Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine (1995); idem, in: ajs Review, 22:1 (1997), 1–17; S. Wald, Pesaḥim iii (Heb., 2000), 211–239.
[Harry Freedman /
Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]