Imagining A Jew

Aqiva & Ishmaél

We have introduced Aqiva the student. He was also a master. Aqiva’s halakha is precedent in later generations.


In Menahot 29b, Moshe Rabénu is shown a vision of R Aqiva. This is how Louis Finkelstein presents it (I have replaced archaic language with modern) in Aqiva: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (pp 156-7):

When Moshe ascended… he found God binding small coronets about the letters of the Law. “Why these coronets?” Moshe asked.

“Because,” God replied, “at the end of many generations there will arise a scholar… Aqiva ben Joseph, who will interpret each one of these letters.

“Show him to me,” Moshe asked.

Moshe saw and listended. When Moshe heard him discussing the Law, the great prophet called out “Ribono shel olam! You have such a man before You and yet give the Torah to Your people through me?!”

“Be silent!” God replied “Such is My Thought.”


Ishmaél was a Kohén. Aqiva’s primary disputant and a close colleague who founded his own school, his personality and precedents molded future generations of tannaim. His method did not derive meaning from every letter of Torah. It concentrates on the plain meaning of the Torah text. Aqiva’s approach, interpreting every letter, is the more mystical of the two methods. Ishmaél’s halakha was equally practical. He opposed the assertion of R Shimon Bar Yohai that Torah study would suffer when simply living each day posed a challenge on Brakhot 35b (see below for R Shimon‘s view):

The Tannaim taught: You will gather your staple crops (Dvarim 11, 14) – what does this teach? Not to take the phrase this Torah scroll will not be told by you (Yehoshu’a 1, 8) literally It states You will gather your staple crops – according to R Ishmaél – to imply that study and occupation are one

R Ishmaél’s exegetical rules have become part of the Daily siddur study prior to Shacharit. He animates the mystical book Hékhalot Rabbat’i. Many mystical remarks are attributed to him; R Meir was a student of his.
Aqiva the mystic

The most famous story told of Aqiva’s mysticism is found in the Talmud (Chagiga 14b), Zohar (I, 26) and Tiquné Zohar (Tiqun 40) — Four (hakhamim) entered Pardes:

Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Achér and Rebbe Aqiva. R Aqiva said to them “Do not say, ‘Water! Water!’ when you come to the place of pure marble stones – it is said, liars will not ascend to my House nor settle in closely; untruths stand against My Eyes (Psalms 101:7).” Ben Azzai gazed – and died. Regarding him it says “Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed – and was hurt. Regarding him? “Eat the palm honey you found – but sufficiency is not satiety and you are not the pelican!” (Proverbs 25:16) Achér cut down what was planted (he no longer believed the Rabbinic traditions were entirely true). Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.

Aqiva’s Students

Rebbe Aqiva taught thousands of students but three stand out: Ben-Azz’i, Ben-Zoma and Ben-Abu’ya, whom we call Achér (“the other one”).


A patrician who in his youth had no respect for the plebeian adult learner Aqiva; Pirqé Avot 4:25 sums up his attitude to Aqiva: “To what shall we compare a young student? To ink written on new paper. But what is an elder learner like? To ink written over erasures.” We don’t know how he became reconciled to Aqiva. After his mystical experience Ben-Abu’ya is called Achér in the Talmud because he could no longer reconcile Rabbinic Judaism with mystical traditions that made more sense to him. His halakhot are not recorded but his aggadot form all of Chapter 24 of Avot deRebbe Natan and were transmitted by R Meir, who refused to abandon him – he showed Ben-Abu’ya the honour a student shows his master and brought his teacher to tshuva just before Ben-Abu’ya died.


Aqiva’s son-in-law and disputant, he learned also with Yehoshua Ben-Hanan‘ya and knew these older traditions very well. He gently corrected Aqiva’s transmission by saying: “Thus taught Yehoshua,” (Finklestein, 161). Ben-Azz’i was accustomed to poverty and this drove him to the plebeian Hillellite perspectives even though he had some sympathy with the patrician perspectives of Shamm’I and disputed against Aqiva with this rhetoric.


Foremost an ethicist, he is primarily recalled for his agada, most famously PA 4:1 – “Who is wise? Whoever learns from all others Who is strong? Whoever controls his (her) passions Who is honourable? Whoever honours others.”

He also said “Adam had to slave for all his food before he could even prepare it;mine is placed before me. Adam had to gather all his materials before he could wear a garment; my clothes are assembled for me to wear. Many must work hard before dawn so my own needs can be met.” He reported to Rebbe Yehoshua, his earliest teacher, what he had seen in his mystical experience (Tosefta Chagiga 2:5) and died a few days later. He was not a musmakh but was highly regarded as a teacher.

R Shimon Bar-Yohai

A fourth student, R Shimon Bar-Yohai, whom we call Rashbi, has special status because Zohar presents him as the mystical equivalent of R Yohanan – the single teacher whose mission is to clarify essential points for later use by other teachers to determine the definitive way. In this sense, Rebbe Shimon is less a Tanna than an Amora of mysticism, even if his halakhot are firmly in the generation of Tannaim.

R Shimon was a student of Rebbe Aqiva Because of his hatred for all things Gentile, and the Romans in particular, Rashby hid in a cave for 12 years to avoid execution by the Roman governors of Israel Assuming he went into hiding after the martyrdom of Aqiva, in 135 CE, he emerged in 147 to become, eventually, the acknowledged leading sage of his time His midrash halakha is collected in Mekhilta de-R Shimon Bar-Yohai on Shmot His mishnayot (attributed Mishna statements) are quoted extensively in the Mishna Rashby’s students included Rebbe and Pinhas Ben-Yair, who was also his father-in-law Lets look again at Brakhot 35b:

each in its appropriate season, and not neglect Torah? When Israel does God’s Will, Israel’s work is done by others – for it says (Yeshi’a 61, 5) Others will supervise your flocks for you, etc – and if Israel does not perform God’s Will? They do their own work – as it says You will gather your staple crops…

R Shimon’s portion of Brakhot 35b is long, and it uses mystical phrases such as bizman ruah torah and retzono shel maqom R Ishmaél’s portion is straight-forward and concise All mystical works are agada or midrash and only Zohar comes close to the depth of the Talmud Many of the quoted teachers in Bahir are featured also in Pirqé deRebbe Eliezer, an agadic Gemara to an agadic Mishna – Pirqé Avot The rabbis of Bahir, like Rashby, are neither precisely Tanna nor Amora As to whom the actual mystics were among the halakhic Amora’im, many are mentioned in passing Rava was among the last of them. We’ll learn of the Geonim in the next unit.