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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Akiva ben Joseph
Hebrew Name(s): עקיבה בן יוסף ;רבי עקיבה; עקיבא
Other Names: Rabbi Akiva, Akiva ben Yosef, Akiba
Period: Tannaim — 1st–2nd Century
Location: Palestine
Dates: c. 50–c. 132

Akiva ben Joseph was a Palestinian Tanna of the Third Generation. Accounts of Rabbi Akiva's life are surrounded by myths and legends which recognize his greatness. It is known, however, that he married Rachel, the daughter of a Joshua, and that Akiva was, in his early life, a shepherd (Yeb. 86b) who decided at the age of forty years (approx.) to place himself at the feet of the rabbis, whom he had previously detested. He studied (in Lydda) for a period of some thirteen years before becoming a teacher himself. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was Akiva's first teacher and the only one he later designated as "rabbi".  Akiva's other teachers were Joshua ben Hananiah and Nahum of Gizmo. He was a contemporary of, and on an equal footing with, Gamaliel II.
Akiva established a school in Bene Berak (near Jaffa) which produced some of the great rabbis of the middle Second Century: Rabbi Meir, Judah ben Ilai, Simeon ben Yoḥai, Jose ben Ḥalafta, Eleazer ben Shammua and Nehemiah. Akiva also travelled widely and is known to have visited Jewish communities in Rome and Nehardea (Babylonia) and others between. His believe that Bar Koḥba was the messiah has led some to propose that Akiva was himself a revolutionary. However, a Baraita (Ber. 61b) relates that his execution by the Roman authorities in 132 CE was on account of his disregard for the Hadrianic edicts against the practice of the Jewish religion. Thus is seems clear that his martyrdom was on account of religious rather than political activities.
Akiva's interest in "political" matters, however, did extend internally in Jewish affairs. With Gamaliel he was a supporter of the need for a central authority for Judaism and with this in mind Akiva supported the idea that the patriarch should be the true central chief of the Jews (R.H. 2.9). The patriarchal authority, however, should be subject to the limitations of the Written and the Oral law and its interpretation, which must lie in the hands of the learned.
Akiva was noted for his benevolence and support for the sick and needy and held the office of an Overseer of the poor (Ma'as. Sh. 5.9; Kid. 27a).
Akiva's enduring influence is in his teaching and his logistical approach to the scriptural material. To him is attributed the credit for fixing the canon of the Books of the Hebrew scriptures with the exclusion of the Apocrypha, although he does not omit them entirely as religious texts and frequently quotes from Ecclesiasticus. It is suggested that
[T]he motive underlying his antagonism to the Apocrypha, namely, the desire to disarm Christians—especially Jewish Christians—who drew their “proofs” from the Apocrypha, must also be attributed his wish to emancipate the Jews of the Dispersion from the domination of the Septuagint, the errors and inaccuracies in which frequently distorted the true meaning of Scripture, and were even used as arguments against the Jews by the Christians. (The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906)
It is thought that Akiva guided Aquila in providing Greek speaking Jews with a rabbinical Bible (Jerome on Isa. 53:14; PT. Kid. i. 59a) and that he revised the Targums. Targum Onkelos reflects Akiva's halakhah.
During a period in Jewish history when a systemization of Jewish halakhah was in formation—one which incorporated oral tradition and biblical study and its practical application in Jewish life, and paved the way for the future—Akiva was able to make a valuable contribution. To this end he gathered together accumulated halakhot, and brought together different systems of thought, so that both logic and exegesis, which were variously conceived and taught, could be practically studied and developed. Akiva's contribution to the systemization of halakhot has led to the (probably correct) tradition that he provided:
1. a codex of halakhah (mishnayot) which formed the methodic arrangement of the Mishnah
2. Midrash, the exegesis of halakhah and
3. the logical amplification of halakhah, Halakhot.
Thus it is possible that the Mishnah of Judah haNasi had it's source in the teaching of the school of Rabbi Akiva.
“Our Mishnah comes directly from Rabbi Meir, the Tosefta from R. Nehemiah, the Sifra from R. Judah, and the Sifre from R. Simon; but they all took Akiba for a model in their works and followed him” (Sanh. 86a).
In this way, through the school and disciples of Akiva emerged codified halakhah (Mishnah), the Tosefta, which in original form provides a concise logical argument for the Mishnah, and halakhic midrash. Halakhic midrash originating to the tradition of Akiva includes: the Mekilta of Rabbi Simon on Exodus (in manuscript only); Sifra on Leviticus; Sifre Zutta on Numbers (excerpts in Yalk. Shim‘oni, and a manuscript in Midrash ha-Gadol, edited for the first time by B. Koenigsberger, 1894); and the Sifre to Deuteronomy, the halakhic portion of which belongs to Akiva’s school.
The contribution of Akiva to Halakhah changed the way Judaism, in the period following the loss of the Temple, used halakhic midrash. The old midrashic approach, much of which was a product of many internal struggles between Phariseeism and Sadduceeism, was reshaped by the halakhic methodology of Akiva which drew teachings from the external conflicts of the period between Judaism and Hellenism, and between Judaism and Hellenistic Christianity. The result was a halakhah which drew Judaism together in a climate which could no longer rely on the Temple and its rituals, or the scriptures alone (since these were also the scriptures of Christians.) Akiva's halakhah helped to combat the possibility of the accommodation of foreign philosophies and spirituality (e.g. Gnosticism) by providing a counterpoint to the intellectual influence of the non-Jewish world. By teaching his conviction that the Torah is pure essence where nothing is superfluous Akiva was able to provide the Jewish intellectual mind with new challenges in reconciling the unchangeableness of Torah with the necessity of development in Judaism.
In the Rabbinic tradition later rabbis looked back to Akiva as a significant figure in the post-Temple period during which the Oral Torah became an organized and concrete part of Jewish revelation and teaching, codified and ready for the development that followed in the Mishnah and Talmud. As Avot D'Rabbi Natan (Ch. 18) put it:
Rabbi Akiva was like a worker who took his basket and went outside. He found wheat and put it in; he found barley and put it in; he found spelt and put it in; he found lentils and put them in. When he came into his house, he set aside the wheat by itself, the barley by itself, the beans by themselves. Rabbi Akiva did likewise, and made the whole Torah into separate rings.
Though a process of separating Oral and Written Torah and traditions into various subject headings (rings) Akiva took up a process, perhaps already started by his teachers and others before them of systematic organization, and provided the earliest codification of the materials that formed the foundation of the Mishnah (Recitation, Recapitulation,) itself the core ingredient of the Talmud which was to follow.
Such was the stature of Akiva that many edifying legends circulated about him. One such legend, recounted in the Talmud (Ber. 61b), relates to the manner and circumstance of his death by martyrdom. Despite terrible torture Akiva [it was the hour to say the Shema] was observed by his students to be praying. How is it, they asked, that even now as you are being tortured can you be offering prayers to God. Akiva replied, "All my life I have worried about the verse, 'with all your soul,' and I asked myself 'when will I ever be able to fulfill this command?' And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?" Then on the final word Echad [One] Akiva extended the word until his last breath expired. Where upon a heavenly voice announced, "Blessed are you Rabbi Akiva, that your life expired with "Echad."


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