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Teach Your Children Well

In the midst of the laws of mourning that make up the last chapter of Moed Katan, we are told some personal stories. As is the Gemara鈥檚 wont, they are usually brought to prove a halachic point but their human interest is still palpable. Such is the story we have about Rabbi Akiva鈥檚 sons:

鈥淭here was an incident and the sons of Rabbi Akiva died, and all of Israel entered to eulogize them with a great eulogy. When they were about to take leave, Rabbi Akiva stood on a large bench and said: Our brothers, the house of Israel, listen! Even had my two sons been bridegrooms, I would have been consoled on account of the honor you have shown them. If you came for the sake of Akiva, there are many Akivas in the marketplace. Rather, certainly this is what you said to yourselves: 鈥淭he Torah of his God is in his heart鈥 (Psalms 37:31), and you wished to show your respect for the Torah. All the more so is your reward doubled. Return now to your homes in peace.鈥 (Moed Katan 21b)

The story appears, longer and more detailed, 聽in one of the minor tractates, known as Masechet Semachot. The name means the happiness tractate but it is a euphemism for a book that deals with mourning and death. In this version, Rabbi Akiva loses one son, not two, and we know his name, Shimon. We also hear about the prelude to the story, where Rabbi Akiva refuses to stop teaching even as his son is dying:

鈥淲hen R. Simeon, the son of R. 鈥楢岣砳ba, fell ill, the latter did not interrupt his expositions in the Academy but made inquiries after him through a messenger. The first messenger came and reported, 鈥楬e is very ill鈥. He said to [his disciples], 鈥楥ontinue to ask questions鈥. Then a second came and reported, 鈥楬e has grown worse鈥. R. 鈥楢岣砳ba resumed the study of the Torah. A third came and reported, 鈥楬e is dying鈥, and he said [to his disciples, 鈥楥ontinue] to ask questions鈥. A fourth came and reported, 鈥楬e is dead鈥. Whereupon he arose, removed the tefillin, rent his garments and said to them, 鈥極ur brother-Israelites, hearken! Until now we had the duty to study the Torah; but from now onward we have the duty to occupy ourselves with honoring the dead鈥.” (Semachot 8:13)

The speech Rabbi Akiva gave to the people in Semachot is even more powerful than the one in Moed Katan. He emphasizes the mitzva that they did in coming to console him. He refuses to say that it is because of his fame or piety, but rather because of their interest in keeping a mitzva.

In this account, Rabbi Akiva is portrayed as super human, almost inhuman. He will only give himself over to grieve for his son when there is no choice. Meanwhile he continues to teach Torah. Shmuel Faust in an article in Daat compares this moment to the incredible story in Berachot of Rabbi Akiva鈥檚 own death. There too, he continues to teach his students, up until the very last moment. There he recites Shema Yisrael and here he tells the people 讗讞讬谞讜 讬砖专讗诇 砖诪注讜, listen Israel.

The amphitheater at Caesarea where Rabbi Akiva’s execution probably took place (Wikipedia)

But lest you think that Rabbi Akiva has no heart, the story continues and tells us how he can remain so composed:

鈥淣ot that a man desires to bury his children, but I know that my son is destined for the World to Come because he caused the many to be righteous,鈥

Here Rabbi Akiva shows us his two greatest qualities: he is a teacher par excellence and he is the eternal optimist, always taking the long view and knowing that while there is pain here on earth, his son is receiving his reward in the next world.

This is one of the few stories that we have about Rabbi Akiva鈥檚 children. Although we know a great deal about his life, we only have hints about his family. His saintly wife, Rachel, who gave up everything to support the poor shepherd in his learning is the stuff of legend, but what about their children? Can we piece together more information about them?

We have one, probably late, story of Akiva鈥檚 interaction with his young child. Avot deRabbi Natan relates that when he decided to begin studying, he and his son went to a teacher and began to learn the letters together, each one holding one side of the tablet. It is a very sweet story, showing both parental devotion and also a willingness to study at all costs and not be embarrassed. Was that young son Shimon?

We hear about Shimon a different time, on a very different occasion, his wedding. Here Rabbi Akiva opened barrel after barrel of wine and drank to the life of the Sages (Shabbat 67b)

A different son, Yehoshua, is mentioned in a few places. Rabbi Akiva gives him fatherly advice (Pesachim 112a) but we do not hear much about him. Perhaps he was named for Akiva鈥檚 great teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah?

Perhaps the most interesting stories are about his daughter, or maybe two different daughters. After relating the story of Rachel鈥檚 devotion to Akiva鈥檚 learning, the Gemara in Ketubot adds that their daughter did a similar thing. She married Akiva鈥檚 student, Shimon Ben Azzai, so that the latter could continue to study. The Gemara even adds a nice play on words: 专讞讬诇讗 讘转专 专讞讬诇讗 讗讝诇讗, the ewe follows the ewe. But of course the original 鈥渆we鈥 is herself named 鈥渆we,鈥 Rachel!

Could this story have happened? Other sources say Ben Azzai never married. Tosefot solves the issue by saying that they were engaged but not married or perhaps married and divorced. Not the same love story as Akiva and Rachel, even if the intentions were similar.

Another story is also about a wedding, but in this one the daughter (or a different daughter) has a more starring role. Astrologers predicted that she will die on her wedding day. On the day of the wedding, the nameless daughter stuck a pin in the wall. The next day she discovered that the pin stabbed a venomous snake to death, thereby saving her life. Her father, hearing of this, wondered why she was saved.

鈥淗er father Rabbi Akiva said to her: What did you do? She told him: In the evening a poor person came and knocked on the door, and everyone was preoccupied with the feast and nobody heard him. I stood and took the portion that you had given me and gave it to him. Rabbi Akiva said to her: You performed a mitzva, Rabbi Akiva went out and taught based on this incident that even though it is written: 鈥淎nd charity will save from death鈥 (Proverbs 10:2), it does not mean that it will save a person only from an unusual death, but even from death itself.鈥 (Shabbat 156b)

The daughter鈥檚 actions saved her from the fate predicted for her. Although Rabbi Akiva was a firm believer that 鈥渆verything is for the best鈥 he did not preclude taking action to improve one鈥檚 fate and his daughter learned that lesson from him.

(Wikipedia)

What can we gather from these scattered stories? Were these all of Akiva and Rachel鈥檚 children or were there more? And why doesn鈥檛 Akiva leave behind a dynasty? He does, only they are his students: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and others 鈥 and not his children. While his children have some memorable moments in the Gemara, ultimately Akiva鈥檚 students are his spiritual children. And aren鈥檛 we all Bnei Akiva, the sons (and daughters) of (the Torah of) Akiva?

The Bnei Akiva youth movement symbol (Wikipedia)

 

 

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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