AKIBA BEN JOSEPH:
By: Louis Ginzberg
- Parentage and Youth.
- His Relations with Bar Kokba.
- His Personal Character.
- Akiba and Gamaliel II.
- Akiba as Systematizer.
- Akiba's Halakah.
- Akiba's Hermeneutic System.
- Religious Philosophy.
- Freedom of Will.
- God's Two Attributes.
- Eschatology and Ethics.
- The Messianic Age and the Future World.
- —In Legend:
- Akiba and His Wife.
- Akiba and the Matrona.
- His Favorite Maxim.
- Akiba and the Dead.
- Akiba's Death.
Palestinian tanna; born about 50; martyred about 132. A full history of Akiba, based upon authentic sources, will probably never be written, although he, to a degree beyond any other, deserves to be called the father of rabbinical Judaism (Yer. SheḲ. iii 47b, R. H. i. 56d). Legend, which delights in embellishing the memory of epoch-marking personages, has not neglected Akiba (see
Akiba ben Joseph (written in the Babylonian style, and in the Palestinian—another form for ), who is usually called simply Akiba, was of comparatively humble parentage (Yer. Ber. iv. 7d, Bab. ibid. 27b).
The greatest tannaim of the middle of the second century came from Akiba's school, notably Meir, Judah ben Ilai, Simeon ben Yoḥai, Jose ben Ḥalafta, Eleazar b. Shammai, and Nehemiah. Besides these, who all attained great renown, Akiba undoubtedly had many disciples whose names have not been handed down, but whose number is variously stated by the Haggadah at 12,000 (Gen. R. lxi. 3), 24,000 (Yeb. 62b), and 48,000 (Ned. 50a). That these figures are to be regarded merely as haggadic exaggerations, and not, as some modern historians insist, as the actual numbers of Akiba's political followers, is evident from the passage, Ket. 106a, in which there are similar exaggerations concerning the disciples of other rabbis. The part which Akiba is said to have taken in the Bar Kokba war can not be historically determined. The only established fact concerning his connection with Bar Kokba is that the venerable teacher really regarded the patriot as the promised Messiah (Yer. Ta'anit, iv. 68d); and this is absolutely all there is in evidence of an active participation by Akiba in the revolution. The numerous journeys which, according to rabbinical sources, Akiba is said to have made, can not have been in any way connected with politics. In 95-96 Akiba was in Rome (Grätz, "Gesch. d. Juden," iv. 121), and some time before 110 he was in Nehardea (Yeb. xvi. 7); which journeys can not be made to coincide with revolutionary plans. In view of the mode of traveling then in vogue, it is not at all improbable that Akiba visited en route numerous other places having important Jewish communities (Neuburger in "Monatsschrift," 1873, p. 393); but information on this point is lacking. The statement that he dwelt in Gazaka in Media rests upon a false reading in Gen. R. xxxiii. 5, and 'Ab. Zarah, 34a, where for "Akiba" should be read "'UḲba," the Babylonian, as Rashi on Ta'anit, 11b, points out. Similarly the passage in Ber. 8b should read "Simon b. Gamaliel" instead of Akiba, just as the PesiḲta (ed. Buber, iv. 33b) has it. A sufficient ground for refusing credence in any participation by Akiba in the political anti-Roman movements of his day is the statement of the Baraita (Ber. 61b), that he suffered martyrdom on account of his transgression of Hadrian's edicts against the practise and the teaching of the Jewish religion, a religious and not a political reason for his death being given.
Akiba's death, which, according to Sanh. 12a, occurred after several years of imprisonment, must have taken place about 132, before the suppression of the Bar Kokba revolution; otherwise, as Frankel ("Darke ha-Mishnah," p. 121) remarks, the delay of the Romans in executing him would be quite inexplicable. That the religious interdicts of Hadrian preceded the overthrow of Bar Kokba, is shown by Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18, where Akiba regards the martyrdom of two of his friends as ominous of his own fate. After the fall of Bethar no omens were needed to predict evil days. Legends concerning the date and manner of Akiba's death are numerous; but they must all be disregarded, as being without historical foundation (see
Before proceeding to a consideration of Akiba's teaching, a word or two as to his personal character will be in place. According to the customary conception of the Pharisees, one would imagine him as being a typically proud and arrogant rabbi, looking down with contempt upon the common people. How modest he was in reality is shown by his funeral address over his son Simon. To the large assembly gathered on the occasion from every quarter, he said:
Akiba and Gamaliel II.
