An excerpt from Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society, October 2015) by Reuven Hammer.
Akiva’s Early Life
From Temple Worship to Torah Study
When the Great Revolt was over, much of Judea recovered swiftly. Landowners there had capitulated and were permitted to retain their land and continue farming.29 Nevertheless everything in Jewish life changed radically, beginning with the way in which Jews governed themselves. All power was now in the hands of the Romans, who retained Caesarea as their capital. Jerusalem ceased to exist as far as Jews were concerned. The Sanhedrin that had sat there no longer functioned. With the disappearance of the Temple and the cessation of the cult, the power of the priesthood also vanished. The Sadducean group no longer existed. The Essenes and other sects had also vanished. The Sages—the leaders of Pharisaic Judaism—remained the only influential source of religious teaching. Under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai they assumed whatever political power they could, and the seat of power transferred from devastated Jerusalem to the center of learning and jurisprudence that Ben Zakkai had established in Yavneh,30 south of Jaffa, not far from where Akiva lived.
For all intents and purposes, Yavneh became the new Jerusalem, the center of the Rabbinic court and the source of Jewish learning. Ben Zakkai went so far as to name his court the Sanhedrin.31 There was increased activity and more public learning now in that area than before. Perhaps that began to make a difference to Akiva’s attitude. Otherwise how are we to understand the metamorphosis that changed this youth, who hated men of learning, into one who desired to enter into the circle of the learned? The Pharisees’ attitude toward people like Akiva and his father was characterized by the distinguished historian Salo Baron as ambivalent, “at once cherished as ardent followers and despised as ritually unreliable illiterates.”32 No wonder Akiva would have torn apart any Sage from that group. But the Pharisees no longer existed as a sect. Instead there were learned men, Sages, now known as Rabbis, who sought to spread the knowledge of the Torah and of Jewish practice among the masses, creating a Judaism that could outlive the loss of the central sanctuary, the Temple, the sacrificial worship, and the Priesthood, a Judaism that could exist even without independence and self-government. These Sages became the predominant religious leaders of Judea and played an ever more important role in the life of the nation. Torah study became the center of religious life, and teachers roamed the land eager to impart such knowledge. The disputes that had led to divisions and the creation of sects that did not recognize one another’s legitimacy had disappeared. Now there were differences of opinion and discussions and disputes, but the overwhelming desire was for inclusiveness and for respect for differences.33 This new emphasis on the study of Torah34 together with the increased importance of prayer transformed Judaism and enabled it to survive the crises of the destruction of the Temple.
Perhaps Akiva encountered these Sages, heard their public lessons, which took place in the open where anyone could listen, and began to feel the need for something more in his life. Without learning, without skills, without resources, what kind of a life could he look forward to? Scratching out a poor living as his father had done, perhaps finding a wife, if he could even afford one. For a young man of intelligence—and his subsequent history surely proves that he was extraordinarily gifted—such a life must have been unbearably frustrating.
Both fact and fiction are replete with tales of young people with brilliant, unrecognized potential who were discovered by a teacher or some other person who was able to discern the hidden talent and help the otherwise unknown youth to realize himself and achieve greatness. The Akiva of legend has been provided with such a person in the unlikely character not of a teacher or professional, but of a young woman with whom Akiva falls in love—his future wife. But is this fact or fiction?
29. Zeitlin, Rise and Fall, 3:219 and 3:143.
30. S. Safrai in Ben-Sasson, History of the Jewish People, 319–22.
31. Baron, Social and Religious History, 2:120.
32. Baron, Social and Religious History, 2:56.
33. See S. Cohen, “Significance of Yavneh,” 27–53.
34. Baron, Social and Religious History, 2:120.