Most people, including many rabbis do not realize that Rabbi Akiva revolutionized Judaism and that many people consider his methodology non-rational. Judaism until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, was temple oriented. Several major sects existed during the final centuries of the temple: Sadducees who insisted that the Torah be observed as written without any changes, Pharisees who began to make changes which were later called the Oral Torah. And Essenes who left Jerusalem probably because they were angered that the family of the Hasmoneans usurped the role of high priest which belonged to the family of Tzadok and not to them and who later claimed to be kings when this function belonged to the house of David. Soon after the temple was destroyed, these three groups ceased to exist. A new group arose, the rabbis. Rabbi Akiva was one of the rabbis. He disagreed with his colleague Rabbi Ishmael and taught his students to interpret Torah in an unusual manner, a manner that is used by many rabbis today.
Who was Rabbi Akiva?
Rabbi Akiva’s life is a mystery. There are many legends about him, but they are untrue. He had many students, but not the 20,000 or 40,000 that legends contend. As Reuven Hammer points out in his excellent study “Akiva, Life, Legend, Legacy,” he did not live 120 years as the Bible states Moses lived. He did not die by having his skin scraped from his body. He did not start his studies at age 40. The name Rachel assigned to his wife, is not found in the early contradictory legends of his marriage; it was inserted in a late Midrash because Rachel means “sheep,” and a sheep is mentioned earlier in this imaginative version of Akiva’s life, and giving this name to Akiva’s wife added symmetry. The Israel Prize Winner, Professor Shamma Friedman shows this in his excellent “A Good Story Deserves Retelling: The Unfolding of the Akiva Legend.” In fact, we do not know when Akiva was born, when he started his studies, and when he died. Our best guess, according to Hammer, is that he was born around 50 CE and died sometime between 132 and 135 CE.
Some of Rabbi Akiva’s teachings mentioned by Hammer, are:
- Bar Kosiba, later called Bar Kokhva, was the messiah, “a most unfortunate lapse of judgment.”
- When Jews went into exile, “God’s presence was exiled with them.”
- “In his eyes Torah study was even more important than observance.”
- The “Torah was written by God in heaven prior to creation and that every word, every letter, every sign had meaning and must be interpreted.”
Hammer writes: “Akiva’s work did not stop with his death. By the end of the century the efforts of his loyal disciples…led to the creation of the major works of Rabbinic Judaism, based on Akiva’s teachings: the Mishnah and the Tosefta…(and) midrashim…. They formed the foundation for the continuation of Jewish life in the harsh conditions that the prevailed, the life-giving water that sustained the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Akiva’s methodology
The methodology of Rabbi Akiva and how Rabbi Ishmael differed from him is masterly told in the classic “Torah Min Hashamayim,” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, which was translated into English by Gordon Tucker as “Heavenly Torah: As refracted Through the Generations.”
Two Talmudic sages around 130 CE, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, disagreed on how to interpret the Bible. Rabbi Akiva won out, and Rashi, Nachmanides, and most ancient Bible commentators as well as most Midrashim follow his view. Others, such as Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides interpret the Torah as Rabbi Ishmael.
Rabbi Akiva felt that since the Bible is a word for word revelation from God, and since God is perfect, is able to say concisely exactly what is meant to be said, and would never place any superfluous or non-relevant materiel in the divine book, whenever an idea is repeated in the Bible or there is an unusual word or spelling, God must have placed it to teach a lesson. People need to spot these additions and changes, Rabbi Akiva said, and figure out what God meant to teach by placing them in the Bible.
Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that “the Torah [which is intended for humans] speaks in human language.” For example, just as people repeat themselves for emphasis, to gain attention, for the sake of clarity, or to make their statement more flowery or poetic, so too does the Torah. Nothing should be read into repetitions, of which there are many. If God meant to teach an additional lesson, God wouldn’t have hidden it in a repetition that doesn’t mean or even imply what people read into it; God would have made an explicit statement.
