Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris


Love and Law.

The man who now came to the fore was of a different mould—the famous Rabbi Akiba. He was born in Palestine in the year 50 C. E. that is, some 20 years before the Temple fell. Many a pretty legend is woven around his life. Have you ever realized that it is only around great men that legends most luxuriantly grow? Imagination does not seek to picture incidents in the lives of the commonplace. Not only poor, but ignorant, Akiba despised scholars and scholarship. One day, so runs the story, this humble shepherd met Rachel, the beautiful daughter of his master, Kalba Sabua, and fell in love with her. Angry at his daughter's attachment for this boor, the rich Kalba disinherited her. Her sweet self-sacrifice in sharing poverty with him rather than wealth without him, roused the noblest qualities dormant in Akiba's nature. She was determined to bear yet further privation that he might become a scholar in the Law. For it was to his ignorance, rather than to his poverty, that the father had objected. Among no people was illiteracy so great a disgrace as among the Jews, and among none did learning simply, confer so much honor. So at her urgency, he reluctantly left his home to sit at the feet of the Rabbis of the Schools. The chronicles of chivalry furnish pretty stories of knights-errant hieing forth at the bidding of fair ladies to make conquests in distant fields of battle. Akiba went forth at Rachel's bidding; and is not the mastery of knowledge a victory as renowned as that of war? A wonderful pupil he became, for he had the gift of enthusiasm. But while he was winning renown at the Academy, she, alone and at a distance, was battling with poverty, at one time having to sell her hair to buy food for her child. But still the self-sacrificing woman would not permit his return.

One day it was announced in the village in which she lived that the great scholar, Rabbi Akiba, was about to visit it. He came, surrounded by many disciples, and as the crowd of admirers gathered about him, they pushed aside a poorly clad woman who tried to reach his side. But espying her, he parted the crowd and caught her in his arms. To the astonished spectators he declared, "All that I know I owe to her, for she was my inspiration."

So far the romantic side of his life. On its literary side he was a great Tanna, and famous scholars came from his School. His method of interpreting new Law from old was based on the theory that no word or particle in the Pentateuch was redundant; if any appeared in the text that it seemed could be dispensed with, then it must have some hidden significance. This changed the law of Moses from a limited group of unvarying precepts to a living fount of continuous tradition, and made the laws of the days of the Jewish monarchy capable of modification and enlargement to fit Israel's life under the Roman Empire. Interpretation that would produce new precepts to meet the changing conditions of later times was undertaken by Hillel but never before reduced to so complete a system as was done by Rabbi Akiba. On such a principle there was no end of the possible deductions from Scripture. Yet the Rabbis were too earnest and too conscientious knowingly to abuse it. The theory worked in the interest of progress. The institution of this method has earned for Akiba the title of "father of rabbinic Judaism."

He further gave an impetus to the classification of the Halachoth already begun before his day. This classification of the Oral Law was called Mishna, or Second Law, of which we shall hear more later on.

He, too, had a voice in fixing the canon of Scripture.

Akiba's Ethics.

Here follow some of his sayings:

"How favored is man for he was created in the Image" (of God).

"—Who slays a man sins against the devine image."

"Take thy seat below thy rank until bidden to take a higher place."

"God is merciful but He does not permit this mercy to impair His justice."

"Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of will is given to man."

There is also ascribed to him on doubtful authority the maxim, "Whatever God doeth He doeth for the best."

There is a mystic note throughout his teachings; mark the following:

"Everything is given in pledge ... the office is open, the broker gives credit; there is the ledger and the hand writes; whoever wishes to borrow may borrow, but the bailiffs daily exact; the judgment is fair; and everything is prepared for the Banquet."

In the spirit of Hillel's Golden Rule he regarded the greatest principle of Judaism the law "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

He was always entrusted with tasks of delicacy and consideration—the notification to R. Gamaliel that he had been impeached, to R. Eliezar that he had been excommunicated. To the latter he broke the disagreeable news in these words: "It seems your brethren turn away from you."

Law and Faith.

Akiba established an Academy at Bene Barak. There was a wonderful fascination about the man that attracted hundreds of students to him—tradition says thousands. That was in part due to the enthusiasm of his faith. An instance of his faith is illustrated in his visit to Rome, with some of his colleagues, to intercede on behalf of his people. They burst into tears at beholding Rome's splendor, mentally contrasting it with Jerusalem's desolation. He met their tears with a hopeful smile: "The present ruined condition of our beloved land foretold by the Prophets, only assures me of the fulfilment of their brighter prophecies of our ultimate triumph."

Alas, even faith may have its drawbacks! Akiba's deep conviction that the restoration of Judea's independence was at hand, to be effected by the advent of the Messiah, induced him to encourage the revolt that was quietly but steadily spreading among his disaffected brethren.

Hadrian, little understanding the spirit of this people, reported to the Senate after making a circuit through the Roman provinces, that all was peace. He was both foolish and cruel enough to display his absolute power and Israel's complete subjection, not only by altogether withdrawing permission to rebuild the Jewish Temple, but by ordering a heathen shrine to be reared on its site, thus completely to paganize Jerusalem.

This was the last straw. The aged Rabbi Joshua went to implore the emperor to desist from this wanton project, but in vain. It was one of the last acts of the Patriarch's life. When he died it was said good counsel ceased in Israel. Like Antiochus of old, Hadrian wished to obliterate Judaism—and Christianity, too, for that matter,—and make the idolatrous worship of Serapis universal.


Masora is the technical term for the notes on the traditional Scripture text by the Fathers of the Synagogue. The original text has been thus preserved intact in these scrupulous and reverent hands. See article, "Masora," Isidore Harris, Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. i.

Akiba:—The blessing that charity brings to the giver was a favorite idea of Akiba—a Mitzvah!

Simon b. Shetach was called the "Restorer of the Law"; Hillel the "Regenerator of the Law"; Akiba the "Father of Rabbinic Judaism."

In deciding the Canon of Scripture, Akiba's influence kept Song of Songs and Esther in the Bible, but unfortunately kept Ecclesiasticus out of it.

Theme for discussion:—Should Akiba's method of law deduction be called casuistic?