Rabbi Akiva and Lag B'Omer
By Mark Talles
Rabbi Akiva's name is closely linked with Lag B'Omer. He was one of the greatest of our teachers and sages. He lived during the time of the destruction of the second Temple. Although he grew up as a simple shepherd, he was had a good mind and kind heart. He worked for Kalba Sabua, one of the wealthiest men in the Jerusalem area. His daughter Rachel was so impressed with his character that she saw that he had great possibilities if only he would learn Torah. Akiba was willing to marry Rachel and to go learn Torah and this was at the advanced age of forty. Rachel married him much to the chagrin of he wealthy father Kalba Sabua who disinherited her.
She and Akiva moved to an extremely modest home where Rachel worked to support Akiva who went off to learn Torah with the great Rabbi Eliezer. Since Akiva was illiterate, Rabbi Eliezer had to teach him how to read. It was difficult for him at first to progress in his studies yet Akiva kept in his mind the image of a stone that he had seen by the water that had a hole worn through it by the continual force of the flowing water. "If the water can put a hole in a stone," he reasoned, "the Torah can penetrate into my brain." He stayed for twelve years studying and applying himself in learning. At the end of this period he returned to visit his wife Rachel.
When he came back, he overheard a neighbor speaking to Rachel, telling her what a waste it was that she worked so hard and her husband hadn't come to visit her during these twelve years. Rachel told the neighbor that if he were to stay for twelve more years it would be fine with her. Akiva overheard that and without even saying hello to his wife immediately turned around and went back for twelve more years of straight learning.
At the end of the second period of time he came back to the village. By now he was a famous and well known scholar. He was escorted by his students and a crowd from the village came out to greet him. When Rachel heard that he had come back to visit, she went out to greet him. Rabbi Akiva was surrounded by a protecting ring of his students. When Rachel tried to come close to Rabbi Akiva they blocked her path. Rabbi Akiva called for them to permit her to come close. "My Torah and your Torah are only because of this lady," he told them.
A story is told of Rabbi Akiva that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he saw that G-d was putting little taggim (the small 'crowns' on the top of the letters in the Torah scroll) on top of the Torah that was to be presented to the Jews at Mount Sinai. Moses asked G-d to explain the meaning of these taggim. G-d explained that in the future a man by the name of Akiva ben Joseph will reveal what these signs mean.
Moses asked G-d to reveal to him this man and so G-d replied to Moses to turn around. When Moses turned around he saw a sage surrounded by many rows of students listening eagerly to this man's teaching. The greater students sat in front and the lesser in the rear. Moses, being a very humble man, took a seat in the eighth row and began listening. Rabbi Akiba taught a certain law and the students asked him what is the source, he replied that it came down to us from our great master Moses.
Moses came back and questioned G-d, if there is such a great man like that why give the Torah through me? G-d answered, "Be silent, this is my will." (Menachoth 29b)
Rabbi Akiva had a famous academy with twenty-four thousand students. One of his teachings was, "You must love your friend like you love yourself that is a one of the fundamental teachings of the Torah." Yet his students did not treat each other with the respect due from the students of Rabbi Akiva. Some say that because they were very sharp each one tried to be wiser than the other and this led to slighting the other. This was a disgrace that the students of the great Rabbi Akiva should behave in such a depreciable manner.
During the period between Passover and Shavuot, during a thirty-three day period, all twenty-four thousand students died.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai was one of the greatest disciples of Rabbi Akiba. He did not die with the rest of these students. He was a great and saintly scholar who spent many years of his life with his son hiding from the Romans. He is the author of the Zohar in which many of the secrets of the Torah are revealed. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on Lab B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the omer. His tomb is in Meron. On that day thousands of Jews come to Meron to pray and study and be inspired by Rabbi Shimon's love of the Torah, G-d, and his fellow Jews.
Rabbi Akiva's Teachings
Amongst Rabbi Akiva's teachings was that a person should accept suffering with humility and be prepared to give his life for G-d and His Torah. Rabbi Akiva practiced in life what he taught.
When the wicked Roman government decreed that study of the Torah was forbidden on penalty of death, Rabbi Akiba continued to study and teach Torah. When he was asked by Pappus ben Yehudah whether he feared the government and its decrees, he replied with a parable of a fox who was walking along a stream and saw some fishes gathering together. The fox asked the fishes why are they gathering at this point, the fish replied that they were hiding from the fishermen's nets. The fox said to them that they should come up on the dry land and dwell together with the fox. The fish answered that if in the water which is their natural habit they are in danger, how much more so if they leave it and try to dwell in a place with no water!
"So it is with me," Rabbi Akiva explained, "If while we study Torah we are in danger, how much more so if we neglect it!"
A few days later Rabbi Akiba was arrested and imprisoned. Pappus ben Yehudah was also placed in the prison with him. Rabbi Akiba asked him for what reason is he imprisoned, Pappus replied, "Happy for you Rabbi Akiba that you have been imprisoned for learning Torah; woe unto me who has been imprisoned for vain things."
When Rabbi Akiba was taken out to be killed his flesh was raked with iron combs to increase his suffering. As he recited the Shema Israel for the last time, his face had a beautiful smile of pleasure. His torturer called to him to explain his pleasure. He replied that all his life he wanted to fulfill the edict of the Torah that one should "
love G-d with all of one's heart, and of one's soul and all of one's might" He said he had been saddened to think that he knew not how he could love Him with all of his soul (life). However now that he was giving his life at the time of saying Shema, how can he not be pleased.
It is related that Rabbi Akiva concentrated long on the word (G-d is
) One until his soul departed. At that point a heavenly voice called out, "happy are you, Rabbi Akiba, for your soul departed at the word "One". Happy are you for you are prepared for the eternal life in the world to come."
Rabbi Akiva's Sayings
Rabbi Akiba said that Jesting and frivolity lead a man to immorality. Tradition is a fence around the Torah, tithes are a fence to riches; vows are a fence to self-restraint, and a fence to wisdom is silence. (Avoth 3:17)
Jesting and frivolity are the opposite of seriousness. A person who takes matters light and makes jokes of everything will eventually come into immoral and sinful conduct. Rabbi Akiva is not telling us not to be happy, but rather not to be light hearted especially towards serious matters.
Tradition is a fence around the Torah means that together with the Torah came its traditional meaning. The word tradition in Hebrew is 'masorah' which also means passing something on; hence it is this tradition that is like a fence which protects a garden against careless pedestrians. With out our observing our tradition, we might do much damage to the Torah interpretations.
Tithes are a fence to riches means that the tenth of the produce of the land was given as gifts to the Levites and the poor. This small amount was an insurance against poverty and a 'safe'. No one will become poor from giving part of his income to the poor.
Vows are a fence to self restraint. When a person has difficulty in cultivating good character values, the vow will help him attain a higher and better life style.
A fence to wisdom is silence. The person who is always talking will never learn much. One can not learn much by listening to oneself. On the other hand when a person keeps quiet and listens to others, he can increase his knowledge.
from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine