Akiba ben Joseph

The Palestinian rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (ca. 50-ca. 135) was a founder of rabbinic Judaism. He developed a method of Hebrew scriptural interpretation.

The early life of Akiba ben Joseph is enshrouded in legends, anecdotes, sayings, and numerous references in the Talmud. He was born in the vicinity of Lydda to a humble peasant family. Until well on in years, he was an illiterate shepherd employed by the wealthy Ben Kalba Sabua, whose daughter Rachel married Akiba on condition that he devote himself to learning. Her father opposed the match and banished Rachel from his home.

Akiba labored hard to earn a meager livelihood. When his child started school, Akiba accompanied him, and together they learned to read. Despite many discouragements, Akiba persevered in his studies and at the age of 40 entered the rabbinical academy of Johanan ben Zakkai, a Pharisaic teacher, at Yabneh (Jamnia). In the academy Akiba, himself a commoner, invariably championed the plebeian viewpoint rather than the patrician.

In the year 96 Akiba went with other rabbis on a mission to Rome to persuade the emperor Domitian to revoke an anti-Jewish edict. Shortly after their arrival, Domitian was assassinated, and his successor, Nerva, adopted a more humane policy toward the Jews. From a convert to Judaism in Rome, Akiba received a generous bequest, which enabled him to establish an academy at Bnei Berak near Jaffa. He attracted thousands of students, to whom he lectured under the shady boughs of a palm tree.

Akiba developed a new method of textual interpretation which attached significance and meaning to every word, letter, jot, and tittle of the scriptural text. It was imaginative, but unlike the logical system employed by Hillel, it was rather artificial. With this new approach Akiba was able to adjust the law to the needs of the times. His disciples applied this approach in the Midrashic (biblical expositional) works they compiled.

Another of Akiba's outstanding contributions to scholarship was his arrangement according to subject matter, in divisions and subdivisions, of the earlier collections of the Oral Law, which heretofore had been organized hazardly. His system was further developed by his disciple Rabbi Meir, and it was set up in its present form, the Mishnah, by Judah I (Judah Hanasi, the Prince) about 200.

Akiba played an important role in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome (132-135) and insisted on continuing to teach the Law, though to do so was a capital offense. He was imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the Romans, dying with the Shema Yisroel ("Hear O Israel," Deuteronomy 6:4), Israel's profession of faith, on his lips.

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Further Reading on Akiba ben Joseph

Herbert Danby's translation of the Mishnah (1933) is excellent. A splendid account of Akiba's life, times, and thought is in Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (1936). Finkelstein's chapter, "Akiba," in Simon Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Personalities in Ancient and Medieval Times (1959), is essentially a summary of his book-length study. Morris Adler, The World of the Talmud (1959), deals with the background of the Talmud.

Additional Biography Sources

Finkelstein, Louis, Akiba: scholar, saint, and martyr, Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson, 1990.

Rabbi Akiva: sage of all sages, Woodmere, N.Y.: Bet-Shamai Publications, 1989.