"Brethren of the house of Israel, listen to me. Not because I am a scholar have ye appeared here so numerously; for there are those here more learned than I. Nor because I am a wealthy man; for there are many more wealthy than I. The people of the south know Akiba; but whence should the people of Galilee know him? The men are acquainted with him; but how shall the women and children I see here be said to be acquainted with him? Still I know that your reward shall be great, for ye have given yourselves the trouble to come simply in order to do honor to the Torah and to fulfil a religious duty"
Modesty is a favorite theme with Akiba, and he reverts to it again and again. "He who esteems himself highly on account of his knowledge," he teaches, "is like a corpse lying on the wayside: the traveler turns his head away in disgust, and walks quickly by" (Ab. R. N., ed. Schechter, xi. 46). Another of his sayings, quoted also in the name of Ben 'Azzai (Lev. R. i. 5), is specially interesting from the fact that Luke, xiv. 8-12, is almost literally identical with it: "Take thy place a few seats below thy rank until thou art bidden to take a higher place; for it is better that they should say to thee 'Come up higher' than that they should bid thee 'Go down lower'" (see Prov. xxv. 7). Though so modest, yet when an important matter and not a merely personal one was concerned Akiba could not be cowed by the greatest, as is evidenced by his attitude toward the patriarch Gamaliel II. Convinced of the necessity of a central authority for Judaism, Akiba became a devoted adherent and friend of Gamaliel, who aimed at constituting the patriarch the true spiritual chief of the Jews (R. H. ii. 9). But Akiba was just as firmly convinced that the power of the patriarch must be limited both by the written and the oral law, the interpretation of which lay in the hands of the learned; and he was accordingly brave enough to act in ritual matters in Gamaliel's own house contrary to the decisions of Gamaliel himself (Tosef., Ber. iv. 12).
Concerning Akiba's other personal excellences, such as benevolence, and kindness toward the sick and needy, see Ned. 40a, Lev. R. xxxiv.16,and Tosef., Meg. iv. 16. In this connection it may be mentioned that Akiba filled the office of an overseer of the poor (Ma'as. Sh. v. 9, and ḳid. 27a).
Eminent as Akiba was by his magnanimity and moral worthiness, he was still more so by his intellectual capacity, by which he secured an enduring influence upon his contemporaries and upon posterity. In the first place, Akiba was the one who definitely fixed the canon of the Old Testament books. He protested strongly against the canonicity of certain of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus, for instance (Sanh. x. 1, Bab. ibid. 100b, Yer. ibid. x. 28a), in which passages is to be explained according to ḳid. 49a, and according to its Aramaic equivalent ; so that Akiba's utterance reads, "He who reads aloud in the synagogue from books not belonging to the canon as if they were canonical," etc. He has, however, no objection to the private reading of the Apocrypha, as is evident from the fact that he himself makes frequent use of Ecclesiasticus (Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 277; Grätz, "Gnosticismus," p. 120). Akiba stoutly defended, however, the canonicity of the Song of Songs, and Esther (Yad. iii.5, Meg. 7a). Grätz's statements ("Shir ha-Shirim," p. 115, and "ḳohelet," p. 169, respecting Akiba's attitude toward the canonicity of the Song of Songs are misconceptions, as Weiss ("Dor," ii. 97) has to some extent shown. To the same motive underlying his antagonism to the Apocrypha, namely, the desire to disarm Christians—especially Jewish Christians— who drew their "proofs" from the Apocrypha, must also be attributed his wish to emancipate the Jews of the Dispersion from the domination of the Septuagint, the errors and inaccuracies in which frequently distorted the true meaning of Scripture, and were even used as arguments against the Jews by the Christians.
