Rabbi Akiva

Rabbi Akiva (properly, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, ‘Akiva son of Joseph’) is one of the best known of the early rabbis, and belongs to the group of rabbis now known as Tanna’im.  He lived from approximately 50 CE to 135 CE (the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule) and was active as a rabbi in the early part of the 2nd century CE.

Jewish tradition tells us that he came from an extremely poor family and worked as a shepherd until about the age of 40 when he started learning (starting with learning to read and write alongside local school children).  After many years of learning, which necessitated him being separated from his wife and family, he became a revered rabbi with numerous students who learned under him.  He was loved not only for his learning and keen analytical mind but also for his personality and skills at exposition (explaining things in a way that other people could understand).  Rabbi Akiva also had a reputation for being humble but concerned for the welfare of all people irrespective of wealth or rank.

His keen analytical mind made it possible for him to take the enormous quantity of information which had been passed down as part of the Oral Law and arrange it systematically.  This work of arranging the Oral Law systematically by subject was continued by his student Rabbi Meir, and later Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (‘Judah the Prince’) used the arrangement when compiling the Mishnah. Rabbi Akiva also diligently identified the Biblical sources for the various laws contained in the Oral Law.

Many stories of Rabbi Akiva’s life have been passed down.  These include stories about his impoverished early life, his marriage to Rachel (the daughter of his wealthy employer) and subsequent decision to start to learn, the circumstances of his learning, his career as an acclaimed and beloved rabbi (teacher), and his eventual death.

Rabbi Akiva is well known as a supporter of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule even though he was an old man by that time (the revolt lasted from 132 to 135 CE).  He was captured by the Romans and charged with disregarding Roman laws forbidding the teaching of Judaism.  Rabbi Akiva courageously asserted that he would continue to teach Judaism; for this he was staked to the ground and flayed alive, resulting in his death. Famously, he died with the words of the Shema prayer on his lips.

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