Many are perplexed by the brutal death of Rabbi Akiva at the murderous hands of the Romans. How could Hashem allow his precious servants to suffer such a fate without divine intervention? Admittedly this question has been raised over the generations, especially in the view of Jewish suffering during the long exile of Edom. This article will attempt to offer some insights drawing upon several Talmudic sources.
Question Unanswered? – Menachot 29b
Roles – Moses and Rabbi Akiva
The Talmud discusses the fate of Rabbi Akiva by first describing the encounter of Moses with Hashem at Mount Sinai. Moses asks, “What is the purpose of the crowns on the letters of the Torah? Is not the written text sufficient?” Hashem answers that in the future Rabbi Akiva will expound mounds and mounds of laws from each crown, referring to the many levels of Torah interpretation from the written text. Moses then asks of Hashem, “If Rabbi Akiva is so great why did you give the Torah through me?” Hashem answers, “שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני” (Be silent, the thought has risen before me”). This statement may be interpreted as:
- My plan is beyond human comprehension and must be accepted on faith.
- Or – The plan may be understood in a limited manner but Hashem did not reveal the reason to Moses.
On a literal level the Talmud implies the first option, following Isaiah 55:8 “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways, the words of Hashem.” However several Talmudic commentators attempt to explain, in part, Hashem’s decision. The Maharal (Tifferet Israel Chapter 63) theorizes that Moses’s mission was to teach the Torah in a general way (כלל) and leave the fine points (פרט) to later generations (e.g. Rabbi Akiva). Of course Moses had to teach the details of the Torah otherwise the Israelites would not know how to perform the commandments. However he faced an enormous task to teach an entire generation of Israelites, many of whom had only a basic knowledge of Hashem with limited previous exposure to the commandments. Hence he had to focus on major principles. By contrast later generations could delve into the finer points of Torah with students who possessed sufficient background.
The commentator עץ יוסף explains that Moses knew the details but not necessarily how they were derived from the written text. Rabbi Akiva’s mission was to link the details to the text even using crowns of letters. The commentator עיון יעקב adds a universal element to the discussion using the principle of תקון (rectification). He opines that Moses was the foundation of the written text (Avot 1:1) and that that Rabbi Akiva was the foundation of the oral law by virtue of his exceptional analytical powers. Hashem offered the Torah to the non-Jewish nations but they rejected the offer (Avodah Zara 2b). Rabbi Akiva, who descended from converts, allowed non-Jews “to participate” in the oral law indirectly through his lineage or directly after conversion.
(The author would like to add an historical context. Many of the laws in the Torah refer to the temple, priests, kings, and prophets. Hence Moses had to prepare the Israelites for to accept and perform these roles. By contrast Rabbi Akiva lived after the destruction of the temple when many of these laws could not be fulfilled directly. Hence the emphasis shifted from the temple to the synagogue and study hall. Rabbi Akiva had to raise many students who could interpret and apply these Torah principles, through the oral law, to the new conditions.)
End – Moses and Rabbi Akiva
Moses further asks of Hashem, “You have shown me Rabbi Akiva’s Torah, please show me his reward.” Hashem then shows Moses his death and degradation at the hands of the Romans. Moses then exclaims, “Is this Torah and is this its reward?” Hashem provides the identical answer as above, “שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני” (Be silent, the thought has risen before me”). This statement may be similarly interpreted as:
- My plan is beyond human comprehension and must be accepted on faith.
- Or – The plan may be understood in a limited manner but Hashem did not reveal the reason to Moses.
On a literal level the Talmud implies the first option, following Isaiah 55:8 “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways, the words of Hashem”. In contrast to explaining the roles of Moses and Rabbi Akiva one must proceed in this matter with trepidation. How can any mortal have the audacity to explain divine judgement in matters of life and death? Furthermore how can anyone attempt to explain the torture and degradation of a Torah scholar of the calibre of Rabbi Akiva?
Nevertheless several Talmudic commentators are intrigued by the divine decision and attempt to explain, in part, Hashem’s justice. The commentator עיון יעקב theorizes that Hashem may judge a righteous individual according to the letter of the law (מדת הדין). Therefore he explains the expression “כך עלה במחשבה לפני” does not refer to the judgement directly. Rather he interprets this expression to mean that before creation of man Hashem planned to judge the world with strict justice. After creation Hashem combined his judgement with mercy (מדת הרחמים). This difference is reflected in the first two chapters of Genesis with respect to Hashem’s name, chapter 1 אלקים and chapter 2 tetragrammaton. He further explains that the Hashem created the souls of the righteous before the creation of man and thereby judges the righteous according to the letter of the law. The commentator עץ יוסף similarly explains that Hashem may strictly judge a righteous person in this world to receive a larger reward in the world to come (Psalms 50:3). Even assuming these explanations, the reader may ask, “What fault did Hashem find with Rabbi Akiva to lead to these consequences?” From this passage of the Talmud we cannot draw any definitive conclusions. Therefore we must examine other sources in the Talmud related to this topic.
