The Grave Site of Rabbi Akiva Ben Yssaf

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef

Rabbi Akiva was among the greatest of the great, as it is written, “Are you like Akiva ben Yosef, whose renown fills the entire world?” It was thus that one day, Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus, whose eyesight had dimmed though age, called out to the great man (whose precept we present today in order to comment on it). He was the first that we know of who endeavored to systematically classify the immense knowledge base that is the Oral Law. It is to him that we owe the first manuscript of the Mishnah, and it is to him that we may attribute Tosefta, Sifre, Sifra, and the historical work Seder Olam Rabba.

Just as important as his scholarship was his teaching abilities, as well as his work for the good of the community. His piety, fear of sin, love of G-d, and submission to the Divine Will always came to the fore in both major and minor things.

His life’s destiny was incredible. His father was an idolater who had converted to Judaism. The son grew up in ignorance and earned a living in keeping sheep, until eventually a young noble woman won him over to Torah study. He left his father’s home to follow his greatly loved wife, yet in poverty and penury.

There was perhaps never a man who had to fight and battle to acquire knowledge as much as Rabbi Akiva did. Although no longer young, he had to begin by the most rudimentary of lessons, learning how to read and write at the same time as earning a living for his wife and children. No one ever had to show as much patience and perseverance as Rabbi Akiva. He learned for 16 years with his teachers, without ever speaking, until eventually he raised his voice to utter a decisive statement, finally triumphing over his own teacher.

Probably no other man was involved in such prodigious teaching activities as Rabbi Akiva. Around him were 24,000 followers, men young and old that he would instruct in the fields. Perhaps no other man lived though such terrible events as Rabbi Akiva. His disciples were taken before his very eyes, the man that he had thought was the Messiah (Bar Kochva) succumbed in combat to the Romans, and Israel suffered a defeat the likes of which it had never previously undergone, nor undergone since. All seemed lost, but Rabbi Akiva didn’t lose his faith in G-d. This confidence gave him the courage to begin his teaching activities anew, at an advanced age, and to develop men who would become the pillars of Judaism. His work, blessed by G-d, nevertheless aroused the anger of the Romans. He was thrown into prison and gave his life for the sanctification of the Divine Name. When he was being executed by the most horrific means of torture, he proclaimed the unity of G-d and praised his Creator for his being able to give witness, through his death, to his infinite love for the Master of the world.

The precept that the great Sage left us (See Perkei Avoth, The Rights of Man, above) forms the beginning of a series of statements that gives us some perspective on the depth of his thought.

After the return of the captives from Babylon, when the Men of the Great Assembly founded a new Jewish state, they uttered a profound statement: “Make a fence around the Torah” (Perkei Avoth 1:1). The Torah resembles an exquisite garden where the most precious trees, the most useful plants, and the most beautiful flowers grow, thrive, and flourish. Tame and wild animals, wicked and dishonest men, and children and thoughtless people would quickly wreck the garden if a protective did not encircle it.

As he lay lifeless on the ground, bleeding from a thousand wounds, Rabbi Akiva revealed to our people that he was the man worthy of grabbing hold of the principle uttered by the Men of the Great Assembly.




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