Rabbi Akiva’s students compiled the midrashim and influenced most of the Talmudic rabbis, and later Bible and Talmud commentators such as Rashi, who based their teachings on Rabbi Akiva’s method. Most rabbinical sermons today, which are drawn from these sources, are also based on his method. Readers and listeners need to know that the interpretation was based on what the commentator or rabbi thought (erroneously according to Rabbi Ishmael) was an unnecessary repetition or an unusual spelling. The following are examples from Genesis 23 and a couple of other passages where Rashi draws from the Torah text imaginative information, following Rabbi Akiva’s method, that are usually non-sequiturs not hinted at in the text.
- Genesis 9:10 repeats that God will establish his covenant in Noah’s post-flood generation with humans and animals “all that goes out of the ark, every living thing of the earth.” Rashi, following the methodology of Rabbi Akiva, wonders why the Torah says “every living thing of the earth,” it already said that God made his covenant with “all that go out of the ark.” He answers: the latter refers to demons, which were also included in the covenant. (Rashi was not alone in believing in the existence of demons. There are over three dozen discussions of demons in the Talmud. But there is no explicit mention of demons in the Pentateuch.)
- In Genesis 23:1, the Torah unnecessarily, according to Rashi, repeats years three times, “The life of Sarah [Abraham’s wife] was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi states that the repetition reveals that at 100 she was like 20 in regard to sin, and at 20 she was as beautiful as a girl of seven. (The repetition of years, as in this verse, is characteristic biblical phraseology, and has no hidden meaning. It is in Genesis 5:5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 23, 26: Exodus 12:40, 41, 25:10, and many other passages. None of them have the connotation Rashi sees here.)
- Again in 23:1, after mentioning that she lived 127 years, Scripture repeats, “these are the years of Sarah’s life.” Why were these words added? Rashi says they inform readers that despite difficulties that Sarah had in her life, she felt that they were all good.
- When Abraham negotiates with Ephron to purchase burial ground for his deceased wife Sarah, the Bible states in 23:10 that Ephron was sitting among the children of Heth, Rashi notes that the Hebrew word for “sitting” has an unusual spelling; it is missing the letter He writes that the letter was omitted to inform readers that “on that day he was appointed ruler over them [the children of Heth]. He was elevated [apparently Rashi means by God] because Abraham needed the elevated rank [to be able to negotiate with the leaders of the children of Heth].”
- Rashi ignores the fact that there are hundreds of different spellings in the Torah. For example, there are differences in spellings in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Even Ephron’s name omits a vav in 23:16. There Rashi says the Torah omits the vav to inform readers that Ephron diminished himself during his negotiations with Abraham. (Thus in example 4 the missing vav is said to elevate and in example 5 to diminish.)
- Rashi also interpreted the Torah by using gematriot. A gematria (the singular form of the word) is the numerical value of words. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an aleph, equals one, and so on. Commenting on 24:1, Rashi seems to be bothered by why the Bible needs to tell readers that God blessed Abraham “with everything”; haven’t we seen many instances of God’s blessing to Abraham before? The Hebrew word for “with everything” is Rashi notes that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of bakol is 52, the very same number as the word ben, son. He writes that the Torah is stating that God blessed Abraham with a son, and then narrates how Abraham tried to secure a wife for this son. (The twelfth century rational sage Abraham ibn Ezra sarcastically commented, “God does not speak in gematriot.”)
 Scholars and rabbis have different ideas about the Sadducees. The Hebrew name is Tzedukim, which could denote, as some insist, members of the family of Tzadok, who traditionally functioned in the temple. Those who interpret the name in this fashion say the Tzedukim did not follow the Torah. Others note that we know that the high priests in the later temple period were not from the family of Tzadok. They interpret Tzedukim as “the righteous ones,” those who insisted that the Torah be observed as written, and not changed as the Pharisees insisted; with Pharisees, in Hebrew Perushim being translated “those who departed (from the literal understanding of Torah).”
 BT Berakhot 31b.
 There are many times that words are spelt differently – one spelling in one passage and another spelling in another. See examples 4 and 5.
 This is apparently an original Rashi interpretation following Akiva’s method.
 This is based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah 58:1.
 This seems to be an original Rashi interpretation.
 This is a Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 58:6.
 Based on Genesis Rabbah 58:7 and BT Bava Metzia 87a.
 This interpretation is apparently original to Rashi.