An Analysis of the Differences in Approach Between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva

Adapted from Hadranim al HaShas, Vol. I, p. 55ff.; Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, p. 119ff.

The concluding mishnah of the tractate of Pesachim states:

“If one recites the blessing over the Paschal sacrifice, one satisfies the requirement for the [Chagigah] offering. If one recites the blessing over the [Chagigah] offering, one does not satisfy the requirement for the Paschal sacrifice,” these are the words of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Akiva says: “[The blessing for] one does not satisfy the requirement for the other, nor does [the blessing for] the other satisfy the requirement for the first.”

Rabbi Chayim Cohen1 (based on the Jerusalem Talmud2) explains that Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion is based on his conception of the Paschal sacrifice as being of fundamental importance (ikkar) and the Chagigah offering as being of secondary importance (tafel). Thus, by reciting the blessing over the ikkar, one satisfies the requirement of the blessing for the tafel.3

This explanation raises an obvious question with regard to Rabbi Akiva’s position. For seemingly, everyone would agree that the Chagigah offering is of secondary importance to the Paschal sacrifice. (For there is no inherent obligation to bring a Chagigah sacrifice on the 14th of Nissan. Why is it brought? Only because one must eat the Paschal sacrifice when one’s appetite has been satiated. To satisfy that requirement, the Chagigah offering is usually4 eaten first.5)

Why then does Rabbi Akiva not accept Rabbi Yishmael’s view? It is a universally accepted principle that if one recites a blessing over a matter of fundamental importance, one satisfies the requirement for reciting a blessing over a matter of secondary importance.6

Rabbi Akiva’s position can be explained as follows: With regard to eating for personal satisfaction, there is a difference between matters of primary importance and matters of secondary importance. For it is the person’s own will which determines the relative importance of an object. With regard to mitzvos, by contrast, there is no concept of primary and secondary importance, as we are commanded:7 “Do not sit and weigh [the importance of] the mitzvos of the Torah.”

Thus it is true that the Chagigah offering is required only for the sake of the Paschal sacrifice, and there are times when it is not offered. Nevertheless, whenever it is offered, since it is required and it is a mitzvah to partake of it, it not a secondary matter and requires a blessing of its own.

Indeed, Rabbi Yishmael also accepts the fundamental premise of this approach. For even according to Rabbi Yishmael, at the outset, a separate blessing should be recited for the Chagigah offering.8 It is only after the fact that he rules that the blessing for the Paschal sacrifice also satisfies the requirement for the Chagigah offering.

According to this explanation, the difference between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael does not concern merely a particular point, but rather reflects a general difference in approach which finds expression in many contexts. For Rabbi Akiva’s position is that every mitzvah is of inherent and indigenous importance, while Rabbi Yishmael maintains that there is a certain degree of primacy between mitzvos; some have greater importance than others.

Thus we find that with regard to the manner in which the mitzvos were communicated to the Jewish people, we also find a difference of opinion between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva.9 Rabbi Yishmael maintains that the general categories of mitzvos were given at Mount Sinai. The particular mitzvos, by contrast, were given to Moshe in the Tent of Meeting. Rabbi Akiva differs and maintains that both the general categories and the particular mitzvos were given at Mount Sinai. Afterwards, the particular mitzvos were repeated to Moshe in the Tent of Meeting.

Since Rabbi Yishmael differentiates between the importance of the particular mitzvos, he has no difficulty seeing some — those which are of general importance — as having been given at Sinai, while others — those of a more particular nature — to have been given afterwards. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, because he emphasizes the inherent importance of each and every mitzvah, appreciates every mitzvah as originating in the essential revelation of G‑dliness at Sinai. In this, there is no distinction between one mitzvah and another.

Another difference of opinion involving these two Sages concerns the very revelation at Sinai itself. The Torah introduces the Ten Commandments with the verse,10 “And G‑d spoke all these words, saying….” Our Sages11 explain the word leimor (“saying”) as indicating that the Jews responded to G‑d after each commandment.12 As to the actual response, there is a difference of opinion among our Sages: Rabbi Yishmael states that they answered “Yes” to the positive commandments and “No” to the negative ones; Rabbi Akiva maintains that they answered “Yes” to all the commandments, signifying their willingness to fulfill G‑d’s will in every detail.

Rabbi Yishmael focuses on the practical application of the mitzvos. Thus he maintains that the Jews responded in a manner which reflects the manner in which the mitzvos are observed and answered: “Yes” to the positive commandments and “No” to the negative commandments. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, focuses on the greater purpose common to all mitzvos and not on the particular details of the individual mitzvos. For this reason, he sees the Jewish people’s answer as expressing an undifferentiated commitment. By saying “Yes” to both the positive and negative commandments, they demonstrated an unbounded commitment to fulfill G‑d’s will.13

In the three examples given above, Rabbi Yishmael’s perspective focuses on the Torah as it provides the functional guidelines for the Divine service of the Jewish people. Therefore, his perspective recognizes differences between mitzvos of primary importance and those of secondary importance, between general categories and particular mitzvos, and between positive and negative commandments.

Rabbi Akiva’s perspective, by contrast, focuses on the Torah as it reflects G‑d’s will. And from this perspective, there is no distinction between the mitzvos, for they all equally express His essential oneness.

Another difference of opinion between these two Sages regarding the revelation at Sinai clarifies further their differences in approach. Rabbi Yishmael14 interprets the verse:15 “All the people saw the sounds and the flames,” as meaning that the people “saw what is usually seen, and heard what is usually heard.” In his reading, the verb “saw” does not apply to the object “sounds” which follows it immediately, but only to “flames” which is the second object of the verb in the verse.

Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that the verb’s direct object is also its semantic object. In his reading, the Giving of the Torah brought about an upheaval within the natural order; the people “heard what is usually seen and saw what is usually heard.” They saw the sounds and heard the flames.

What is the difference between seeing and hearing? Witnessing an event makes such a powerful impression on a person that he cannot be persuaded that it has not taken place.16 Sound, by contrast, does not make as powerful an impression: a person who hears an idea is still capable of imagining a conflicting position.

On this basis, we can appreciate the Sages’ understanding of the events of Sinai. Rabbi Akiva views the purpose of the Torah as transforming a person’s frame of reference, drawing him away from involvement in worldly matters and connecting him to G‑d’s will. In his reading of the verse, this is what the Jews actually experienced at Sinai. Their senses were reoriented and they “saw” the spiritual and “heard” the material.

What made a deep and lasting impression upon them was the spiritual, that which is usually “heard.” And at that time, they related only abstractly to material things, merely “hearing” that which is ordinarily “seen.”

Rabbi Yishmael conceives of the Torah’s purpose differently, seeing it as having a downward thrust that enables G‑dliness to permeate nature. In his view, the Torah is not intended to make man rise above the framework of worldly experience, but instead, to make that framework, intact within its natural pattern, reflect G‑dliness. Therefore, he maintains, the Jews “saw what is usually seen and heard what is usually heard.” This was not, however, an ordinary form of seeing and hearing. At Sinai, the Jews were able to see and hear G‑dliness as it pervades the natural order.

A similar pattern is also reflected in these two Sages’ approach to Biblical exegesis. Frequently, the Torah will repeat a verb, for example:17 הכרת תכרת. כרת means “to cut off.” Rabbi Yishmael18 maintains that “the Torah speaks in the language of men.” As such, just as mortal writers will use repetition for emphasis, so too, the Torah. According to his conception, the above phrase means: “He will certainly be cut off.”

Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, considers each word used by the Torah as a significant Divine message. In his conception, repetition is not a mere literary technique, but an invitation for exegesis. Thus he interprets this phrase as meaning: “הכרת — He will be cut off in this world (i.e., die prematurely); תכרת — He will be cut off in the World to Come (and not merit the spiritual rewards of that era).”19

A similar pattern is reflected in their interpretation of the prohibition:20 “Do not curse אלהים.” Rabbi Yishmael maintains that אלהים refers to a judge in our mortal sphere. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, interprets א-להים as referring to the ultimate Judge, G‑d.

In both these instances, Rabbi Yishmael’s approach to interpretation sees the Torah as reaching down into the mortal frame of reference, “speaking in the language of man,” so that our worldly experience could be permeated by G‑dliness. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, conceives of the Torah as spiritual truth, above the mortal realm of experience, and appreciates it as a medium to enable man to elevate himself, and attain this higher standard.

This same motif is reflected in these Sages’ interpretations of several Biblical commandments. For example, with regard to a priest becoming ritually impure for the burial of his close relatives, the Torah states:21 “For her, he shall become impure.” With regard to the treatment of Canaanite servants, it is written:22 “You will work with them forever.” And with regard to a person issuing a warning to his wife with regard to her moral conduct, it is written:23 “He shall adjure his wife.”

In all these instances, Rabbi Yishmael maintains24 that the matter is left to the choice of the person involved. If he desires, he may become impure, maintain ownership of his servants, or adjure his wife. Or he may choose not to. The Torah is merely providing him with options; it his decision whether to employ them or not. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, maintains that these are all mandatory commands, obligations that must be fulfilled without leaving any room for a person’s choice.

In these instances as well, since Rabbi Yishmael conceives of the Torah as reaching down into the mortal frame of reference, he maintains that it recognizes the importance of man’s choice and grants him options. In this way, the Torah becomes internalized within a person’s mind and thought.

Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, sees the Torah as a G‑dly standard that gives man an opportunity to rise above his mortality. Accordingly, he sees its goal, not in granting man options in how to exercise his will, but rather in giving him the chance to transcend his own will entirely, and accept G‑d’s.

These two perspectives flow from basic differences in the approaches of the two Sages. Rabbi Yishmael was a Kohen; according to some views, even a High Priest.25 Because his world was one of holiness, he perceived his challenge in the service of G‑d to be the extension of the borders of holiness, drawing G‑dliness into the framework of worldly existence.26

Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, stemmed from a family of converts27 and did not himself begin studying Torah until he was forty.28 His approach to Divine service reflected the striving of the baal teshuvah, who rises above himself and his previous experiences and turns to G‑d.29

The ultimate goal of our Divine service is a combination of these two approaches, for each has its distinctive merits. This synthesis will reach its apex in the Era of the Redemption, when “Mashiach will motivate the righteous to turn to G‑d in teshuvah.”30 The Divine service of “the righteous,” which is directed towards drawing down G‑dliness within the context of the natural order (Rabbi Yishmael’s mode of Divine service), will be permeated by the all-encompassing commitment evoked by teshuvah (Rabbi Akiva’s path).

Since we are living in the time immediately before the coming of Mashiach, we can appreciate a foretaste of this synthesis in our time. Through these efforts, we will hasten the coming of the time when we will achieve the ultimate expression of both these approaches, with the coming of Mashiach. May this take place in the immediate future.