You may know of Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, about whom our sages say that he was one of the greatest scholars of all times. With his sharp mind, the sages said, he could “uproot mountains,” and he explained every single letter of the Torah, even the little crowns that adorn many of the letters of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva was one of four great sages who tried to enter the deepest secrets of the Creation and of learning, and he was the only one who came out sound of body and sane of mind.

But do you also know that all the extraordinary scholarship of this most famous of all Tanaim was due to the self-sacrificing love of Torah of his wife?

Rachel, Rabbi Akiva's Wife

You see, Rabbi Akiva was not one of the fortunate ones who are born to riches, or into the house of a scholar. He had to get everything the hard way. He was born as the child of a very poor family and became an ignorant shepherd, one of the many who took care of the thousands of flocks of the wealthy Kalba Sabua, about whose riches the Talmud tells many stories. The daughter of this fabulous man was a beautiful and G‑d fearing girl. The richest and most learned young men of that time would have considered themselves fortunate to marry her. But Rachel, Kalba Sabua's only child, the heir to his riches, had observed the shepherd Akiva and some inner voice told her that this ignorant youth had the making of a great scholar. On the condition that he would leave her father's work to go and study Torah, she married him secretly.

As Rachel refused one young man after the other, Kalba Sabua found out about her secret marriage to his former shepherd. He was very angry and he vowed that he would have nothing to do with her or her husband. Gladly, the only child of the richest man of those days left all the luxuries and comforts to which she had been used, and went to live with Akiva in a shack, sleeping on a bundle of straw, and working hard with her own, soft hands, so that her husband could devote himself to the study of Torah. Once when she could not find work, she even cut off her beautiful long hair to sell it, so that she would have some money with which to buy a dry crust of bread for both.

Yet even in their poverty, they were willing to share with others the little they possessed. Once a poor man passed the shack of Akiva and Rachel, and begged, “Pray, good people, let me have a handful of straw. My wife is sick and I have nothing to bed her on.” At once Akiva shared his own bundle of straw with the poor man, remarking thus to Rachel: “See, my child, there are those who fare worse than we.” The poor beggar, say our sages, was none but the Prophet Elijah who had come to test Akiva's good heart.

Rabbi Akiva and the Drop of Water

Akiva once saw drops of water falling on a huge stone – drip, drop – and directly where the drops were falling there was a deep hole in the stone.

“What mighty power there is in a drop of water,” thought the shepherd. “Could my stony heart ever be softened up that way? Look what the little drops of water did to the rock. Suppose I began to study the Torah, little by little, drop by drop, perhaps my mind would soften up?”

And this is how Akiva the shepherd became the great Rabbi Akiva, the greatest and wisest scholar and teacher of his day, who had 24 thousand pupils! He often told them that it was a drop of water that changed his life.

After Akiva had mastered the basic knowledge of the Torah, his wife and he agreed that he was to go to the academy of the great scholars of those days, headed by Rabbi Eliezer, to devote twelve years to intensive study. Thus the two parted, and for twelve long years, Rachel slaved hard to support herself, while her husband grew to become one of the most learned of all men that ever lived. At the end of twelve years, Rabbi Akiva returned to his wife, as he had promised. When he came before the shabby old shack he heard a conversation between his wife and a neighbor who was taunting Rachel for being foolish enough to wait and slave for her husband who had left her to study Torah. “You could live in riches and luxuries if you were not so foolish,” said the woman.

“For my part, he could stay away another twelve years at the Yeshivah to acquire more knowledge,” was Rachel's reply.

Full of pride and admiration for his great wife Rabbi Akiva turned around to do as Rachel wanted him to do.

At the conclusion of the twenty-four years Rabbi Akiva had become the most famous of all living scholars. From near and far came the youth of Israel to study under his direction.

Accompanied by twenty-four thousand students, Rabbi Akiva returned home in a triumphant journey from city to city, welcomed everywhere by the highest nobility. The masses, rich and poor, turned out when he came home to Jerusalem.

Kalba Sabua, too, was among those who tried to get close to the master. Suddenly Rabbi Akiva saw his disciples trying to hold back a woman dressed in ragged clothes. At once he made his way through the crowd to greet the woman and led her to the chair by his side. “If not for this woman I would be an ignorant shepherd, unable to read the Aleph-Beth. Whatever I know, I owe to her,” Rabbi Akiva declared.

The whole huge crowd bowed in respect before the woman to whom Rabbi Akiva owed his great scholarship. Kalba Sabua, too, suddenly discovered who his son-in-law was. Publicly he expressed his regret for having treated his daughter and her husband so badly. Now all his wealth would be theirs.

Rabbi Akiva and the Scoffer

When Rabbi Akiva 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 Akiva, and asked him, “Who created the world?”

“G‑d created the world,” Rabbi Akiva replied.

“Prove it to me,” persisted the heathen.

“Come back tomorrow,” Rabbi Akiva told him.

The following day the heathen came back, and Rabbi Akiva engaged him in conversation. “What are you wearing?” Rabbi Akiva asked him.

“A cloak, as you see.”

“Who made it?” Rabbi Akiva asked.

“The weaver, of course.”

“I don't believe it; prove it to me!” Rabbi Akiva 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 Akiva 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 Akiva’s Humility

Rabbi Akiva 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 etrog; the one who smells it enjoys it, but the etrog loses nothing. Or it is as one who draws water from a spring, or lights a candle from a candle.”

