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Rabbi Akiva and the Aftermath of Bar-Kochbas Defeat Bookmark and Share
Rabbi Akiva and the Aftermath of Bar-Kochbas Defeat
135 CE
By: Rabbi Berel Wein

In every generation there are people of influence and power who dominate the story of that time. However, there are also people of such influence and social power that they remain dominant figures in civilisation for all later times as well. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the great sage and leader of Israel, is such a person. The bond of love forged between Rabbi Akiva and the Jewish people remains as strong and lasting today as it was first created almost nineteen centuries ago, for Rabbi Akiva represented in his personality all the life values and character strengths that Torah imparts to humans. Rabbi Akiva was so much the epitome of Torah that the Talmud has Moses stating to God, upon peering far into the prophetic future and seeing the personal greatness of Rabbi Akiva, "Lord of the universe, You have such a person as Rabbi Akiva through whom You could grant the Torah to Israel, and You have instead chosen through me?!" 1

Unschooled and ignorant of Torah knowledge until after his marriage, the moment he began to study Torah at the yeshivah of Rabbi Eliezer, he pursued it with unwavering fervour. Rabbi Akiva rose by dint of his personal commitment and intellectual brilliance to present Torah scholarship unparalleled, so much so that his older colleague and frequent disputant, Rabbi Tarfon, upon being conceived of the correctness of one of Rabbi Akiva's halachic opinions, related his own ruling in the matter and stated, "Akiva, leaving you [and your Torah decisions] is as [serious as] leaving life itself!" 2 The Rabbis of the Talmud established the halachic rule that the law of Israel would always conform with Rabbi Akiva's opinion unless many of his colleagues openly disagreed with him. 3

There were many others, in his time and after, who were great and famous Torah scholars, but Rabbi Akiva did not simply study Torah, teach Torah and organise the laws and traditions of Torah - Rabbi Akiva was Torah, to such a unique degree that it was he who became enshrined in the hearts of the Jews ever after. Rabbi Akiva was gentleness and compassion incarnate. His devotion and appreciation of his beloved wife, Rachel, is encapsulated in the phrase that he shared with his students: "All that is mine [in Torah greatness] and all that is yours [in what you have learned from me] is truly hers." 4

Originally of poor and humble circumstances, and a descendant of converts, he became a very wealthy man later in life. He also represented the Jews and the Torah to the Roman aristocracy, upholding in debate and action the truth and nobility of his faith and his people. Yet in spite of his changed and improved circumstances, he always remained the representative of the poor and the lowly, 5 their champion and benefactor. To him the commandment "Love your fellow as your self" 6 was the great general rule of the Torah and its standard for Jewish behaviour. 7 Yet Rabbi Akiva was the man of steel when necessary, unbending in devotion to the Torah and people of Israel. It was he who rallied the Jews to the cause of Bar Kochba and Jewish independence. His tenacity and inner strength was unbounded. The defeat of Bar Kochba, the disappointment of the failed potential messiah, the awful slaughter that marked the fall of Beitar, the death of 24,000 of his own students in little more than a month's time, 8 the internal quarrels and disputes that then threatened to erode the strength of the remnant of Jewry, the cruelty of Rome and it's seemingly never-ending domination over Israel, all did not dim his spirit, weaken his faith, or impeach his love for the God, people and Land of Israel. Rabbi Akiva as always optimistic and accepting. His great teacher, Nachum Ish Gamzu, had taught him that "everything that God does is for the best," 9 and Rabbi Akiva never wavered from that faith. "The world is always judged kindly" 10 was his motto. Others might weep and despair when viewing the ruins of Jerusalem and the Temple, but Rabbi Akiva, seeing beyond today's ruins into the time of tomorrow's rebuilding, smiled in contemplation of the future. 11 In all later generations, Jews in terribly difficult times of seeming despair would look back to Rabbi Akiva for inspiration and succour.

A True Martyr
Rabbi Akiva also serves as the prime example of martyrdom in Jewish life. There were many Jews who died for their faith long before Rabbi Akiva's arrival on the scene. As noted earlier, the era of the Hellensits and the Hasmoneans was replete with stories of excruciating martyrdom suffered by Jews in observance and defence of their faith - but Rabbi Akiva's execution on Yom Kippur 12 (c. 136) in the hippodrome of Caesarea marked a definitive moment of Jewish martyrdom. The old man, his skin flayed by iron combs, his people hounded and persecuted by mighty Rome, views himself and his career not as defeated but as triumphant. His last words - "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" - are not uttered in the agony of loss or the despair of abandonment, but in the serenity of faith and soul.

All of his years as a student and teacher of Torah, the Angel of Death had been constant companion, and Rabbi Akiva fully understood that his path of teaching Torah and supporting Jewish independence against Roman Tyranny could eventually lead to his agonising martyrdom. 13 But he never wavered or flinched. Tradition has his holy body whisked away from Caesarea to Tiberias by angels, there to be buried in the cemetery-mountain near the graves of his beloved students. The folk appreciation, "Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, that you are martyred for the sake of Torah," 14 placed a different meaning on such a martyrdom for all later generations of Jews. To be Rabbi Akiva's partner, to emulate his greatness, to share his optimism and hope, to be nurtured from wellsprings of his devotion to God and Israel, all of this made martyrdom acceptable to Jews throughout the ages. Only the willingness and ability of Jews - great and simple, scholarly and untutored, those physically strong and those broken of body - to die for Judaism made it possible for Jewish life to survive and prosper throughout the long night of exile. And it was this ability and strength of character that Rabbi Akiva left as his final gift to his beloved people. Rabbi Akiva's martyrdom was part of the unrelenting persecution of Jews and Judaism that became Roman policy in conquered Judah after Bar Kochba's defeat and the destruction of Beitar.

Tomb of Rabbi Akiva
The Romans had decided to rid themselves of their Jewish problem, primarily in Judah, once and for all. They therefore, really for the first time concentrated not so much on the Jews as a people but on Judaism and its Torah. Their plan was to eliminate the scholars and sages of Israel, who were, after all, the true leaders of the Jews, and to forbid the practice of Judaism, the lifeblood of Israel, thus guaranteeing the Jews' demise as a counterforce to Roman culture and hegemony. The Sabbath, circumcision, public study and teaching of Torah, as well as observance of all Jewish ritual and customs, were forbidden. Thousands of Jews were decimated and dispersed, and the survivors were driven underground. The Rabbis felt their world "desolate," 15 but in their faith and tenancy of spirit. Indeed, many great men, in addition to Rabbi Akiva, were martyred for the sake of Judaism, 16 but even these tragedies did not fatally discourage the people. Somehow the determination of Jews to survive as Jews did not falter. New leaders and scholars would arise, many of them disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who would take upon themselves the arduous task of rebuilding the Jewish people, spiritually and physically. Rabbi Meir, Rbbi Yehudah ben Il'ai, Rabbi Nassan HaBavli, Rabbi Reuven ben Itztribuli, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yossi are some of the new leaders who would come to the fore to save Israel in this desperate hour. With the spirit and example of Rabbi Akiva as their inspiration and in spite of great personal risk, these men would fight the Romans and their decrees, first in a clandestine fashion, but later openly and boldly. And eventually they would prevail in the struggle.

  1. Menachos 29b.
  2. Talmud, Kiddushin 66b
  3. Talmud, Eruvin 46b.
  4. Talmud, Kesubos 63a.
  5. Talmud, Kidduchin 27a.
  6. Vayikra 19:18.
  7. Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim, Chapter 9, section 4.
  8. THis is the basis for the period of the semi-mourning that Jews observe between the holidays of Peasach and Shavuos.
  9. Talmud, Berachos 60b.
  10. Mishnah, Avos, Chapter 3, section 17.
  11. Talmud, Makkos 24a-b.
  12. There is another tradition amongst Jews that Rabbi Akiva was executed on 5 Tishrei, five days before Yom Kippur. There is a third tradition that he was executed on 9 Tishrei, the day preceeding Yom Kippur. See A. Stern, Malitzei Esh ( Jerusalem, 1975).
  13. Talmud, Berachos 61b.
  14. Ibid
  15. Talmud, Yevamos 62a.
  16. The legendary tale of the "Ten Martyrs of Israel" mentioned in the Midrash and in the Ashkenazic prayer liturgy of Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av is a refrence to the acholarly victimsof Hadrian's draconian persocutions after the fall of Beitar, even though not all of the ren Martyrs described therein are actually of that time period.A