Rabbi Akiba whom we remember especially on the day of Lag B'Omer, was the wisest and greatest Tanna (teacher) of his time, and one of the greatest of all times. When he passed away, "he left none like him," the Rabbis said. Many are the wise teachings and laws which he taught, and of which the Talmud is full. We bring you here some of his teachings:
A heathen once came to Rabbi Akiba, and asked him, 'Who created the world?'
'G‑d created the world,' Rabbi Akiba replied.
'Prove it to me,' persisted the heathen.
'Come back tomorrow,' Rabbi Akiba told him.
The following day the heathen came back, and Rabbi Akiba engaged him in conversation. 'What are you wearing?', Rabbi Akiba asked him.
'A cloak, as you see.'
'Who made it?' Rabbi Akiba asked.
'The weaver, of course.'
'I don't believe it; prove it to me!' Rabbi Akiba persisted.
'What proof do you want? Cannot you see that the weaver has made the cloth?'
'Then why do you ask for proof that G‑d created the world? Cannot you see that the Holy One blessed be He created it.'
And to his disciples Rabbi Akiba added, 'My children, just as the house is proof of the builder, and the cloth is proof of the weaver, and the door is proof of the joiner, so this world proclaims that G‑d created it.'
* * *
Rabbi Akiba had learned and studied the Torah more deeply and extensively than anyone else, yet he was very humble, for he knew that the Torah is endless, for it is the wisdom of G‑d. Said he, "All my learning is no more than like the fragrance of an Ethrog; the one who scents it, enjoys it; but the Ethrog loses nothing. Or it is as one who draws water from a spring, or lights a candle from a candle."
No wonder Rabbi Akiba despised a conceited and vain man, whose learning only filled him with self-importance and vain glory. Of such a man Rabbi Akiba said, "He is like a carcass lying on the road; whoever passes it puts his fingers to his nose, and hurries away from it."
The following story also illustrates his humility and respect for the Torah.
Rabbi Akiba was once called upon to read to the congregation a portion of the Torah, but he did not want to do it. His amazed disciples asked him, 'Master, have you not taught us that the Torah is our life and the length of our days? Why did you refuse to read it to the congregation?' And Rabbi Akiba replied, simply: 'Believe me, I had not prepared myself for it; for no man should address words of Torah to the public unless he has first revised them to himself three or four times.
Rabbi Akiba did not keep his learning to himself, but had many students and disciples, more than any other single teacher. As you know, he had no less than 24 thousand students at one time. Some of the greatest Rabbis of the next generation were among his disciples, as, for example, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai, whose Yahrzeit is observed on Lag B'Omer. Together with another great Sage, Rabbi Chanina ben Chakinai, Rabbi Simeon went to Bene Beraq to learn Torah from Rabbi Akiba, and they stayed there for thirteen years!
Quoting a passage from Koheleth (11:6) "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening do not rest thy hand," Rabbi Akiba explained it to mean: "Teach disciples in thy youth, and do not stop teaching in thy old age."
As you know, it is customary to say 'Perek' (Sayings of Our Fathers) on the Sabbath, beginning with the Sabbath after Pesach. Some say it until Shovuoth, others throughout the summer. Among the 'Fathers' whose teachings we find in this tractate of the Mishnah there is also Rabbi Akiba. In the third chiapter we find the following sayings of his:
"Jesting and frivolity lead a man on to immorality.
"The Massorah (Tradition) is a fence to the Torah.
"Tithes (the prescribed Tzedoko, charity) are a fence to riches.
"Vows (self-restraint) are a fence to a holy life.
"A fence to wisdom is silence."
He used to say:
"Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G‑d. . .
"Beloved are Israel, for they were called children of G‑d. . .
"Beloved are Israel, for unto them was given the desirable Torah."
Man is indeed the beloved creature, and Israel has been chosen to receive the Torah; that is why one's responsibility is all the greater. And so he reminds us:
"Everything is foreseen (by G‑d), yet freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged with grace, yet all is according to the amount of work accomplished."
Rabbi Akiba goes on to compare the world to a store, where anybody can come and buy things on credit, but everything is recorded in a ledger, and payment will have to be made. Said he:
"Everything is given on pledge, and a net is spread over all the living: the shop is open; and the shopkeeper gives credit; and the ledger lies open; and the hand writes; and whosoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors regularly make their daily rounds; and exact payment from man, whether he is willing or not.
We have no more room here to give you many more of his great sayings and teachings, so we will conclude with one of his favorite sayings, which will do us good to remember always:
"Whatever G‑d does is for the best."