Angels Perspective – Berachot 61b
This section of the Talmud describes the torture and death of Rabbi Akiva. In contrast to the above text where Moses asked the questions, here the angels ask, ““Is this Torah and is this its reward? Rabbi Akiva should have died by Your hand (divine grace) and not by the hand of a mortal (Psalms 17:14). ” Here Hashem does not answer as above, “Be silent, the thought has risen before me”. Rather Hashem answers by quoting the same verse “חלקם בחיים – their portion is eternal life”, thus implying that the main reward for Torah is the world to come. The Talmud concludes that a heavenly voice announced, “Fortunate are you Rabbi Akiva, for you are ready for life in the world to come.”
Some Talmudic commentators attempt to explain, albeit in a limited sense, the nature of this divine judgement. The commentator Maharsha focuses on the world to come aspect. He explains that the angels contented that the teaching of Torah should not have lead to Rabbi Akiva’s death. Rather he should have died through divine grace or at least through natural causes as implied by the above verse ממתים ידך (hand of Hashem) or ממתים מחלד (natural death). He explains the plural form חלקם (their portion) as referring to the righteous who receive their full reward in the world to come בחיים (eternal life). The commentator עיון יעקב theorizes that Rabbi Akiva’s death was a rectification (תיקון) for his non-Jewish ancestors who were now elevated by his sanctification of the name of Hashem. In addition he explains that Rabbi Akiva wanted to die as a martyr to experience the ultimate love of Hashem (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Hashem agreed to his request. The reader may ask, “Despite these explanations the question remains how divine justice operates? Was there a failing in Rabbi Akiva that led to this decree?” Admittedly another Talmudic source must be examined.
Curses of Rabbi Eliezer – Pesachim 69a
The Talmud in Pesachim 65b discusses which activities are permitted when Erev Pesach (14 Nisan) occurs on Shabbat. The Talmudic sages agree that one may slaughter the paschal offering on this Shabbat, even though slaughtering an animal on Shabbat is not normally permitted because this sacrifice must be offered on Erev Pesach. They disagree on activities indirectly involving the paschal offering on Shabbat, for example ritual purification from contact with the dead (using the ashes of the red heifer). Rabbi Eliezer permit this purification by reasoning if the slaughter is permitted (which is normally biblically forbidden) then surely the purification (which is normally rabbinically forbidden) is permitted on the Shabbat of Erev Peasch. Rabbi Akiva argues in the reverse. He reasons that since the purification is forbidden then certainly the slaughter is forbidden. Rabbi Eliezer takes offence with this suggestion and counters that the permission to slaughter the paschal offering on Shabbat is biblically permitted, without disagreement among the sages, since this service must be performed on the 14th of Nissan without exception (Numbers 9:2).
The Talmud (Pesachim 69a) elaborates on this discussion and concludes that there was a misunderstanding between teacher (Rabbi Eliezer) and student (Rabbi Akiva). Rabbi Akiva never intended to mean that the slaughter is forbidden on Shabbat. Rather he knew that it is biblically permitted but wished to indirectly remind his teacher that the ritual purification may not be performed on Shabbat, even though this individual will miss the paschal offering on Passover. In fact Rabbi Eliezer had taught Rabbi Akiva that the purification may not be performed on Shabbat but forgot his previous ruling. Unfortunately Rabbi Eliezer did not understand Rabbi Akiva’s subtlety and understood his reasoning as both irreverent and facile. In return he cursed Rabbi Akiva by saying, “You answered me (in a lighthearted manner) with a law of slaughter and your death will be by slaughter”. Even though the curse resulted from a misunderstanding it has effect (Makkot 11a), provided that there is some (even miniscule) fault in the individual, resulting in suffering (physical or emotional) to another, as will be explained in the next paragraph.
Excommunication – Bava Metziah 59b
Rabbi Eliezer disputed the sages about an earthenware stove, cut in sections and then reassembled using a sand based mortar. The former held that the stove is ritually pure because sand is not a significant material to form a vessel. The latter held that the primary component is earthenware and the sand merely binds the sections to form a compete vessel which can become ritually impure. The debate raged furiously with Rabbi Eliezer, convinced of his position, asking for divine intervention in the form of miracles to validate his argument. He said, “If the law follows my position then let this carob tree prove me right”. Then the carob tree moved either 100 or 400 amot. (An amah is about 50 cm.) The sages replied, “One does not prove the law from a carob tree”. Rabbi Eliezer asked for more miracles involving an irrigation channel where the water flowed upstream and the walls of the study hall which started to lean. Despite the fact that Hashem performed miracles on his behalf the sages did not accept his position. Exasperated Rabbi Eliezer exclaimed, “If am I correct, let the heavens acknowledge my ruling”. A heavenly voice emerged and said, “The law is according to Rabbi Eliezer.”
Rabbi Yehosua answered that we do not regard heavenly voices to determine the halachah. Rather we follow the majority position (Exodus 23:2) and therefore do not accept the position of Rabbi Eliezer. Convinced of his position and emboldened by the above miracles, Rabbi Eliezer did not accept the ruling of the sages leading to his excommunication. It is interesting to note that the Talmud concluded that Hashem agreed in principle with Rabbi Eliezer but nevertheless acknowledged that the law follows the majority. (The commentator Anaf Yosef reasons that from a biblical perspective the law is according to Rabbi Eliezer but to avoid confusion the sages decreed that the stove is ritually impure.) The sages sent Rabbi Akiva, due to his great scholarship, to inform Rabbi Eliezer of their decision. One can imagine Rabbi Eliezer’s pain and frustration because he was convinced about his ruling and in addition Rabbi Akiva was a former student of Rabbi Eliezer. After the excommunication Rabbi Akiva would no longer study with Rabbi Eliezer.
Despite the fact that Rabbi Eliezer accepted the ban against him, Hashem showed his displeasure to the sages by smiting 1/3 of the olive, wheat, and barley crops since these crops are essential to human needs. In addition the Torah is compared to olive oil and wheat. The Talmud continues by saying that wherever Rabbi Eliezer set his eyes destruction followed. Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin was travelling in a ship when a storm erupted which threatened to capsize the boat. He realized that the storm was a result of his ruling of excommunication and pleaded with Hashem, “I did not act this way for my honour but rather to minimize disputes in Israel.” Hashem accepted his explanation and the storm subsided.
Rabbi Eliezer’s wife was the sister of Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin. Aware of her husband’s disappointment she did not let him say tachanun (supplication prayer after the amidah) for fear of harm to her brother. One time she miscalculated the day of the new month (Rosh Chodesh) and left her husband alone. In fact it was not the day of the new month therefore her husband said tachanun and as a result her brother died. Others say that she was giving bread to a poor man and could not watch her husband at that time. In any event Hashem paid heed to Rabbi Eliezer’s suffering which led to the passing of Rabban Gamliel. The Talmud concludes this story by stating, “All gates are closed except for gates of aggrievement”. Rashi explains that the aggrieved party suffers psychological pain and is close to shedding tears.
Second Curse – Sanhedrin 68a
When Rabbi Eliezer was seriously ill Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues went to visit him. When they arrived he asked them, “Why did you come?” To which they replied, “To study Torah”. He further asked, “Until now, why did you not come?” They answered, “We did not have time”. Rabbi Eliezer realized that this answer was an excuse. In fact they did not come earlier because the sages had excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer. Offended by the lack of honesty, he commented, “I would be surprised if you sages die a natural death”. Taken back Rabbi Akiva asked, “What is my fate?” In turn Rabbi Eliezer answered, “Your fate will be the worse”. Here we see that Rabbi Eliezer cursed Rabbi Akiva without a misunderstanding.
Rabbi Eliezer lamented that he had studied much Torah from his teachers. In turn he had so much Torah to teach but the Rabbis did not avail themselves of this opportunity because of the excommunication. Rashi comments that Rabbi Eliezer was particularly upset with Rabbi Akiva because the latter had so much potential to learn and missed a tremendous opportunity by not studying under the former. The emotional pain suffered by Rabbi Eliezer was a factor in the efficacy of his curse. At the funeral Rabbi Akiva acknowledged Rabbi Eliezer’s greatness in Torah by comparing himself to Elisha, a disciple of Elijah the prophet, and Rabbi Eliezer to Elijah by quoting the verse (2 Kings 2:12), “My father, my father chariots and horsemen of Israel”, when Elijah departed the world. Rabbi Akiva continued, “I have many coins to exchange and no one who is qualified to evaluate them”. Rashi explains the parable as, “I have many questions in Torah and no one who is qualified to answer them. Maharsha, primary commentator on the homiletic section of the Talmud, understands the parable in a more literal fashion. Rabbi Akiva was saying, “I have much Torah knowledge (coins) but no one who can evaluate them (their quality).
It is interesting to note that the same Rabbi Eliezer describes the punishment of offending Torah sages (Avot 2:15) ,” For their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”
On a moral note, we can see how careful one should be to avoid causing harm to others, even when the harm is unintentional. One should be especially careful when interacting with Torah scholars.
In addition to the Talmudic view, the torture of Rabbi Akiva by the Romans is related to the Bar Kochva revolt against Rome and its policy in crushing rebellions. Josephus, a noted Jewish historian from the time of the destruction of the second temple, outlines this policy as follows, Rome will:
- Crush the rebellion at all costs including armies from other parts of its empire if necessary.
- Kill (and may torture) any military, political, or religious leader whom they suspect of supporting the rebellion.
- Attempt to ameliorate the rebel country’s position after determining the cause of the rebellion. (This may occur after the death of the ruler of Rome when the rebellion occured.)
In fact, Rome applied the same policy at the Bar Kochva rebellion as follows:
- In addition to the two legions stationed in Israel, Hadrian the Roman Caesar ordered six additional legions from other parts of the empire to crush the rebellion. Secular historians estimate Roman losses at 50,000 soldiers and Jewish losses, primarily civilians at 500,000 dead. The Talmud places the losses at 4 million (Gittin 57b).
- The Romans brutally murdered the rabbis who supported the rebellion (e.g. Rabbi Akiva) or those who taught Torah publicly against Roman decrees. The prayers for Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur provide a description of this brutality in “Ode to the Ten Martyrs – עשרה הרוגי מלכות”.
- The decrees remained against the Jews until the death of Hadrian. With the rebellion quashed and a new emperor the Romans gradually removed the decrees and after several years allowed the burial of the dead of Beitar, last stronghold of the Jews. The sages enacted the fourth blessing of the grace after meals in thanks for this burial and acknowledging the miracle that the dead did not decompose before the burial (Berachot 48b).
The reader may ask, “It is true that the Romans had the physical power, however why did Hashem not perform miracles to save the ten martyrs?” There many examples in the bible (or in the Talmud) where Hashem rescued his chosen ones when they sanctified His name:
- Abraham from the fiery furnace of Nimrod when the former would not accept idolatry (Pesachim 118a).
- Moses from the sword of Pharoah when Datan and Aviram informed on Moses for killing the Egyptian (Exodus 2:15 and 18:4, Exodus Rabbah 1:31).
- Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah from the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar when they would not bow down to his statue (Daniel 3:12-30).
- Daniel from the lions when he defied the king’s order by praying to Hashem (Daniel 6:14-29).
(The author speculates that Rabbi Akiva’s fate may be somewhat related to his prediction of Bar Kochva as the messiah. The Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) relates that when Rabbi Akiva saw Bar Kochva (and his military success) he said,”This is the king messiah.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta disagreed strongly and rebutted, “Grass will grow on your cheeks (after Rabbi Akiva’s passing) and the messiah will not come”. The Talmudic commentators disagree whether Rabbi Akiva referred to the messiah son of Joseph, primarily a physical ruler, or the messiah the son of David, physical and spiritual leaders of the Jews because bar Kochva was not recognized by the rabbis as a scholar. Despite Rabbi Yochanans’s objection, Maimonides (Laws of Kings 11:2) states that the vast majority of sages initially supported Rabbi Akiva’s assertion about Bar Kochva. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s initial fervor over Bar Kochva led many to support the revolt resulting in the death of many Israelites. However this reason is neither mentioned in the Talmud nor its commentators.)
In addition to the historical perspective we must examine these events in terms of divine perspective.
Man by virtue of his divine soul and innate curiosity attempts to understand divine will, albeit in a very limited fashion. However we must realize that since man is finite one cannot fully (or even partially) grasp the depth of divine judgement. The Torah states (Deuteronomy 29:28), “The hidden matters are for Hashem but the revealed matters are for us to carry out all the words of the Torah.” Similarly when Moses sought to understand the nature of Hashem, the response was man cannot comprehend divine essence. Rather he can obtain a glimpse of the divine through witnessing Hashem’s actions in this world (Exodus 33:23), “You will see My back but My face may not be seen.” We also know that Hashem’s judgement is correct, as the verse states (Deuteronomy 32:4), “The Rock – perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice, a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.”
In addition to the overriding factor of inscrutable divine will there may be factors in the divine judgement that are understandable by humans. For example in the blindness of Isaac, the Talmud (e.g. Megillah 28a) uses the principle of multiple causes (or reasons) for a divine decree הא והא גרמא (literally this and that lead to the result). However in the case of Rabbi Akiva the Talmud does not provide any answers other than divine will שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני. Certainly the editors of the Talmud could have provided the above answers offered by the commentators but they felt these answers were not definitive and therefore not worthy of being placed in the Talmud.
The fate of Rabbi Akiva is a complex issue and may be understood as beyond human understanding or partially within the grasp of a human mind. Whatever conclusion the reader reaches, one must consider the following factors:
- The divine plan is ultimately beyond human comprehension and must be accepted on faith.
- The Talmud did not provide any definitive answers other than the first factor.
- Some Talmudic commentators offer plausible explanations including Rabbi Akiva’s desire to die as a martyr.
- This author considered the curses of Rabbi Eliezer and the failed rebellion of Bar Kochva.
In conclusion, the first factor limits any human understanding of this matter as written in Psalms 36:7, “Your judgement is like the vast deep waters.”