Akiva ben Yosef


Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE) was a Talmudic sage known for his life and teachings of love. According to the Talmudic account, his life with his wife Rachel was a model of romantic love and self-sacrifice. Living apart from each other for more than two decades, Rabbi Akiva finally fulfilled his love pledge to her, becoming a great sage and acquiring many students.

Rabbi Akiva is known for “rescuing” the Song of Songs from oblivion, giving human culture one of its finest and most profound works of love. The Song of Songs differs fundamentally from every other text in the Prophets and Writings. It lacks religious or nationalist content, and God’s name does not appear in it. It is a poem in praise of human love between man and woman. The words of Rabbi Akiva during the debate in the San-hedrin regarding the status of the Song are remembered and quoted most often, becoming firmly established in historical memory as having determined the significance of the Song of Songs: “for the entire world was never so worthy as on the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, since all of scripture is holy, and the Song of Songs is holy of holies!” (Mishna Yadaym 3:5).

Those rabbis who supported the status of Song of Songs as scripture, Rabbi Akiva foremost among them, did so not because of any esoteric significance or inferences hidden within the text—of which the majority of readers would not be aware in any case—but because they believed that love is the most sublime manifestation of the human experience. They believed in the ideal of human love as the greatest expression of the bond between man and God. The love of the Jewish People for God, of man for God, is not a different kind of love, but the same love that exists between man and woman. Rabbi Akiva brought love into the sanctum sanctorum and created a hierarchy of holiness, with love between man and woman as depicted in the Song of Songs, at its highest level. All other levels of holiness flow from this holy of holies, draw upon it, and are defined in relation to it. As he stated, “Had the Torah not been given, the Song of Songs would have been worthy to guide the world” (Agadat Shir Hashirim, 5).

The Halakhic rulings of Rabbi Akiva demonstrated how the sage of love did not merely conceive abstract ideas, but applied his principles to daily life through his legal decisions—as in overturning the first sages’ decree prohibiting a woman’s adornment and use of cosmetics while in a state of menstrual impurity. In Rabbi Akiva’s eyes, the value of maintaining harmony within the marriage and sustaining the constant attraction between husband and wife justified even the risk that the husband might commit the grave sin of “lying with her that is unclean.” Rabbi Akiva established clear Halakhic guidelines for marriage based on compatibility and harmony between partners. He ruled that one must not marry without love, not only because of the likelihood that the marriage would fail, but also because it was prohibited to place oneself in circumstances that would lead to hating a fellow human being. In his lenient approach to divorce, Rabbi Akiva viewed the marriage relationship as an expression of harmony and love. His sensitivity to the need to nurture and safeguard love—also reflected in his Halakhic rulings—was not only a necessary condition for sustaining marriage and the marriage bond, but the very essence of that bond. It thus followed that if there was no longer any love between the partners, there was no point in maintaining the framework. The essence of marriage, in Rabbi Akiva’s eyes, was love and harmony. He formulated the principles of marital harmony and declared that perfection can only be achieved through marriage, through the “union” of two—perfection not merely of the union itself, but a state of harmony characterized by a connection with the spiritually sublime, evoking the presence and involvement of the Divine Spirit (Shekhinah), and sustaining itself by that presence.

In a discussion concerning the imperative from which all morality derives, Rabbi Akiva asserted that “love thy neighbor as thyself” is the greatest principle in the Torah and the basis of socialization (Sifra, Kedoshim 2). The ability to love another required that one first love oneself. Love of self can develop in two possible ways. One can allow the ego to take control of the man—such love tends to burn itself out; or one can love others, exercising responsibility toward them, performing act of kindness for them—such interpersonal relations eventually develop into love for all human beings created in God’s image. “Love thy neighbor” strengthens oneself and love of oneself provides a solid basis, a mainstay, for love of others. Socialization based upon “love thy neighbor” is in fact a system of love ties between people and oneself that sustains and strengthens each one.

The sage of love gave his final lesson on the philosophy of love at the moment of his execution on the Jewish Day of Atonement. The Roman Governor of Palestine decreed his death because Rabbi Akiva defied a ban on the public study of Torah. His students—who during the years of their studies had learned from him that suffering was beloved—were unable to come to terms with his death. They watched his execution with admiration, deep sorrow, and anxiety at the imminent separation from their beloved teacher. Rabbi Akiva explained to his students the meaning of his death: “All my days I grieved at the words ‘with all thy soul.’” Rabbi Akiva knew that man cannot fully observe love’s most important commandment —to love God—and for this he grieved all his life. “And now that the opportunity presents itself will I not fulfill it?” Nothing can compare to doing the right thing—in affording ultimate meaning to something that is in this case the ultimate moment of life—”with all thy soul (Deuteronomy 6:5)—even when it is taken from you!”

At that very moment, his life was taken as he fulfilled the commandment to accept the yoke of heaven and love God: “He drew out [the word] ‘one’ (ehad) until his soul departed on ‘one.’” With all the strength in his body, with all the force of his spirit, with immeasurable love of God, he devoted his final breath to “one”: “And thou shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Next post:

Previous post: