Rabbi Akiva and His Women

Many legends have been woven around the person of Rabbi Akiva and their inclusion in the life story of one of the most important Talmudic scholars only adds greater depth to this much-revered individual. This article deals with only three of these legends, but the links between them invite further study and teaches us something about the women in Rabbi Akiva's life.

The first of the three legends, which appears in "Sefer Avot de Rabbi Natan," describes Rabbi Akiva beside the well: "How did Rabbi Akiva's illustrious career begin? It is said: He was 40 years old and he was an ignoramus." One day he was standing beside a well and he saw a stone there. The stone had tiny grooves in it. When he asked who had made the tiny grooves in this stone, he was told that it was the water that fell on it day after day. He thought for a while and asked himself: "Is my heart harder than a stone? If water can make tiny grooves in this stone, the words of the Torah can surely inscribe themselves on my heart." And there and then he began to learn. What did he do? He took his son and together they studied Torah with little children. And "he kept on learning until he knew the entire Torah."

This legend, presented here in concise form, has been used by many adult education institutions in Israel, especially ulpanim (Hebrew-language schools for new immigrants). In fact, one ulpan even went a step further and has called itself "Ulpan Akiva" - a name that had the built-in message: "No matter how old you are, success might just come your way."

Clandestine wedding

The second legend is about Rabbi Akiva and the daughter of Kalba Savua: "Rabbi Akiva was Kalba Savua's shepherd. Kalba Savua's daughter Rachel noticed how modest Rabbi Akiva was and how fine a person he was. She said to him: `If I agree to be your wife, will you study Torah in the beit midrash [school for the study of Torah]?' He replied, `Yes.' Their wedding ceremony was carried out clandestinely. Kalba Savua found out about the marriage and banished her from his house, cutting her off from all his assets" (from "The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash," Haim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, editors; the original text in the Babylonian Talmud's Ketubot Tractate is in Aramaic and the name of Kalba Savua's daughter does not appear there).

The legend goes on to tell us of the difficulties faced by the young couple. Kalba Savua is one of the most affluent individuals in the city; his name, it is commonly believed, is derived from the fact that a poor person would enter his home, as famished as a dog ("kalba" is Aramaic for dog), and would emerge after a hearty meal with a full belly ("savua" is linked to "save'a," which in Hebrew means sated). Kalba Savua throws his daughter and his son-in-law out of his house and they must seek shelter in a barn. In the morning, when the daughter awakens, she finds that her hair is full of straw. Her new husband picks out the straw from her hair and promises her that, if he had enough money, he would give her a "Jerusalem of gold."

In order to persuade the bride that their situation is not so dire, Elijah the Prophet appears in the guise of a human being and asks them for a little straw for his wife who is about to give birth. "Rabbi Akiva says to his wife, `You see this person? He does not even have a bit of straw.'"

Rachel says to her husband, "Go and study Torah in a beit midrash." Rabbi Akiva obeys her wishes and sets off on his journey to learn Torah. Twelve years pass and he returns home accompanied by 12,000 students. As he stands beneath the window, he overhears a conversation between his wife and a few of her neighbors (in another version of the legend, he overhears an old man saying to his wife: "How long will you remain a widow whose husband is alive but absent?"). Rabbi Akiva hears his wife's reply: "If he would listen to me, he would go back [to his place of sacred studies] for another 12 years."

Sure enough (according to another legend), he does go back to the house of sacred learning, studies there for another 24 years and returns to his city with 24,000 students. All of the townspeople come out to greet him. So does his wife, who appears in ragged clothes and who refuses to heed the advice of her neighbors who suggest that she borrow suitable attire. When his students catch sight of her, they try to prevent her from approaching Rabbi Akiva. However, he immediately calls a stop to their efforts (using one of the shortest and most beautiful statements to describe their mutual relationship): "What is mine and what is yours - belongs to her!"

As in most legends, this one as well has a happy ending. Kalba Savua, who had banished his daughter and his son-in-law because he considered the latter to be an ignoramus, "bowed to the ground, his face pressing the earth, and then kissed Rabbi Akiva's feet, giving him half of all his wealth."

The third legend (presented here in succinct form and in a Hebrew translation) concerns Rabbi Akiva and the wife of Turnus (Tineius) Rufus (or "Turnusrufus," in one version), the Roman governor of Judea. The Babylonian Talmud's Nedarim Tractate informs us that there were ultimately three sources to Rabbi Akiva's wealth: his father-in-law Kalba Savua, an affluent Roman matron and Turnus Rufus' wife. However, since the subject of this article is not Rabbi Akiva's financial situation but rather his wives, we shall present here the events that led up to Rabbi Akiva's meeting with Turnus Rufus' wife.

Turnus Rufus was a Roman governor whose posting in the first half of the second century C.E. (that is, at the time of the Jewish revolt led by Bar-Kochba) was in Judea. The discussions and bitter arguments between Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva were widely known and focused on theological issues. The Talmud tells us what the three main topics of debate were: circumcision, God's love for Israel and His hatred of idol worshipers, and the sacredness of the Sabbath. Needless to say, Rabbi Akiva always emerged the victor in these debates. This fact hurt Turnus Rufus' pride, increased his hatred for Rabbi Akiva and kindled a lust for revenge in the Roman governor's heart.

Here is how Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (known by his acronym, the "Ran") interprets the chain of events described in the Talmud's Nedarim Tractate: "R.A. [Rabbi Akiva] would always triumph over him as he cited biblical verses before the emperor and would anger him with the words he uttered." No wonder Turnus Rufus would go home each day with sadness and rage written all over his face! His wife asked him: "Why do you have such an angry scowl on your face?" He replied: "Because of R.A., who angers me each and every day ..." She said to him: "The God of those people hates licentiousness. Just give me your permission and I will trip him up and cause him to sin." He gave his permission. She put on her makeup and, wearing most attractive attire, she went to see R.A."

Another slightly different version of the legend can be found in the Midrash Yelamdenu presented by Rabbi Shimon the Biblical Orator (Rabbi Shimon Hadarshan), at the end of the first volume of "Yalkut Torah," printed in Salonika in 1526. The version was copied from this source and then inserted in several works, including the one by A. Jellinek in his "Beit Hamidrash" (second edition, Jerusalem, 1937/8): "The story is told of Turnus Rufus who tried to impose his will on Rabbi Akiv(a) but was unable to find a way that would enable him to attain that goal. His wife said to him: `I have a plan that will enable you to impose your will on him.' She dressed up in one her finest attires and stood beside the front entrance to his [Rabbi Akiva's] house (of sacred study) ..." The meeting between the two was short but fateful: She converted to Judaism and became his wife.

Unanswered questions

Let us return to the first of the third legends, the one that tells that, before he studied Torah, Rabbi Akiva hated Talmudic scholars. He himself confessed this fact: "When I was an ignoramus, I used to say: `If I could only get my hands on a Talmudic scholar; I would sink my teeth into his flesh just as a donkey would.'" (Pesakhim Tractate, Babylonian Talmud). However, another aspect of this legend is of particular interest to us: Rabbi Akiva's family status when he decides to study Torah. As noted above, he studies Torah together with his son. But where did this son come from? Another legend tells us that the name of this son was Joshua (his nickname was "Ben Karkha"). Who was his mother? Did Rabbi Akiva divorce her or is he a widower when we encounter him in this legend? No answer is provided for any of these questions. We are therefore forced to assume that his first wife did not bask in his fame during Rabbi Akiva's later years (according to various sources, he lived to the age of 120!).

Rabbi Akiva's second wife sometimes appears in the Talmud as the "daughter of Kalba Savua" and sometimes as the "daughter of the son of Kalba Savua" (apparently, the latter is the correct version), but she is never referred to by her first name. Then how did the name Rachel become associated with her? In the Talmud's Ketubot Tractate, we learn of the (protracted) engagement of Rabbi Akiva's daughter to Ben Azai, and the Talmud explains: "This is what people would say: `A sheep ["rachel" in Hebrew] always follows another sheep.'" This text prompted commentators to conclude that the name of both mother and daughter was Rachel, although such an argument would not be acceptable in any court charged with the task of determining kinship. Incidentally, the Bible is much more economical: To express the idea that daughters behave like their mothers, the Bible simply states (Ezekiel 16:44): "Like mother, like daughter."

`Jerusalem of gold'

As noted above, Rabbi Akiva promised his bride that, had he the means, he would give her a "Jerusalem of gold." Did he keep his promise? Apparently, he did. In the Jerusalem Talmud we read (the following is a free translation into Hebrew): "The story is told of Rabbi Akiva who made a city of gold for his wife. Rabban Gamliel's wife saw that gift and was filled with envy. She spoke with her husband. He said to her: `And would you have done what she did for him [Rabbi Akiva]: She would sell the braids of her head [that is, her hair - for use in wigs] and would give him [the money she received] while he engaged in the study of Torah?'" It should be mentioned that we encounter the subject of human hair in the Nedarim Tractate where Rabbi Akiva states: "Even if you have to sell the hair on your head, you must give [your wife] (the value of) her ketuba [marriage agreement]." The intention, according to the "Ikar Tosafot Yom Tov" commentary: "Even if you have nothing else with which to redeem the marriage contract except, for example, the hair on your head, which you must sell to secure food for your table, you must do so in order to give her [the value of] her marriage contract."

Elsewhere in the Talmud, we find Rabbi Akiva's statement that a reason that allows a man to divorce his wife is that "he has found another woman who is more beautiful" (the mishna at the end of the Gittin Tractate). It is difficult to learn to live with the speed with which Rabbi Akiva succumbs to the charms of Turnus Rufus' wife; however, the Tosafot commentary in the Talmud and Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (the Ran) rush to Rabbi Akiva's aid (in the commentaries to the Talmud's Nedarim Tractate).

Both Tosafot and the Ran tell us that, when Rabbi Akiva saw her magnificent beauty, he "spat on the floor, laughed and then began to cry." She was deeply offended by this behavior and demanded an explanation. "He told her: `Two actions I will explain, the third I will not.'" He spat because he remembered that she came into this world from a foul-smelling drop (she was born from semen, in the wake of a sexual act). He cried because he remembered that her beauty would eventually be buried in the ground and that worms would consume her lovely face. But why did he not explain his laughter? "Because he saw, by means of the holy spirit [here is the justification], that she would convert to Judaism and would become his wife."

The "fear" that Rabbi Akiva married the wife of Turnus Rufus while he was still married to his second wife (the daughter of Kalba Savua) was expressed many years before the present era. That argument was voiced 450 years ago by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (also known as the Holy Ari), who lived in Safed. He raised that fear in a kabbalistic treatise that was published many years after his death: "Just as the Patriarch Jacob was the shepherd of his father-in-law's flocks, so was Rabbi Akiva the shepherd of his father-in-law's flocks. And, just as Jacob had two wives, similarly R.A. had two wives: He married the daughter of Kalba Savua and the wife of the evil Turnus Rufus. Kalba Savua's daughter can be compared to Jacob's wife Rachel, while the wife of Turnus Rufus can be compared to Leah" (Likutei Shas, 1983-84, commentary on the Talmud's Yebamot Tractate).

Well-known motif

And what was the fate of Rabbi Akiva's beloved wife, the daughter of (the son of) Kalba Savua? Unfortunately, we do not know very much about her later years, just as what happened to his first and third wives in the final years of their life is a mystery to us. According to the Midrash Yelamdenu (mentioned above), Turnus Rufus' wife said to him, "I am not moving from here until you convert me to Judaism." Rabbi Akiva apparently fulfilled that wish, because the legend goes on to tell us: "She boarded a ship and headed for another destination."

The name of Turnus Rufus' wife, Rufina, is mentioned in only one legend, which relates that Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva a certain question to which Rabbi Akiva replied: "I will answer you tomorrow." The next day Rabbi Akiva said to him, "I had a dream ... in which I saw two dogs. One was named Rufus and the other Rufina." Turnus Rufus retorted: "Do you mean to tell me that the only names you could find for your dogs were mine and my wife's? You deserve to die for high treason!" (Midrash Tanhuma on the weekly Torah portion Teruma).

Since we began this article with the disclosure of names, we will mention here that the first time we encounter Rachel as the name of Rabbi Akiva's wife is in "Avot de Rabbi Natan," Chapter 6: "Rabbi Akiva will one day pass sentence on all poor people ... Why? Because, if they are asked, `Why did you not study Torah during your lifetime?' and they reply, `Because we were poor,' they will be told, `Yes, but Rabbi Akiva was the poorest person on earth.'" The debate ends with the statement: "Because Rachel his wife received her reward." It is thus no wonder that among the tombs of righteous Jewish men and women, another tomb has recently been added: that of Rachel of Galilee (that is, Rachel, Rabbi Akiva's wife) in the vicinity of Tiberias.

We have not mentioned many things associated directly or indirectly with Rabbi Akiva's wives, starting with the names of his four sons (in addition to Rabbi Joshua) - Simon, Hanania (Hanina), Rabbi Hama and Asa (Isi) - and ending with the well-known motif in the legends of other nations, about the beautiful princess who rejects all the princes who seek her hand in marriage. She falls in love with a young, poor shepherd and elopes with him. It ultimately emerges that he is a hero who saves the kingdom from its enemies who are poised to invade it. Obviously, this shepherd is rewarded with half of his father-in-law's assets.

This article must end with a textual delicacy, and here is a legend that is very far removed from the ones we have presented: "It is told of Rabbi Akiva that he was once in prison. A Gentile who lived in the neighborhood of the prison would visit him every day in order to persuade him to abandon his Jewish faith and become a pagan." Despite the Gentile's entreaties, Rabbi Akiva refused to convert to paganism. One day, when the Gentile returned to his home, he refused to eat the meal his wife had prepared for him and "did not honor with his presence" the bed that had been laid out for him. When his wife asked him, "Why are you so angry?" he told her about Rabbi Akiva's steadfast refusal to convert to paganism, adding: "Life holds no meaning for me until he joins our faith."

Whereupon she answered, "Here, eat and drink and be content of heart ... I will take it upon myself to convert him to our faith." She dressed herself up in beautiful attire and she was in any case an exquisitely beautiful woman. She went to see Rabbi Akiva. As in the legend about Rufina mentioned above, Rabbi Akiva "spat to the left and to the right." She then implores him to convert her to Judaism. "He told her, `Madame, how can I convert you when I am being held here as an inmate of this prison? ... Go to the sacred study home of the wise scholars and ask them to convert you to Judaism.'" And that is precisely what she did. Since she failed to return home, her husband began to look for her and he himself converted to Judaism (from the "Book of Tales," compiled and edited by M. Gester, Lipsia and London, 1924).

In this tale, in which we also see religious tension between Rabbi Akiva and his neighbor (who apparently filled some sort of official capacity that enabled him to visit the prison whenever he wanted to), a woman plays the role of a temptress; however, in this story, Rabbi Akiva does not succumb to her charms. Quite the contrary, both she and her husband convert to Judaism. Was this tale introduced to counterbalance the tale about Turnus Rufus' wife?

As noted above, Rabbi Akiva is mentioned on many occasions in the Talmud and in midrashim. A large number of books have been written about him and about the era during which he lived. This is not the context to enumerate those passages. Suffice it to mention one book that has nearly been forgotten: "Toldot Yisrael" ("Jewish History") by Ze'ev Yavetz (1927/8), in the sixth volume, the chapter entitled "Rabbi Akiva and His Friends." If we encounter legends that do not cast Rabbi Akiva in the most respectful light, we should consider them not only as products of envy among scholars but also, and primarily, as an expression of a certain awkwardness in the face of his enthusiastic support for Bar-Koziva (Bar-Kochba).