When we go on our kosher cruises, we make sure that with each land tour is an opportunity to learn about history and heritage. However, while the places that we visit are quite rich in Jewish history, that doesn’t mean that history is confined to such locales. Rather, it connects with other places and time periods all over the world. Maimonides, for example, composed the Mishneh Torah in Iberia, but his original scholarly sources came from his predecessors, each with their own stories and contexts. One of these influential predecessors was Rabbi Akiva, Rosh la-Hakhamim.
The Life of a Scholar
Rabbi Akiva was born around 50 CE, and unlike many other great Jewish scholars of antiquity, he did not begin his life with rabbinical training or scholarship. Rather, he spent the first 40 years of his life as a shepherd. However, like several other important figures in Jewish history, the exact records of his life were not concrete, with different sources and legends contributing to his fascinating biography. What is known or at least agreed upon is that his wife was named Rachel, and that she helped shape him to be the influential sage that he is known for today.
Rabbi Akiva lived in that tumultuous period after the destruction of the Second Temple, a time when traditional ways of doing things were dashed, and new traditions were being made. The Mishnah was being compiled during that time, the written account of Jewish oral traditions. Rabbi Akiva was known for his systematization of the Mishnah, along with the Midrash. His work with the halakha was particularly exceptional, and despite his advanced age, he continued to study and write diligently.
Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kochba, as the latter’s revolt occurred during his lifetime, but there isn’t any concrete evidence that Rabbi Akiva participated in the revolution. Rabbi Akiva died in 135 CE, reportedly martyred by the Romans after continuing to teach the Torah publically.
A Legendary Legacy
Rabbi Akiva was such an influential figure in Jewish religious scholarship, so much that various folk tales and legends spoke of his piousness and diligent teachings. One such legend, the Pardes, presented him as the only man among four notable Jewish sages to survive direct exposure to the holiness of paradise. While we’re still waiting for the chance to resume our Glatt Kosher tours, why not read up on this great rabbi’s life, along with the historic context of how his writings came to be.