Akiba (Akiva), ben-Joseph

(c. 50–135)
   Rabbi and patriot. Akiba came late to learning. Born into a very poor family, he had no education and worked as a shepherd. While tending the flocks of a rich Jerusalem Jew, Akiba married his master’s daughter Rachel, against the wishes of her father. The young couple were so penurious that according to one story, Rachel sold her hair to buy food. But she encouraged him to take up a life of study, the most cherished vocation for a bright Jewish youth of the times.
   He became a pupil of renowned teachers at the Lydda academy. From all accounts, he was unruly and independent, and often punished. But his powerful and original mind and superb gift of exposition made him outstanding among the younger scholars. Thirteen years after the illiterate shepherd youth had started to learn the alphabet, Akiba set up his own school at B’nai Brak, to which the most promising pupils in the country were attracted. From among them emerged the leading scholars and teachers of the next generation.
   Akiba’s great contribution to the Law was an editorial one. He devoted himself to the huge task of bringing order into the Oral Law: firstly, by relating existing practice to the biblical text; and secondly, by reducing the Law to a systematic arrangement according to subject. This work was carried forward after his death by Rabbi MEIR, who had been Akiba’s favourite pupil. It became the basis for the great written code of the Mishnah, completed at the beginning of the next century under the direction of the patriarch JUDAH HA-NASI. Akiba’s hold on his contemporaries and students was due to his personal qualities as well as to his scholarship. He remained independent and courageous in his views, even when it came to opposing the imperious patriarch GAMALIEL II. At the same time he had a humility, a broad humanism and a social concern for the poor and distressed which were reminiscent of his great predecessor HILLEL. Indeed, he echoed Hillel in declaring that the basic principle of the Torah was ‘that thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. His respect for the common man, and dislike for rank and privilege, is revealed in his pithy saying, ‘All Israel are the sons of kings.’
   Imperial policy towards the Jews became harsher under the emperors Trajan and HADRIAN. At one point Akiba accompanied the patriarch in a deputation to Rome to plead with Hadrian for Jewish freedom of worship. Within the Jewish community in Judea, there were voices of expediency that counselled submission to the official policy. To them, Akiba retorted with a parable of the fox who urged the fish to come up on dry land in order to escape the fisherman’s net. The fish replied, ‘If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more should we be afraid when we are out of that element. We should then surely die.’ In AD 132, when a Jewish insurrection broke out in Judea, led by Shimeon barKosiba, it was given open support by the aged Akiba, by then the foremost Jewish sage of his time. According to later talmudic accounts, Akiba hailed Bar- Kosiba as the ‘anointed king’ and recalled the verse from Num. 24:17, ‘a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel ; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.’ The Hebrew for a star is kochav, or kochba in Aramaic, the colloquial language of the time. The biblical verse quoted by Akiba may, therefore, have given rise to the name of BAR-KOCHBA, ‘son of a star’, by which Shimeon bar-Kosiba afterwards became known. Akiba’s association with Bar-Kochba was to cost him his life. On the crushing of the rebellion in AD 135, he was arrested and tortured to death. ALBO, Joseph 15th century. Spanish philosopher. The dates of Albo’s birth and death are unknown, but he was certainly a man of some repute in 1413, for in that year he represented the Jewish community of Daroca at the religious disputation of Tortosa. On the order of Benedict XIII, the anti-pope in Spain, all Jewish communities in Aragon had been commanded to send their most learned rabbis to Tortosa, there to take part in a religious debate designed to demonstrate the errors of Jewish beliefs. Conducted for the church with virulent force by Geronimo de Santa Fe, a former talmudic scholar who had adopted Christianity, the argument lasted from February 1413 to November 1414 and ended, predictably enough, with the declaration that the Jewish side had been defeated. However, no mass baptisms of Jews followed.
   Albo is celebrated mainly for his Sefer ha-Ikkarim (‘Book of Principles’), completed in 1425, when he was living in Soria in Castile. The book was written during a period of instability and doubt among Spanish Jews and it was meant to restore their faith in the dogmas of Judaism. The author was clearly an erudite scholar, well versed also in Moslem and Christian philosophy. The book became very popular among European Jewish communities in succeeding centuries.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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