Aquila was a man after Akiba's own heart; under Akiba's guidance he gave the Greek-speaking Jews a rabbinical Bible (Jerome on Isa. viii. 14, Yer. ḳid. i. 59a). Akiba probably also provided for a revised text of the Targums; certainly, for the essential base of the so-called Targum Onkelos, which in matters of Halakah reflects Akiba's opinions completely (F. Rosenthal, "Bet Talmud," ii. 280).Akiba as Systematizer.
Akiba's true genius, however, is shown in his work in the domain of the Halakah; both in his systematization of its traditional material and in its further development. The condition of the Halakah, that is, of religious praxis, and indeed of Judaism in general, was a very precarious one at the turn of the first Christian century. The lack of any systematized collection of the accumulated Halakot rendered impossible any presentation of them in form suitable for practical purposes. Means for the theoretical study of the Halakah were also scant; both logic and exegesis—the two props of the Halakah—being differently conceived by the various ruling tannaim, and differently taught. According to a tradition which has historical confirmation, it was Akiba who systematized and brought into methodic arrangement the Mishnah, or Halakah codex; the Midrash, or the exegesis of the Halakah; and the Halakot,
The δευτερώσεις τοῦ καλουμένου Παββὶ Ακιβά
Admirable as is the systematization of the Halakah by Akiba, his hermeneutics and halakic exegesis— which form the foundation of all Talmudic learning—surpassed it. The enormous difference between the Halakah before and after Akiba may be briefly described as follows: The old Halakah was, as its name indicates, the religious practice sanctioned as binding by tradition; to which were added extensions, and, in some cases, limitations, of the Torah, arrived at by strict logical deduction. The opposition offered by the Sadducees—which became especially strenuous in the last century
Akiba sought to apply the system of isolation followed by the Pharisees ( = those who "separate" themselves) to doctrine as they did to practise, to the intellectual life as they did to that of daily intercourse, and he succeeded in furnishing a firm foundation for his system. As the fundamental principle of his system, Akiba enunciates his conviction that the mode of expression used by the Torah is quite different from that of every other book. In the language of the Torah nothing is mere form; everything is essence. It has nothing superfluous; not a word, not a syllable, not even a letter. Every peculiarity of diction, every particle, every sign, is to be considered as of higher importance, as having a wider relation and as being of deeper meaning than it seems to have. Like Philo (see Siegfried, "Philo," p. 168), who saw in the Hebrew construction of the infinitive with the finite form of the same verb—which is readily recognizable in the Septuagint—and in certain particles (adverbs, prepositions, etc.) some deep reference to philosophical and ethical doctrines, Akiba perceived in them indications of many important ceremonial laws, legal statutes, and ethical teachings (compare Hoffmann, "Zur Einleitung," pp. 5-12, and Grätz, "Gesch." iv. 427). He thus gave the Jewish mind not only a new field for its own employment, but, convinced both of the unchangeableness of Holy Scripture and of the necessity for development in Judaism, he succeeded in reconciling these two apparently hopeless opposites by means of his remarkable method. The following two illustrations will serve to make this clear: (1) The high conception of woman's dignity, which Akiba shared in common with most other Pharisees, induced him to abolish the Oriental custom that banished women at certain periods from all social intercourse. He succeeded, moreover, in fully justifying his interpretation of those Scriptural passages upon which this ostracism had been founded by the older expounders of the Torah (Sifra, Meẓora', end, and Shab. 64b). (2) The Biblical legislation in Ex. xxi. 7 could not be reconciled by Akiba with his view of Jewish ethics: for him a "Jewish slave" is a contradiction in terms; for every Jew is to be regarded as a prince (B. M. 113b). Akiba therefore teaches, in opposition to the old Halakah, that the sale of a daughter under age by her father conveys to her purchaser no legal title to marriage with her, but, on the contrary, carries with it the duty to keep the female slave until she is of age, and then to marry her (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 3). How Akiba endeavors to substantiate this from the Hebrew text is shown by Geiger ("Urschrift," p. 187). How little he cared for the letter of the Law whenever he conceives it to be antagonistic to the spirit of Judaism, is shown by his attitude toward the Samaritans. He considered friendly intercourse with these semi-Jews as desirable on political as well as on religious grounds; and he permitted—in opposition to tradition—not only eating their bread (Sheb. viii. 10) but also eventual intermarriage (ḳid. 75b). This is quite remarkable, seeing that in matrimonial legislation he went so far as to declare every forbidden union as absolutely void (Yeb. 92a) and the offspring as illegitimate (ḳid. 68a). For similar reasons Akiba comes near abolishing the Biblical ordinance of Kilaim; nearly every chapter in the treatise of that name contains a mitigation by Akiba. Love for the Holy Land, which he as a genuine nationalist frequently and warmly expressed (see Ab. R. N. xxvi.), was so powerful with him that he would have exempted agriculture from much of the rigor of the Law. These examples will suffice to justify the opinion that Akiba was the man to whom Judaism owes preeminently its activity and its capacity for development.Religious Philosophy.
Goethe's saying, that "in self-restraint is the master shown," is contradicted by Akiba, who, though diametrically opposed to all philosophical speculation, is nevertheless the only tanna to whom we can attribute something like a religious philosophy. A tannaitic tradition (Ḥag. 14b; Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 3) mentions that of the four who entered paradise, Akiba was the only one that returned unscathed. This serves at least to show how strong in later ages was the recollection of Akiba's philosophical speculation (see
Against the Judæo-Gnostic doctrine ("Recognit." iii. 30; Sifre, Num. 103; Sifra, Wayikra, 2), which teaches that angels—who are spiritual beings—and also that the departed pious, who are bereft of their flesh, can see God, the words of Akiba, in Sifra, l.c., must be noticed. He insists that not even the angels can see God's glory; for he interprets the expression in Ex. xxxiii. 20, "no man can see me and live" (), as if it read "no man or any living immortal can see me." Next to the transcendental nature of God, Akiba insists emphatically, as has been mentioned, on the freedom of the will, to which he allows no limitations. This insistence is in opposition to the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness and depravity of man, and apparently controverts his view of divine predestination. He derides those who find excuse for their sins in this supposed innate depravity (ḳid. 81a). But Akiba's opposition to this genetically Jewish doctrine is probably directed mainly against its Christian correlative, the doctrine of the grace of God contingent upon faith in Christ, and baptism. Referring to this, Akiba says, "Happy are ye, O Israelites, that ye purify yourselves through your heavenly Father, as it is said (Jer. xvii. 13, Heb.), 'Israel's hope is God'" (Mishnah Yoma, end).This is a play on the Hebrew word ("hope" and "bath"). In opposition to the Christian insistence on God's love, Akiba upholds God's retributive justice elevated above all chance or arbitrariness (Mekilta, Beshallaḥ, 6).God's Two Attributes.
But he is far from representing justice as the only attribute of God: in agreement with the ancient Palestinian theology of the ("the attribute of justice") and ("the attribute of mercy") (Gen. R. xii., end; the χαριστική and κολαστική of Philo, "Quis Rer. Div. Heres," 34 Mangey, i. 496), he teaches that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice (Ḥag. 14a). The idea of justice, however, so strongly dominates Akiba's system that he will not allow God's grace and kindness to be understood as arbitrary. Hence his maxim, referred to above, "God rules the world in mercy, but according to the preponderance of good or bad in human acts."Eschatology and Ethics.
