Rabbi Akiva and the Curse of Torah Without Respect

By Simon Synett

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died in one period because they didn’t treat one-another with respect. In Hebrew shelo nahagu kavod ze-lazeh. (Yevamos 62b) The gemara continues that from that time, the entire world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva took on the five apprentices who would later become the leaders of their generation. Clearly then, Rabbi Akiva and his students were considered as the transmitters of Torah of their time, the greatest scholars and teachers.

Given that, it’s hard for us to grapple with the idea that people of such stature would sink to such a low level of behaviour in their interpersonal relationships that they deserved to be killed off by the Angel of Death. It must have been some deep and pervasive character flaw that was so destructive that they simply weren’t capable of transmitting Torah to the next generation. They had to be wiped out and Rabbi Akiva’s legacy would be passed through a new set of students. Can we put a finger on what the problem was? More importantly, can we make sure we’re not suffering from it?

In Avos 2:2, Rabban Gamliel tells us that Torah study is greatly enhanced by making an honest living, the idea being that combining the two keeps one from pursuing his baser desires and makes him far less likely to transgress the mitzvos. In fact, continues the author, Torah study that isn’t accompanied by work will no doubt lead to a rotten, sinful life.

The text of the Mishna is a little puzzling: For one thing, if the author had intended to point out that you need a livelihood before you can engage in study, then why does he emphasise the need to be doing both? As if to say that even if you have wealth, you need to work, not in order to make a living, but to prevent a descent towards a sinful life.

Secondly, Rabban Gamliel points out the flip side, that any Torah study that isn’t accompanied by melacha – work – is ultimately doomed to bring you to bad ways. He clearly wants to emphasise that it’s not that the lack of work brings you directly to sin, but that the lifestyle will eventually bring you down.

I’d like to suggest a novel way of understanding this that will help us make sense of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students for not giving respect to each other.

Given that there are whole communities of Jews who champion a lifestyle of Torah study without work, I think we can learn something by making some observations…

This choice of lifestyle is justified by reference to the mystical tradition of the kabbalists, as expressed by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in his Nefesh HaChaim. The theme of this work and the underlying philosophy is the idea that the physical world that we exist in is really a means to the end of achieving spiritual delight in the spiritual world.

The spiritual world is the real world and the physical world is a low resolution reproduction, to use a modern analogy. You have to see your actions, not as mundane physical, mechanical processes, but as spiritual levers that make things happen in a Spiritual Reality. True, you can’t see it now, but when your time’s up here, you will see how every single thing that ever issued from your feeble mind, let alone mouth or hands, has contrived to create an Eternal Life that you have to live out forever!

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that if you take this to heart, you’ll want to make sure that everything you do has spiritual significance, and you’ll want to minimise your involvement with mundane activities.

When studied in depth and in context of the entire oral tradition of Judaism, this idea gives us an exhilarating way of looking at everything we do in life, how everything we do has knock on effects way beyond the immediate visible results. It can and should bring us to a fine tuned sensitivity to everything and everyone around us.

With a focus on the spiritual realm, we can come to convince ourselves that any bodily discomfort we’re feeling right now isn’t real, or that the desire to sit and play computer games instead of working isn’t real. This can be a very useful way of thinking. And it really gives us an edge of self control that would otherwise be hard to achieve.

But there’s a danger…

In the hands of lazy people (and aren’t we all a bit lazy) this way of thinking becomes a way of shrugging off the things that happen to us in the here and now, shirking responsibility and ultimately complete disregard for other people and the whole environment.

You see, if you’re trying to place your life’s daily events within a narrative that takes place primarily in the unseen spiritual world, then you must be telling yourself quietly but constantly that “what’s happening now isn’t really happening or at least it isn’t what it seems to be”.

Do you see how if you do that consistently enough you’ll really experience life differently? It will really matter much less to you whether your food is tasty, or whether your clothes are ironed, whether your streets are clean, or whether your kids are screaming. And again, there’s something to be said for being able to achieve that kind of personal peace. I can see the attraction of it.< /sarcasm>

But it doesn’t end there. For so many good people it becomes such a way of life that not only do these things cease to matter to them but they stop even noticing them.

Then, from not noticing your own discomfort it’s so easy to belittle other peoples’ troubles, and especially easy because it’s done in the name of holiness. “After all didn’t we learn that this world is just a means to an end? Don’t you see that if you could overcome your small minded worries you could achieve eternal spiritual bliss?”

Do you see what I’m getting at? The more you focus on the spiritual “reality” the more you numb yourself to physical sensations and eventually you come to care much less about life itself. After all, what could be better for you than to free your soul from the bounds of it’s very mundane and needy body. Why shlepp this lump of meat around with you when you could be soaring in the heavens.

This, I think, explains what Rabban Gamliel is getting at in his Mishna. Torah study, that is engagement in the spiritual world, does go a long way towards freeing you up from your more basic urges. It gives you an outlook that strengthens you when you’re confronted with an internal battle. No doubt.

But without derech eretz – working hard for a living, your disregard for the mundane will bring you down.

Sorry to be trite but we need to get back to basics: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – this is a summary of the Torah, says the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Interestingly, the same Rabbi Akiva whose students perished for not showing respect. In fact it may be that he came to recognise this only after that trauma as I’ll show you in a moment.

The self esteem gurus will tell you that from here there’s an imperative to love yourself, for otherwise how are you to love your neighbour “as yourself”.

But Judaism is primarily a call to action so love isn’t defined by a purely psychological idea. Rather as Hillel the Elder explains, the deal here is that if you wouldn’t want something done to you, DON’T do it to others. Full stop.

That means that instead of trying to minimise your sensations of things that you’d rather avoid, you should actively cultivate a sensitivity to them, otherwise how will you know what not to do to others? You have to be 100% present in the here and now, feeling pleasure and pain with full sensation. If you do that you can start “loving your neighbour as yourself”.

Lo nahagu kavod – they didn’t treat each other with respect. Kavod, the word used for respect, comes from the Hebrew word meaning weight. This indicates that at the root of giving respect to someone or something is giving it the appropriate weight. You have to see the whole picture and you also have to get to the heart of how that person fits in, who he is and how he is important. When you do that, kavod, or respect flows naturally.

Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s students were such scholars, so immersed in spiritual pursuits that they just weren’t able to engage one another in a way that led to true kavod. They related to one another as they related to themselves, as primarily spiritual beings. They didn’t pay much attention to the outer features and it didn’t occur to them that they were missing out. But they were. Completely. They could not possibly be trusted to transmit the Torah to the next generation because they would transmit their warped world view along with it.

Rabbi Akiva himself needed to come to the recognition that love your neighbour as yourself was the axis upon which the Torah turns, and to transmit that through his new students.

35 comments on “Rabbi Akiva and the Curse of Torah Without Respect

  1. Another interestingly related post can be found over at Cross-Currents, entitled “The G-d Hater Within Us.” (sorry, couldn’t figure out how to transfer the link).

    He offers cogent reasoning about the plague being a Response to their refusal to appreciate the accomplishments of competing religious shitas.

    Bob, how about this for a simpler explanation:

    1)When discussing traditionally sacred texts, one must be very careful not to project an ideological agenda. All the moreso when translating, we must be extremely careful to steer away from loaded terms which betray the fine nuances and humility of the original.

    2)Akiva himself is an extremely revered foundation of our mesora who, certainly by the end of his life, did not identify with any one, politically divisive hashkafa. His last “slogan” was the Shma; his particular emphasis was on Echad; the only ideal we really know that he took with him to the eternal world was that Torah learning is the essence of the Jew and should be pursued far beyond this-worldly considerations.

    3)Statements which make sweeping putdowns on “whole communities of Jews who champion a lifestyle of…”, and especially when we know those communities are backed by major Daas Torah, should be immediately dressed down.

    4)It is a legitimate issue to probe the liabilities of a movement which emphatically endorses Toraso Emunaso at the apparent expense of Derech Eretz. But NEVER should this be done be non-Gdolim belittling positions of certain Gdolim.

  2. My being confused is far from being on high ground. I’m asking for a simpler explanation of the points.

  3. Jeff, I share a bit of Bob’s confusion. Some of the comments here are simply dogmatic or ideological statements with no clear indication of their relevance to Rabbi Akiva or his students. That tells us where a person stands, but doesn’t show us why there is any compelling between that position and the discussion at hand.

    Now that I’m home from work I’ll note that it is in Iggeret Rav Shrira Gaon that we find that Rabbi Akiva’s students died of ‘shamda’. Somehow, they were all killed by the authorities. In battle is one possibility, or mass executions maybe? Certainly, it seems a different version from the g’mara; though I don’t think it changes the point of their death much. Either way it was a Divinely mandated catastrophe, and related to their behavior.

  4. Bob, if you don’t want to make the effort to read through their positions, then don’t, but don’t dismiss everyone outright by taking some kind of high ground.

  5. At this point, I have a murky idea of what these disputants are against and an even murkier idea of what they are for.

  6. Alright. I really didn’t want to get into this at length. But I see the issue playing itself out too polemically, with my views mistakenly swept up in the cross-fire, to not attempt to clarify one last time.

    1) I’m pleased to see Simon owning more candidly that his issue is with the primacy of spirituality in healthy Torah life (which IS a hashkafa) rather than the pshat on R’ Akiva and his talmidim. Likewise, it’s interesting to hear that Maharal might be interpreting R’ Gamliel as sharply and polemically as he does. If so, THIS should be the focus of the article. Quote him (carefully) and then share your understanding.

    2) S. admits that R’ Salanter DID hold by the primacy of spirituality. The sources bear out that R’ Shimon most definately did as well. I offered a little assoc’n with why we could say Akiva did too. But to then jump into suggesting that these Gdolim created monsters they could barely control is really a much different, volatile topic.

    I emphasize that the concern with the fall-outs that might emerge from intense spiritual focus is a very valid topic. But then offer a nuanced line-up of anecdotes and Daas Gdolim before tossing around your creative and sarcastic (he DID claim that!) attempts to reread ancient texts. Whether your pshat was rt or wrong, it sets an irreverent tone.

    3)When I asked about how much experience he has with Toraso emunaso Yidden, I meant as a sociological given. No need to bandy around various soundytes about shlita and smicha that takes this discussion into the realm of power play. My pt was merely to underscore that he’s making pot shots on very mechubad kehillos about which all of us should be abhorred. Ahavta l’rei’aycha! I say this is as one who has spent many years within a wide spectrum of Torah communities. I certainly am not pushing “Torah-only”!

    4)By academia I mean intellectual wheel spinning. It’s not appropriate in such a forum, which I’ve always understood is grounded first and foremost on Yiras Shomaym and personal growth. If not, pls excuse me, I shouldn’t be here. Furthermore, most of us are not in direct access of sfarim nor with enough time on our hands to build up major, well referenced arguments. So please, Mordechai, stop the badgering to “establish” my arguments. If you want to hear, I have offered a serious basis for reassessing the substance of this article.

    5)The Rshby / Yshmael issue is definately at the core here and, again, should have been spelled out from the outset if you really wanted to mutually explore its relevance for our Dor. I will offer my OPINION here that Jewish history has proven that Rshby and his talmidim took over the mantel. Kindov like Yehuda and Yosef, with Yosef having his place for a certain time but Yehuda, the Rosh Yeshiva, becoming ultimately established as the leader of the Klal over time. But this is NOT something I can or even want to prove. Just sharing…

    6)S. claims he wants to merely “understand and take to heart” this Gemora, claiming the ensuing discussion is a machlokes L.S.S. Well, sorry, but I disagree! I did not pick up your L.S.S. whatsoever, as stated, though I repeat that some of your issues are very legit. To be L.S.S. you’ve got to make clear that you are building your questions firmly on the backs of Gdolei Yisroel.

    Lila Tov, Shavua tov… pls excuse if I don’t respond for awhile.

  7. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter famously said that although the spiritual world is superior to the physical, the physical needs of other people *are your* spiritual needs.

    Why did he need to point this out? Perhaps because there is a tendency, too obvious to ignore, among religious people, to pay less attention to mundane physical needs of themselves and others. This is natural and we need to notice it and overcome it.

    Many things can be argued but these things Chaz’al state clearly:

    1. Rabbi Akiva’s students *did* perish because they didn’t give appropriate respect to one-another.

    2. Rabbi Akiva *did* say the “love your neighbour as yourself” is a *klal gadol batorah*.

    3. Rabban Gamliel *did* say that all Torah study that isn’t accompanied by work, *sofah beteilah vegoreret avon*. The translation I used (which yy takes issue with) is based on the explanation of the Mahar’al.

    4. In the famous argument between Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (since some of you mentioned him) and Rabbi Yishmael about working for a living, the gemara clearly favours Rabbi Yishmael’s approach.

    PL, to suggest that this machlokes leshem shamayim is an insult to Rabbi Akiva’s memory is a strange claim. Why would the gemara relate the story of his students if not for us to understand it and take it to heart?

    Let’s leave aside hashkafic viewpoints and judge the argument on merit. I find it quite compelling. You can question it based on conflicting sources or arguments, but not simply dismiss as flawed it because it doesn’t accord with a particular hashkafa that you hold dear.

  8. Yeridas hadoros (weakening of generations) mandates that those who excell in Torah be enabled to pursue it with no other pressures so that they can become the future gedolim. All agree that today’s minds are incapable of excelling in Torah if they’re busy with parnassah. Supporting the best candidates should be an honor for those who are nehene miyegia kapayim (working). This is the way it’s done in U.S. chassidish communities today and this is the way it was done in Hungary.

    I read somewhere: The Polish yeshivos strived to build strong gedolim, the Hungarian yeshivos strived to build strong kehilos, and both were successful. True. There aren’t too many talmidei chachomim among chassidim in the US (most of whom are Hungarian). But in the long run, strong kehilos are more important than an abundance of gedolim. One rov is enough for a whole kehila.

    Having said that, let me add that I don’t at all agree with the article, for reasons others have already explained. This is just a comment on some comments, not on the post.

  9. yy:

    “The acusations were not about whether he knows how to “learn.”

    I believe Dr. Kohlbrener was relating to your rhetorical question “And how much experience has he had sitting and learning with those who’ve devoted themselves to this utmost “kneged kulam” Mitzvah?” It has been answered. He has been there. You cast aspersions by inference, and they have been refuted. But questioning his experience does nothing to argue with his understanding of this issue.

    Despite your strident assertions, you haven’t established that we have in Rabbi Akiva’s name support for Torah only. That isn’t playing with “academic fire” (not sure what you even mean by that); that is seeking clarity in Torah. Does Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai say in Rabbi Akiva’s name that approach? And I disagree with your take on Rabbi Shimon’s perspective. It is quite clear that he was rebuked by Heaven for his perspective and its effect. I haven’t books available at the moment, sorry.

    In addition to Rambam’s characterization of Rabbi Akiva as ‘Bar Koziba’s armour bearer’, a really radical notion the more one considers it, there is a tradition from the gaonim that Rabbi Akiva’s students in fact died in battle and not from illness as the g’mara states. I have no books available here at work (where I’ll be for the next 24+ hours), but I can tell you which of the gaonim later. In any case, it would be hard to say they all violated Rabbi Akiva’s example, given Rambam’s description. And if the gaonim even suggest that is what they were doing when they died, you have to reconcile that with the approach I understand you to attribute to Rabbi Akiva.

    You’ve mixed and confused issues. The issue is NOT ‘Torah only’ or ‘Torah and…’. The issue is can you authoritatively attribute ‘Torah only’ to RABBI AKIVA? I haven’t seen convincing evidence yet that this was indeed his position.

    Finally, all – while we are on the topic of Rabbi Akiva’s students, let’s not forget to accord each other due respect in this debate, or even more than due respect. ;-)

  10. PL, everyone:

    There are two hashgofas, equally valid — that the physical world is real, and that the physical world isn’t real. (We all agree that the spiritual world is real.)

    If the spiritual world is the only reality (e.g. BSHT), then the difficulty is understanding how physical mitzvos matter. If the physical world is also real (e.g. Rambam), then the difficulty is in somehow transcending the physical world through one’s avodah to coexist spiritually.

    We need to respect both hashgofas and personally we need to choose the one we feel fits our own personal avodah.

  11. When in Jewish history was there a system where only one specific career path, however exalted and however necessary to Klal Yisrael, was considered acceptable for Jewish men? Allowance has to be made for individual talents and situations.

  12. “The fact is that Jewish history has made it abundantly clear that his eternal niche was earned davka due to his willingness to learn and teach Torah at all costs”.

    This is really bothering me. Enough that I took time from work to think about this and log on here. I’m beginning to think that it’s wrong on my part to engage in this discussion, as it is an insult to the holy memory of Rabbi Akiva and what he represented.

    I can only hope that readers here will read the OP with clarity of thought.

    I am sorry that I’m saying this, Simon; I wish I didn’t have to. I understand that you are writing from a very different hashkafic viewpoint than I am (and I am far from dogmatic type right-wing)and therefore do not perceive the flaws in your presentation that I do.

    You are an exceptional writer, and I am sure that you utilize this talent to excellent ends.

  13. Perhaps I am missing the point, but it seems to me that this article was directed mainly at those who choose to learn… and only learn. Who do not bring in parnassah, regardless of being married and having children. Who put the ENTIRE “worldly” burden on their wives, who are also mothers and homemakers. This may be alright (depending on the couple) for one or two children, but once you start getting into families with 6, 7 or even double-digit offspring, it is a real issue. Simon is right in saying that there are communities or groups who place Torah learning above all else, even providing for their families. That obligation is left to the in-laws or, in this economy, the wife and tzedakah.

    It is most definitely a problem.

  14. E.L.,

    I’d think the death of a large number that was less than 24,000 would have prompted a serious search for the hidden reasons. Once the toll reached—let’s say—hundreds, wouldn’t it have been obvious there was a problem?

  15. The acusations were not about whether he knows how to “learn.” Please. If you can take a step back and listen, the sarcasm and presumptiousness of the presentation betrays that there’s a very big bone to pick. I pointed out already a few of the obviously skewed word choice.

    I’m surprised we’re actually giving it so much attention.

    Debate the pros and cons of viewing life as “primarily spiritual” if you want. But don’t superimpose your leaning back on the mekoros.

  16. It is a serious error to think that Rabbi Akiva and his students made the types of errors as we would make. It is not right to think, “they sunk to such a low level.”

    Rather, Hashem is exacting with the righteous; he judges them for the slightest and most subtle error the way that He would judge an ordinary person for an obvious sin.

    Rabbi Akiva certainly would have rebuked his students if they were stepping on each other’s toes and spitting in each other’s faces.

    But Rabbi Akiva’s students would never do such a thing. I’m sure they would put US to shame with the care they showed for their fellow man.

    Rather, if Rabbi Akiva didn’t notice the problem it must have been so subtle that it was too hard to notice. Furthermore, it wasn’t until ALL of them died in a MONTH-LONG plague that the problem became known (and we don’t know how long afterwards this took to realize, either). If it was so obvious in that time what their transgressions were, then they would have had the sense to do Teshuva for it as soon as the plague started (Especially with Rabbi Akiva as their leader), and the rest of their lives would have been spared.

  17. If someone is asking another to be humble, it’s out of place to ask in a condescending manner.

  18. YY, since he’s too humble to say, I will mention that Simon has smicha from the Jerusalem rabbinate, has learned in several yevishas and kollels, and spent years learning with R. Yosef Kamentsky (shlita) – who I think qualifes, by any measure, as someone who has devoted his life to the ‘k’neged kula’ mitzvah, limud Torah.

    So perhaps more prudent to be careful with accusations…

  19. I really don’t have the time to do this properly — but chevreh, aren’t you aware that Rashb”y’s whole big chiddush was in establishing the Heavenly approval of doing “Torah only” RIGHT. After being forced back into the cave, he didn’t come out waving the T.I.D.E. flag. Rather, he set out to create Bnei Aliya, those who see worldly pursuits as peripheral, as merely spice to the chullent.

    What he had to learn was not to denigrate that spice.

    Re. Mord’s qu. abt Akiva’s true view on the matter, you’re playing with academic fire. The fact is that Jewish history has made it abundantly clear that his eternal niche was earned davka due to his willingness to learn and teach Torah at all costs. That his prime talmid, Rashb”y, took this further only seals the case.

    About who and when should put in more or less spice — go learn! And listen to your personal Rebbe.

  20. Hi Simon,

    I didn’t miss the paragraph; I referenced the ones that were most representative to me of the inaccuracies.

    I’m looking forward to your next article, and especially minus the “” :).

  21. PL,you must have missed this paragraph:

    “When studied in depth and in context of the entire oral tradition of Judaism, this idea gives us an exhilarating way of looking at everything we do in life, how everything we do has knock on effects way beyond the immediate visible results. It can and should bring us to a fine tuned sensitivity to everything and everyone around us.”

    In other words, as the Mesillas Yesharim explains, Torah brings you to zehirus – awareness. I have observed that we don’t necessarily find this to be so, and I have attempted to explain why while making some sense of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

    I’d like to show you in another article, based on sections from Mesillas Yesharim and Nefesh Hachaim, how to view the spiritual reality (see no “” this time) in a way that does bring you to that fine tuned sensitivity.

  22. Don’t forget that because of his reaction, Rabbi Shimon had to return to the cave. This was apparently because of Heaven’s disapproval for his reaction and the damage it caused. When he later emerged again, he did not react the same way.

    And, as I noted/asked earlier, I don’t know that we have a tradition from Rabbi Akiva that disapproves of worldly pursuits in favor of a Torah only approach. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

    I actually have a somewhat different take than Simon in trying to understand the events around Rabbi Akiva’s students; so I’d like to hear him answer the questions here.

  23. When R’ Shimon bar Yochai–one of R’ Akiva’s five post-plague students–left the cave in which he had been learning Torah for 13 years, he was filled with repulsion by the mundane and laborious character of the world.

    Thoughts on this in light of Simon’s speculations / argument?

  24. “You see, if you’re trying to place your life’s daily events within a narrative that takes place primarily in the unseen spiritual world, then you must be telling yourself quietly but constantly that ‘what’s happening now isn’t really happening or at least it isn’t what it seems to be’.

    Do you see how if you do that consistently enough you’ll really experience life differently? It will really matter much less to you whether your food is tasty, or whether your clothes are ironed, whether your streets are clean, or whether your kids are screaming. And again, there’s something to be said for being able to achieve that kind of personal peace. I can see the attraction of it.”

    Wow. I can see how lack of understanding can bring one to incredible conclusions. I would suggest that the author set aside time to study under a Yorei Shomayim who can show him that specifically living one’s life with a continuous recognition that this world isn’t the “real world” is exactly what drives admirable behavior in the physical world.

    “Do you see what I’m getting at? The more you focus on the spiritual “reality” the more you numb yourself to physical sensations and eventually you come to care much less about life itself.”

    Precisely the opposite. The more you focus on the spiritual reality (no need for quotation marks), the more you care about your conduct on this earthly life itself.

  25. Take it easy, R’ Mordecai! I was not attacking his scholarship, per se. I was commenting on a tone that was oozing with agenda. But if you want a little scholarship, I’ll take a stab:

    *”Sofa batela v’gorreret avone” is rendered “will no doubt lead to a rotten, sinful life.” Later he speaks of Toraso emunaso as “doomed” to failure. His choice of words are extremely skewed!

    *The rest of the Mishna emphasizes R’ Gamliel’s concern for community workers to be l’shem shomaym. Why is this ignored? Clearly the theme of the entire Mishna is much more about protecting our most precious Mitzvahs from this-worldly bias than waging a campaign against “whole communities” who are heeding the directives of Gdolei Yisroel!

    *He makes a giant, and admittedly sarcastic jump between a time honored Torah approach to life that sees “the spiritual world as the real world” to one which “minimises your involvement with mundane activities.”

    I will not start debating this. It’s been done plenty of times by tsaddikim much greater than we can ever hope to be. But bottom line is that the “communities” of Gdolim who have consistently stressed spirituality as the eekar have never belittled mundanity, per se. A Talmid Chacham’s clothes must not be stained. He’s obliged to consistent marital relations. Etc, etc.

    As said, I’m not interested to start culling sources for a debate on this matter. But when some little blogster starts whipping out sources to malign a hallowed tradition of entire communities, and his tone belies his agenda, I believe he should be called on it.

    It’s an interesting point to consider the fallout of spirituality-first Yiddishkeit versus T.I.D.E. Yiddishkeit. But please, a little, humble balance.

  26. As a kid in day school (Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island), I once took the long trip into Manhattan with my class to visit the WEVD (EVD = Eugene V. Debs) studio. They asked us on the air what we wanted to be when we grew up.

  27. I raised this question in another forum where this well-written post appeared, but I’d like to ask again.

    Do we have any specific indication or evidence that Rabbi Akiva’s overarching principle of ‘love your fellow’ was something that he only concluded AFTER the loss of his thousands of students?