No wonder Rabbi Akiva despised a conceited and vain man, whose learning only filled him with self-importance and vain glory. Of such a man Rabbi Akiva 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 Akiva 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 Akiva 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 Akiva’s Students

Rabbi Akiva 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 Bnei Brak to learn Torah from Rabbi Akiva, 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 Akiva explained it to mean: “Teach disciples in thy youth, and do not stop teaching in thy old age.”

Learn about the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva

Teachings of Rabbi Akiva

In the third chapter of Pirkei Avot 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 tzedakah, 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 Akiva 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 will conclude with one of his favorite sayings, which will do us good to remember always:

“Whatever G‑d does is for the best.”

Learn the third chapter of Pirkei Avot

The Daughter of Rabbi Akiva

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter once went to the market to buy things for the home. As she passed a group of star-gazers and fortune–tellers, one of them said to the other: “See that lovely girl? What a dreadful calamity is awaiting her! She is going to die on the very day of her wedding. Mark my word!”

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter overheard the words of the star-gazer but paid no attention to him. She had often heard it from her great father that he who observes the mitzvot of the holy Torah need fear no evil.

As the happy day of her wedding approached, she had forgotten all about that star-gazer. On the day before her wedding, there was much to do, and at night she retired to bed, tired but happy. Before going to bed, she removed her golden hair-pin and stuck it in the wall, as she had done before.

The following morning, she pulled her pin from the wall, and in doing so dragged a small but very poisonous snake with it. Horrified, she realized that she had killed the snake that was lurking in the wall’s crevice when she stuck the pin into the wall the night before. What a wonderful miracle!

Then she remembered the words of the star-gazer, and shuddered.

She heard a knock on the door. “Are you alright, daughter? I heard you shriek,” her father said. Then he saw the dead snake still dangling from the pin. She told her father what happened.

“This is indeed a miracle,” Rabbi Akiva said. “Tell me, daughter, what did you do yesterday? There must have been some special Mitzvah that you performed yesterday to have been saved from this.”

“Well, the only thing that I can remember was this. Last night, when everybody was busy with the preparations for my wedding, a poor man came in, but nobody seemed to notice him, so busy everybody was. I saw that the poor man was very hungry, so I took my portion of the wedding-feast and gave it to him.”

Rabbi Akiva had always known that his daughter was very devoted to the poor, but this was something special, and he was very happy indeed. “Tzedakah (charity) delivereth from death,” he exclaimed.

Read more about tzedakah (charity)

Rabbi Akiva the Diamond Merchant

When Rabbi Akiva became a great man, his father-in-law, Kalba Sabua, who was one of the three richest men in Jerusalem, gave him all his fortune to make up for the way he treated him when Akiva was a poor ignorant shepherd of his. So from time to time Akiva bought and sold diamonds and precious stones to earn his own living. Here is a story about a strange customer who wanted to buy a precious pearl from him.

Rabbi Akiva knew the man and had always thought him poor, for he was poorly dressed, and would always sit in the beit hamidrash (study hall) among the poor people. “I want to buy the pearl,” the man said, “and I’ll pay your price. But I have no money with me. If you will be good enough to come with me to my home, I will pay you.”

Rabbi Akiva thought that the man was joking, but nevertheless he decided to go along with him.

As they came into the house of the ‘poor’ man, many servants came out to greet their master. They washed his dusty feet and seated him on a golden chair. The man asked his servants to bring the box where he kept his money, and he paid Rabbi Akiva the full price of the pearl. Then he ordered that the pearl be pounded into a fine powder.

Rabbi Akiva was greatly surprised and asked the man, “you paid so much money for this precious pearl, and now you made a powder of it. Why did you do it?”

“You see, dear Rabbi,” the man replied. “I buy pearls and beat them into powder, and mix them with certain medicines to give to the poor.”

The man ordered the table set with the finest food and wines, and invited Rabbi Akiva and his students to have dinner with him. After dinner, Rabbi Akiva asked the man, “I see that you are very rich; tell me, why do you dress so poorly and sit among the poor men, as though you were one of them?”

“I often hear our great sages teach us that G‑d does not like proud men. And anyway, how can I be proud of my wealth? What is man’s life, and isn't man’s wealth but a passing shadow? Today I am alive, tomorrow, who knows? Today I am rich, tomorrow who knows? Maybe I will be poor, and so it will not be difficult for me to find my place among the poor. If I do not climb high, the fall will not hurt me. But that is only where it concerns me personally, when it comes to giving charity and supporting Torah institutions, you will not find me poor, only I like to do it quietly for I seek no honor for myself.”

Rabbi Akiva blessed the man to live long, and to remain rich all his life, so that he would continue to do so much good in his wonderful way.

“Whoever has these three things is of the disciples of Abraham our father…A good eye, a humble mind and a lowly spirit…The disciples of Abraham our father enjoy this world and inherit the world to come…” (Pirkei Avot 5:23)

Rabbi Akiva in Prison

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

The warden of the prison permitted one of Rabbi Akiva’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 Akiva what had happened. “Never mind,” said Rabbi Akiva 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 Akiva 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 Akiva’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!”

Learn more about hand washing before meals