Rabbi Akiva-Hero and Martyr

One of Israel’s greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, was a scholar, a teacher, a shepherd and a revolutionary.

A revolutionary? In the year 70 of the Common Era, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem. The emperor promised to rebuild the city, but his plan was to rebuild it and rename it Aeila Capitalina, dedicating it to the Roman god, Jupiter. This outrageous act, along with the harsh laws forbidding the study of Torah and the observance of many of the mitzvot, led to the Bar Kochba revolt over 60 years after the destruction of the Temple, in the year 132 CE.

While Shimon Bar Kochba was the military commander of the revolt, the spiritual leader was Rabbi Akiva. He had such faith in Bar Kochba that he believed him to be the Messiah, which, unfortunately, he was not. It was during the Bar Kochba revolt that the 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague. The rabbis understood this plague to be a result of the students lack of respect for each other, and, despite their high level of intellectual development, their lack of proper moral comportment was fatal. Devastated by the death of his pupils, and the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, Rabbi Akiva nevertheless persevered and continued teaching his surviving students.

Living in such turbulent times, however, Rabbi Akiva’s life was not to end peacefully. Ignoring the Roman prohibitions against the Jewish people and their practices, he was declared a criminal for teaching Torah wherever he could, and was eventually captured by the Romans. Tortured, he called out joyfully: “All my life I’ve been waiting to fulfill the concept ‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources…'[the first paragraph of the Shema] and now I finally have the chance.” Rabbi Akiva died a martyr’s death.

Rabbi Akiva–The Simple Shepherd

Where did Rabbi Akiva get the strength to persevere while watching all but 5 of his students die, his country in revolution, and while being tortured himself?

Akiva ben Yosef ben Avraham was not always a great sage. In fact, he was the son of a convert who was once a thoroughly ignorant and illiterate shepherd. So poor and downtrodden a figure was Akiva ben Yosef that his father-in-law, one of the wealthiest men in Israel, disinherited his daughter, Rachel, for marrying him

At the age of forty, Akiva’s life changed suddenly. One day, while out tending his flocks, he noticed a rock with a strange hole going straight through it. This hole was created by constantly dripping water. Akiva ben Yosef decided then and there to go and learn Torah, for if dripping water could bore a hole into solid rock, then even he, a forty year old man could learn Torah through constant effort. He had to start from scratch, for Akiva ben Yosef did not even know the aleph-bet!

Fully supported by Rachel, his wife, he went to study Torah for 12 years. When he returned he overheard his wife tell a friend that she would gladly let him learn for another 12 years. And he did. When he finally returned, he had become the great sage and acquired his 24,000 students.

Like Moses, Rabbi Akiva started as a shepherd. He became one of the greatest sages of the Jewish people with enough wisdom to unravel the intricacies of the law, guide the populace, and inspire an army.