Rabbi Akiba lived at a time when the Romans were the rulers in the Holy Land, ever since they had destroyed the Beth Hamikdosh. There came a time when the Romans treated the Jews very harshly, and forbade them to study the Torah and observe the Mitzvoth. Rabbi Akiba, however, continued to teach his many pupils, until he was arrested and put into prison.

The warden of the prison permitted one of Rabbi Akiba's students to bring water to the prisoner. His name was Rabbi Joshua ha-Garsi (meaning, the Grinder of Beans, for this was his trade; there is another opinion that the name refers to his native town).

Every day Rabbi Joshua brought his master in prison a measure of water. Once the warden noticed what a large measure of water it was. "No man drinks so much water," the warden said suspiciously. "Maybe he wants to undermine the foundation of the prison?" Saying this, the warden poured out half of the water, and gave Rabbi Joshua the other half to take to the prisoner.

Asked why he was late, Rabbi Joshua explained to Rabbi Akiba what had happened. "Never mind," said Rabbi Akiba soothingly, "let me now wash my hands, so that I may have something to eat."

Rabbi Joshua ha-Garsi said, "If you use the water for washing your hands, there will not be enough water to drink!"

Then Rabbi Akiba said, "What can I do? To eat with unwashed hands is a sin. It is better to die of thirst than to commit a sin."

When the Sages later heard of Rabbi Akiba's conduct, they said, "If he acts in this pious way now that he is an old man, how much more careful must he have been when he was younger and stronger. And if he observes every law while he is in prison, how much stricter in his observance must he have been at home! Also, note how important is the Mitzvah of washing the hands before meals!"