As to the question concerning the frequent sufferings of the pious and the prosperity of the wicked —truly a burning one in Akiba's time—this is answered by the explanation that the pious are punished in this life for their few sins, in order that in the next they may receive only reward; while the wicked obtain in this world all the recompense for the little good they have done, and in the next world will receive only punishment for their misdeeds (Gen. R. xxxiii.; PesiḲ. ed. Buber, ix. 73a). Consistent as Akiba always was, his ethics and his views of justice were only the strict consequences of his philosophical system. Justice as an attribute of God must also be exemplary for man. "No mercy in [civil] justice!" is his basic principle in the doctrine concerning law (Ket. ix. 3); and he does not conceal his opinion that the action of the Jews in taking the spoil of the Egyptians is to be condemned (Gen. R. xxviii. 7). From his views as to the relation between God and man he deduces the inference that he who sheds the blood of a fellow man is to be considered as committing the crime against the divine archetype () of man (Gen. R. xxxiv. 14). He therefore recognizes as the chief and greatest principle of Judaism the command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. xix. 18; Sifra, ḳedoshim, iv.). He does not, indeed, maintain thereby that the execution of this command is equivalent to the performance of the whole Law; and in one of his polemic interpretations of Scripture he protests strongly against the contrary opinion of the Christians, according to whom Judaism is "simply morality" (Mek., Shirah, 3, 44a, ed. Weiss). For, in spite of his philosophy, Akiba was an extremely strict and national Jew.The Messianic Age and the Future World.
His doctrine concerning the Messiah was the realistic and thoroughly Jewish one, as his declaration that Bar Kokba was the Messiah shows. He accordingly limited the Messianic age to forty years, as being within the scope of a man's life—similar to the reigns of David and Solomon—against the usual conception of a millennium (Midr. Teh. xc. 15). A distinction is, however, to be made between the Messianic age and the future world (). This latter will come after the destruction of this world, lasting for 1,000 years (R. H. 31a). To the future world all Israel will be admitted, with the exception of the generation of the Wilderness and the Ten Tribes (Sanh. xi. 3, 110b). But even this future world is painted by Akiba in colors selected by his nationalist inclinations; for he makes Messiah (whom, according to Ezek. xxxvii. 24, he identifies with David) the judge of all the heathen world (Ḥag. 14a).Legends.
A man like Akiba would naturally be the subject of many legends (see
- Frankel, Darke ha-Mishnah, pp. 111-123;
- J. Brüll, Mebo ha-Mishnah, pp. 116-122;
- Weiss, Dor, ii. 107-118;
- H. Oppenheim, in Bet Talmud, ii. 237-246, 269-274;
- I. Gastfreund, Biographic des R. Akiba, Lemberg, 1871;
- J. S. Bloch, in Mimizraḥ u-Mima'arab, 1894, pp. 47-54;
- Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, iv. (see index);
- Ewald, Gesch. d. Volkes Israel, vii. 367 et seq.;
- Derenbourg, Essai, pp. 329-331, 395 et seq., 418 et seq.;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. ii. 32-43;
- Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 271-348;
- Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, ii. 59 et seq.;
- Landau, in Monatsschrift, 1854, pp. 45-51, 81-93, 130-148;
- Dünner, ibid. 1871, pp. 451-454;
- Neubürger, ibid. 1873, pp. 385-397, 433-445, 529-536;
- D. Hoffmann, Zur Einleitung in die Halachischen Midraschim, pp. 5-12;
- Grätz, Gnosticismus, pp. 83-120;
- F. Rosenthal, Vier Apokryph. Bücher . . . R. Akiba's, especially pp. 95-103, 124-131;
- S. Funk, Akiba (Jena Dissertation), 1896;
- M. Poper, PirḲe R. Akiba, Vienna, 1808;
- M. Lehmann, Akiba, Historische Erzählung, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1880;
- J. Wittkind, Ḥuṭ ha-Meshulash, Wilna, 1877;
- Braunschweiger, Die Lehrer der Mischnah, pp. 92-110.
Akiba, who sprang from the ranks of the "plain people," loved the people; and they testified their admiration of his extraordinary accomplishments in the language of the people—in legend. The Haggadah, embodying the rabbinical legend— beginning with that all-important change in Akiba's life when, in the prime of life, he commenced to study—dwells upon every phase of his career and does not relinquish him even in death. Legendary allusion to that change in Akiba's life is made in two slightly varying forms, of which the following is probably the older:
Akiba, noticing a stone at a well that had been hollowed out by drippings from the buckets, said: "If these drippings can, by continuous action, penetrate this solid stone, how much more can the persistent word of God penetrate the pliant, fleshly human heart, if that word but be presented with patient insistency" (Ab. R. N. ed. Schechter, vi. 28).Akiba and His Wife.
