Akiva ben Yosef (Hebrew: עֲקִיבָא בֶּן יוֹסֵף, c. 50–135 CE), also known as Rabbi Akiva (רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא), was a leading Jewish scholar and sage, a tanna, of the latter part of the first century and the beginning of the second century. Rabbi Akiva was a leading contributor to the Mishnah and to Midrash halakha. He is also sometimes credited with redacting Abraham's version of the Sefer Yetzirah, one of the central texts of Jewish mysticism. He is referred to in the Talmud as Rosh la-Hakhamim "Chief of the Sages". He was executed by the Romans in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Rabbi Akiva began his life as a shepherd. He was entirely unlearned until his middle years. He likewise had no Jewish lineage to speak of (Talmud Brachot 27b). He descended from converts. And as he rose to greatness in his later years, he never forgot who he was or where he came from. His favorite principle was “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rich or poor, simple or scholarly, tall or short, strong or weak: We are all God’s children. God and His Torah are not the monopoly of the wise or the well-pedigreed. We are all precious to God.
The Midrash (Avot d’Rav Natan 6:2) records the turning point of Rabbi Akiva’s life. One day, at the age of 40, Akiva passed a well. He saw a rock with a hole carved into it. He inquired who shaped the rock, and was told it was caused by the slow but constant dripping of water on top of it. Akiva then reasoned: If a substance soft as water can penetrate a rock with slow, persistent motion, so too the Torah, which is hard as iron, can slowly but surely penetrate my heart. And this was Akiva’s turning point. He promptly set off to study Torah – for an uninterrupted 24 years.
According to the Talmud, Akiva was a shepherd for Ben Kalba Sabu'a when the latter's daughter, Rachel, noticed his modesty and fine character traits. She offered to marry him if he would agree to begin studying Torah, as at the time he was 40 years old and illiterate. When her father found out she was secretly betrothed to an unlearned man, he was furious. He drove his daughter out of his house, swearing that he would never help her while Akiva remained her husband. Akiva and his wife lived in such poverty that they used straw for their bed. The Talmud relates that once Elijah the prophet assumed the guise of a poor man and came to their door to beg some straw for a bed for his wife after she had given birth. When Akiva and his wife saw that there were people even poorer than they, Rachel said to him, "Go, and become a scholar".
By agreement with his wife, Akiva spent twelve years away from home, pursuing his studies. He would make a living by cutting wood from the forest, selling half for his wife's and children's upkeep, and using the other half for keeping a fire burning at night to keep himself warm and to provide light thereby for his own studies. Returning at the end of twelve years accompanied by 12,000 disciples, on the point of entering his home he overheard his wife say to a neighbor who was critical of his long absence: "If I had my wish, he should stay another twelve years at the academy." Without crossing the threshold, Akiva went back to the academy. He returned twelve years later escorted by 24,000 disciples. When his wife went out to greet him, some of his students, not knowing who she was, sought to restrain her. But Akiva exclaimed, "Let her alone; for what is mine and yours, is hers" (she deserves the credit for our Torah study). Not knowing who he was, Ben Kalba Sabu'a also approached Akiva and asked him for help annulling his vow to disown his daughter and her husband. Akiva asked him, "Would you have made your vow if you had known that he would become a great scholar?" Ben Kalba Sabu'a replied, "Had I known that he would learn even one chapter or one single halakha, [I would not have made the vow]". Akiva said to him, "I am that man". Ben Kalba Sabu'a fell at Akiva's feet and gave him half his wealth.
Bar Kochba Revolt
The Bar Kochba revolt (Hebrew: מֶרֶד בַּר כּוֹכְבָא; Mered Bar Kokhba) was a rebellion of the Jews of the Roman province of Judea, led by Shimon Bar Kosiba (renamed Shimon bar Kochba), against the Roman Empire. Fought circa 132–136 CE, it was the last of three major Jewish–Roman wars, so it is also known as The Third Jewish–Roman War or The Third Jewish Revolt.
Shimon Bar Kochba took the title Nasi Israel and ruled over an entity that was virtually independent for two and a half years. Rabbi Akiva identified Shimon Bar Kosiba as the Jewish messiah, and gave him the surname "Bar Kochba" meaning "Son of a Star" in Aramaic, from the Star Prophecy verse from Numbers 24:17: "There shall come a star out of Jacob". The era of the redemption of Israel was announced.
Rabbi Akiva suffered martyrdom on account of his 'transgression' of Roman edicts against the practice and the teaching of the Jewish religion, being sentenced to die by Tyrannus Rufus in Caesarea. Akiva's death occurred after several years of imprisonment, which places it at about 132, before the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt.
Rabbi Akiva spent his final moments on earth reciting the Shema, accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students asked him: “Our teacher, this far?!” He answered: The Shema teaches us to love God with all our souls (Deuteronomy 6:5), which I understood to mean “even if they are taking your soul.” My entire life I agonized over this verse: Would I really love God even if my soul were being taken? I at last have the opportunity to demonstrate this. How could I not do so now? And as the rabbi recited “the Lord is one” his soul left him.
Rabbi Akiva is counted as one of the “ten martyrs” slain by the Romans – the ten leading Torah giants killed during and shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. May his memory be for a blessing.