Rab­bi Aki­va: Sage of the Talmud

Bar­ry W. Holtz
  • Review
By – May 5, 2017

If asked while stand­ing on one foot who is the best-known rab­bi, most Jews would prob­a­bly answer Rab­bi Aki­va. Aki­va abounds in the sto­ries in the Tal­mud; he appears in the Hag­gadah; and his excru­ci­at­ing death is retold every year in the Yom Kip­pur litur­gy. From such sto­ries and sources, Bar­ry Holtz, not­ed author and pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, has fash­ioned a biog­ra­phy of the pre­em­i­nent teacher and for­ma­tive fig­ure in rab­binic Judaism, the Judaism that has been prac­ticed for two thou­sand years.

As Holtz points out, it is not pos­si­ble to write a biog­ra­phy of Aki­va in the sense that con­tem­po­rary read­ers under­stand the term. With one very small excep­tion, there are no records of Aki­va oth­er than inter­nal Jew­ish sources; he left no writ­ings, and the Romans took no note of him. What can be known, how­ev­er, is the cul­tur­al and social set­ting in which Aki­va lived and the intent of the sto­ries about him — and the fact that Aki­va has come down to us as a hum­ble and beloved teacher, the mod­el of how to live and die as a Jew.

Born around 50 CE, dur­ing the time of tur­moil that led to the war in which the Sec­ond Tem­ple was destroyed and hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews were slaugh­tered, Aki­va lived dur­ing a peri­od in which the very sur­vival of Judaism was in ques­tion. Holtz sum­ma­rizes recent schol­ar­ship that shows the utter dis­ar­ray of the Jews of Pales­tine after the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple. Into this time of over­thrown beliefs, a small group of elite func­tionar­ies — not yet called rab­bis — met in infor­mal cir­cles to study Torah and to debate top­ics of law, ethics, the­ol­o­gy, and wor­ship. This is the world in which Aki­va lived.

The facts of Akiva’s life may be few, but the sto­ries are many. Aki­va emerges as an endear­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, and bril­liant fig­ure, an unlet­tered man of undis­tin­guished birth who at the age of forty sud­den­ly decides to throw him­self into the study of Torah and soon has learned every­thing.” Sto­ries of the rab­bis do not often dwell on their roman­tic lives, so it is par­tic­u­lar­ly touch­ing to learn of Aki­va and his wife. (Although named Rachel only in an aggadic source, the name was lat­er ascribed as a mat­ter of con­ven­tion.) The daugh­ter of a well-born and wealthy man who dis­owns her, Akiva’s wife insists that Aki­va study Torah in order to mar­ry her; he is also devot­ed to her, as read­ers see in a charm­ing scene of the two of them shar­ing a hayloft and Akiva’s wish­ing the straw in her hair were a crown of gold.

One of the plea­sures of Rab­bi Aki­va is see­ing the way Holtz stitch­es togeth­er Akiva’s life from the sto­ries about him in the midrashim and the Baby­lon­ian and the Jerusalem Tal­mud. Com­piled cen­turies after his death, the Tal­muds gath­er sto­ries from ear­li­er sources. In the rab­bis’ redact­ing of the sto­ries and in the dif­fer­ences between var­i­ous ver­sions, Holtz demon­strates Akiva’s emer­gence as the cen­tral fig­ure in many rab­binic dis­cus­sions and the ways in which his influ­ence and impor­tance grew because of his cre­ative and sen­si­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of the Torah. The epi­thet Sage of the Torah indi­cates Akiva’s promi­nence in shap­ing the dis­course that is the foun­da­tion from which rab­binic Judaism evolved.

Holtz writes grace­ful­ly, invit­ing read­ers into the world of the Tal­mud and tal­mu­dic schol­ar­ship. Giv­en the ear­ly obscu­ri­ty of the rab­bis and their inaus­pi­cious begin­nings, it is com­pelling to read how the frag­ments of Tem­ple Judaism were pre­served and nur­tured into what most of con­sid­er Judaism today. And much of this revolves around Aki­va, whose intel­lect and inno­v­a­tive inter­pre­tive meth­ods con­tin­ue to inform and inspire both stu­dents and teachers.

Relat­ed Content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions