This story provides background about Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest of the early rabbis, and in particular tells about his early life before he became a rabbi.
Akiva was forty years old and he had never studied Torah. All his life he had worked as a shepherd.
His employer, Kalba Savua, was one of the wealthiest men in Yerushalayim. His home was like a palace, full of food and drink for everyone who came to visit. Many guests came, not only poor and needy people, but also the wise and the learned, for Kalba Savua was known as a man who respected the Torah and its scholars.
Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua, wore beautiful clothes and jewellery and ate expensive foods. She had servants and helpers to do her bidding. But ever since she was a little girl, she had seen and heard the rabbis and scholars in her home, and she valued the study of Torah above all.
Kalba Savua hoped that Rachel would marry one of the wealthy young scholars who came to their home. But instead, Rachel thought of the poor, unlearned shepherd, Akiva.
Most people thought Akiva was a very plain simple man, but Rachel saw that he was modest and polite and that he had more good sense than most of the people she knew. She would often think, “If only he could study Torah, he would be wiser and more righteous than anyone else!”
One day Rachel asked Akiva, “If I became your wife, would you go to the House of Study to learn the Torah?”
“Yes,” he answered simply. They were secretly engaged, for Rachel knew that her father would not consent to their marriage. But even so, news of the engagement reached Kalba Savua and he was beside himself with pain and anger. How could his wise, beautiful daughter marry a poor, ignorant shepherd?
“If you marry Akiva, you will leave my house” he warned her. “Nor will you inherit any of my wealth!” But Rachel did marry Akiva and her father sent her away empty-handed.
She and Akiva were poor but happy. They rented a small shed. They used straw for pillows and blankets, and they ate whatever meagre food they could afford. Akiva grieved to see his beloved Rachel suffer. She had been used to such luxuries and comforts! Now her hands were rough from the cold and her beautiful hair was covered with straw instead of gold and silver ornaments. “If only I could, I would give you a ‘Jerusalem of gold,’ a golden pin with a picture of Yerushalayim engraved on it,” he said.
Just then, Eliyahu the Prophet appeared. Disguised as a poor man, he knocked on their door. He came to comfort Akiva and Rachel and to show them that they were not as poor as they thought.
“Give me some straw,” he pleaded. “My wife has just given birth to a baby and we don’t have anything to cover her with or to keep her warm”
They gladly shared their straw with him. Then Akiva turned to his wife and said, “Look, Rachel, we are rich enough to help someone else.”
But Rachel did not need this comfort, for she was brave and strong. “Just go to the House of Study and learn Torah,” she begged Akiva. “That is all I desire.”
Rabbi Akiva went to learn Torah with the great teachers, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah. Day and night, he pored over the teachings of the Talmud and made great progress, just as Rachel had hoped.
He chopped down trees for firewood and sold them in the marketplace to earn money for food. Whenever he could, he sent money to Rachel, but sometimes she went hungry.
For twelve years Akiva learned Torah. In all that time he did not once return home, for he and Rachel agreed that he would not come back until he felt he had finished his studies.
At last, after the twelfth year, Rabbi Akiva returned. He was now a famous rabbi and he came with 12,000 students! Rabbi Akiva went directly to Rachel’s house.
Just as he was about to enter, he heard someone inside speaking. A gruff voice was saying, “Your father was right for banishing you from his home! How could you marry a man like Akiva? For twelve long years he has left you alone!”
“If it were up to me,” Rachel answered, “I would tell him to stay another twelve years and learn even more Torah.”
Rabbi Akiva thought, “If this is what Rachel desires, then I shall go back to my studies.” So Rabbi Akiva returned to the House of Study for twelve more years. He became a talmid chacham – a wise rabbi and scholar.
At last he returned to Yerushalayim. 24,000 pupils came with him – one thousand students for each year he was away. The entire city turned out to greet him. His wife Rachel came too. Her neighbours urged her to dress up in honour of Akiva.
“Will you go to greet your husband looking so shabby? Borrow some beautiful clothes and dress up for the occasion!” they said. But Rachel refused. “My husband, Rabbi Akiva, is good and wise. He will not laugh at me even if I come to greet him in my simple clothes.”
Rachel was pushed and shoved by the large crowd of students surrounding Rabbi Akiva. She fell down at his feet and held onto him laughing and crying. All these years she had waited for him and at last he was home.
When the disciples saw her, not knowing who she was, they tried to push her away. But at that moment, Rabbi Akiva saw Rachel. He recognized her immediately. Moved to tears, he called out, “Let her be! Whatever learning I have belongs to her. Whatever I am, and whatever knowledge I have given you is due to my dear Rachel, for it was she who sent me to study and who suffered because of me.”
Meanwhile, Kalba Savua heard that a wise man had come to Yerushalayim. For a long time, he had regretted the vow he had taken in anger many years before. He often thought of Rachel’s suffering, but he felt helpless because of his vow. Now he decided, “I will ask the wise scholar who has come to Yerushalayim to absolve me from my vow. Then I will be able to help my daughter.”
Kalba Savua went to see the famous rabbi. He did not recognize the poor shepherd who had once worked for him. Rabbi Akiva looked at him and saw the deep lines of regret and sorrow etched in his face. He understood how much Kalba Savua regretted his vow. Rabbi Akiva asked him, “If you had known that Rachel’s husband would someday be a great and honoured scholar, would you have taken the vow?”
“No, no!” cried Kalba Savua. “If Akiva had known only one chapter, even one law of the Torah, I would certainly not have made such a vow!”
“In that case,” said Rabbi Akiva, “Your vow is not valid. I am your son-in-law, Akiva the shepherd!”
Kalba Savua was stunned. He fell to his feet and kissed Akiva. He and his daughter were soon reunited and were very happy. Kalba Savua divided his property and gave Rabbi Akiva half of his fortune. Akiva didn’t forget his promise to Rachel, and he bought her the most beautiful golden pin he could find – a ‘Jerusalem of gold.’ But in Rachel’s eyes, her most important possession was the Torah which Akiva had acquired in the days when they were poor.