  28. yy:

    Why do we have to assume nefarious agendas? And if the author works for a living, does that alone mean his point can’t be correct? (Rav Kahati worked for a living and I still learn his mishnayot; and that list goes on…) Actually, I don’t see any agenda in his post other than a well-stated attempt at learning and clarifying a point of Torah. He has presented his case articulately, and we may debate it on its merits. So go ahead and do so. It is not, however, any sort of Torah scholarship to cast aspersions as an argument.

    To the point, though. True, Rabbi Akiva literally gave up his life for Hashem’s Torah. Also true, he spent 24 years learning Torah and doing little else THAT WE KNOW OF.

    Now, the questions. If Rabbi Akiva’s wife had not urged him and encouraged him to spend those 24 years in poverty and away from home, would he have done so? Or would he have worked and learned together? We really don’t know, do we? And we don’t know how he supported himself while away. Where in Rabbi Akiva’s teachings do we find it stated that one should learn Torah to exclusion of all else? What evidence do we have from Rabbi Akiva himself, or in his name/legacy, that he promoted such an ideal?

    It is interesting to note, btw, that Rambam describes Rabbi Akiva as ‘bearing the weapons of Ben Koziba (Bar Kochba) the king…’ Whatever the Rambam understood, that does not sound like ‘Torah to the exclusion of everything else.’ Of cousre, based on your stated argument, Rambam may be tainted because he promotes working along with learning Torah and he himself had a job.

    Of course, one may bring arguments for ‘Torah only’, but Simon Synett is writing about Rabbi Akiva and his students. Where is your evidence that ‘Torah only’ was RABBI AKIVA’s position?

    Now, the original post is nicely presented. Is there nothing else to analyze or ask about it?

  29. Over time, students and former students would indeed spread out. But if we took a snapshot of Rabbi Akiva’s yeshiva or network during that time, what would it look like?

    Anyway, if they were very spread out, isn’t it odd that all of them should have had the same character flaw and met the same fate at the same time?

  30. Bob, the first thing related to your question is in the g’mara’s description. Rabbi Akiva, we’re told, had this large number of students from G’vat to Antipras. Antipras seems to be identified today with a site near Rosh HaAyin, at the northern end of Yehudah/Judea. G’vat is largely agreed upon to have been in the south of Judea. So the g’mara seems to be speaking somewhat colloquially and saying that his students covered the countryside. A teacher of great influence and impact could have that effect; some directly and some more indirectly. We’ve seen that in modern times. People talked about this very description when Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriyah died, and tens of thousands of students in Bnei Akiva yeshivot and ulpanot mourned him. Not much of a stretch to ask ‘how many students’ did Rav Noah Weinberg have? Don’t hasidim like Lubavitch consider themselves the hasidim/students of a rebbe, some of whom have never met him in person?

    I don’t think anyone suggests that Rabbi Akiva actually taught these tens of thousands of students with direct contact. Even today, that’s pretty hard to imagine. But we do know he gave public addresses. We do know he had great public influence, such as his role with Bar Kochba. We do know the Romans executed him because of his public teaching and activity. We also know he was aware of the need to spread Torah, possibly through a network of dedicated students who became teachers. ‘Community Kollel’? That was, after all, the effect of his last five famous students that the g’mara mentions he taught after losing all those thousands.

    Interestingly, when the g’mara describes his homecoming after 24 years away learning and teaching, it sounds like tens of thousands of students accompanied him. Pretty hard to imagine how that would have worked.

    Sorry, that isn’t a clear or complete answer. Maybe someone else will have time to fill this in…

    Happy Yom Yerushalayim (this Thursday night/Friday) to all!

  31. Now let me guess — could the author just possibly be someone who “works for a living?” And how much experience has he had sitting and learning with those who’ve devoted themselves to this utmost “kneged kulam” Mitzvah?

    Be careful. R’ Akiva BEGAN as a worker and ended as a learner / teacher who was more than willing to give up this world for that ideal.

  32. It’s not clear to me how these vast numbers of students were organized (in one place? several? many?) and how exactly they interacted with Rabbi Akiva. Did Rabbi Akiva ever address them as a group? Can anyone shed light on the nuts and bolts of this educational system as it existed before the plague?

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