According to another legend, it would appear that Akiba owed almost everything to his wife. Akiba was a shepherd in the employ of the rich and respected Kalba Sabu'a, whose daughter took a liking to him, the modest, conscientious servant. She consented to secret betrothal on the condition that he thenceforth devote himself to study. When the wealthy father-in-law learned of this secret betrothal, he drove his daughter from his house, and swore that he would never help her while Akiba remained her husband. Akiba, with his young wife, lived perforce in the most straitened circumstances. Indeed, so poverty-stricken did they become that the bride had to sell her hair to enable her husband to pursue his studies. But these very straits only served to bring out Akiba's greatness of character. It is related that once, when a bundle of straw was the only bed they possessed, a poor man came to beg some straw for a bed for his sick wife. Akiba at once divided with him his scanty possession, remarking to his wife, "Thou seest, my child, there are those poorer than we!" This pretended poor man was none other than the prophet Elijah, who had come to test Akiba (Ned. 50a).
By agreement with his wife, Akiba spent twelve years away from her, pursuing his studies under Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Ḥananiah. Returning at the end of that time, he was just about to enter his wretched home, when he overheard the following answer given by his wife to a neighbor who was bitterly censuring him for his long absence: "If I had my wish, he should stay another twelve years at the academy." Without crossing the threshold, Akiba turned about and went back to the academy, to return to her at the expiration of a further period of twelve years. The second time, however, he came back as a most famous scholar, escorted by 24,000 disciples, who reverently followed their beloved master. When his poorly clad wife was about to embrace him, some of his students, not knowing who she was, sought to restrain her. But Akiba exclaimed, "Let her alone; for what I am, and for what we are, to this noble woman the thanks are due" (Ned. 50a, Ket. 62b et seq.).Akiba and the Matrona.
Akiba's success as a teacher put an end to his poverty; for the wealthy father-in-law now rejoiced to acknowledge a son-in-law so distinguished as Akiba. There were, however, other circumstances which made a wealthy man of the former shepherd lad. It appears that Akiba, authorized by certain rabbis, borrowed a large sum of money from a prominent heathen woman—a matrona, says the legend. As bondsmen for the loan, Akiba named God and the sea, on the shore of which the matrona's house stood. Akiba, being sick, could not return the money at the time appointed; but his "bondsmen" did not leave him in the lurch. An imperial princess suddenly became insane, in which condition she threw a chest containing imperial treasures into the sea. It was cast upon the shore close to the house of Akiba's creditor; so that when the matrona went to the shore to demand of the sea the amount she had lent Akiba, the ebbing tide left boundless riches at her feet. Later, when Akiba arrived to discharge his indebtedness, the matrona not only refused to accept the money, but insisted upon Akiba's receiving a large share of what the sea had brought to her (Commentaries to Ned. l.c.).His Favorite Maxim.
This was not the only occasion on which Akiba was made to feel the truth of his favorite maxim ("Whatever God doeth He doeth for the best"). Once, being unable to find any sleeping accommodation in a certain city, he was compelled to pass the night outside its walls. Without a murmur he resigned himself to this hardship; and even when a lion devoured his ass, and a cat killed the cock whose crowing was to herald the dawn to him, and the wind extinguished his candle, the only remark he made was, "This, likewise, must be for a good purpose!" When morning dawned he learned how true his words were. A band of robbers had fallen upon the city and carried its inhabitants into captivity, but he had escaped because his abiding place had not been noticed in the darkness, and neither beast nor fowl had betrayed him (Ber. 60b).
Akiba's many journeys brought numerous adventures, some of which are embellished by legend. Thus in Ethiopia he was once called upon to decide between the swarthy king and the king's wife; the latter having been accused of infidelity because she had borne her lord a white child. Akiba ascertained that the royal chamber was adorned with white marble statuary, and, basing his decision upon a wellknown physiological theory, he exonerated the queen from suspicion (Num. R. ix. 34). It is related that during his stay in Rome Akiba became intimately acquainted with the Jewish proselyte ḳeṭia' bar Shalom, a very influential Roman—according to some scholars identical with Flavius Clemens, Domitian's nephew, who, before his execution for pleading the cause of the Jews, bequeathed to Akiba all his possessions ('Ab. Zarah, 10b). Another Roman, concerning whose relations with Akiba legend has much to tell, was Tinnius Rufus, called in the Talmud "Tyrannus" Rufus. One day Rufus asked: "Which is the more beautiful—God's work or man's?" "Undoubtedly man's work is the better," was Akiba's reply; "for while nature at God's command supplies us only with the raw material, human skill enables us to elaborate the same according to the requirements of art and good taste." Rufus had hoped to drive Akiba into a corner by his strange question; for he expected quite a different answer from the sage, and intended to compel Akiba to admit the wickedness of circumcision. He then put the question, "Why has God not made man just as He wanted him to be?" "For the very reason," was Akiba's ready answer, "that the duty of man is to perfect himself" (Tan., Tazri'a, 5, ed. Buber 7).Akiba and the Dead.
A legend according to which the gates of the infernal regions opened for Akiba is analogous to the more familiar tale that he entered paradise and was allowed to leave it unscathed. (Ḥag. 14b). There exists the following tradition: Akiba once met a coal-black man carrying a heavy load of wood and running with the speed of a horse. Akiba stopped him and inquired: "My son, wherefore dost thou labor so hard? If thou art a slave and hast a harsh master, I will purchase thee of him. If it be out of poverty that thou doest thus, I will care for thy requirements." "It is for neither of these," the man replied; "I am dead and am compelled because of my great sins to build my funeral pyre every day. In life I was a tax-gatherer and oppressed the poor. Let me go at once, lest the demon torture me for my delay." "Is there no help for thee?" asked Akiba. "Almost none," replied the deceased; "for I understand that my sufferings will end only when I have a pious son. When I died, my wife was pregnant; but I have little hope that she will give my child proper training." Akiba inquired the man's name and that of his wife and her dwelling-place; and when, in the course of his travels, he reached theplace, Akiba sought for information concerning the man's family. The neighbors very freely expressed their opinion that both the deceased and his wife deserved to inhabit the infernal regions for all time —the latter because she had not even initiated her child into the Abrahamic covenant. Akiba, however, was not to be turned from his purpose; he sought the son of the tax-gatherer and labored long and assiduously in teaching him the word of God. After fasting forty days, and praying to God to bless his efforts, he heard a heavenly voice (bat Ḳol) asking, "Wherefore givest thou thyself so much trouble concerning this one?" "Because he is just the kind to work for," was the prompt answer. Akiba persevered until his pupil was able to officiate as reader in the synagogue; and when there for the first time he recited the prayer, "Bless ye the Lord!" the father suddenly appeared to Akiba, and overwhelmed him with thanks for his deliverance from the pains of hell through the merit of his son (Kallah, ed. Coronel, 4b, and see quotations from Tan. in Aboab's "Menorat ha-Maor," i. 1, 2, § 1, ed. Fürstenthal, p. 82; also Maḥzor Vitry, p. 112). This legend has been somewhat elaborately treated in Yiddish under the title, "Ein ganz neie Maase vun dem Tanna R. Akiba," Lemberg, 1893 (compare Tanna debe Eliyahu Zuṭṭa, xvii., where Johanan b. Zakkai's name is given in place of Akiba).
Akiba's martyrdom—which is an important historical event—gave origin to many legends. The following describes his supernatural interment:Akiba's Death.
Contrary to the vision (Men. 29b), which sees Akiba's body destined to be exposed for sale in the butcher's shop, legend tells how Elijah, accompanied by Akiba's faithful servant Joshua, entered unperceived the prison where the body lay. Priest though he was, Elijah took up the corpse—for the dead body of such a saint could not defile—and, escorted by many bands of angels, bore the body by night to Cæsarea. The night, however, was as bright as the finest summer's day. When they arrived there, Elijah and Joshua entered a cavern which contained a bed, table, chair, and lamp, and deposited Akiba's body there. No sooner had they left it than the cavern closed of its own accord, so that no man has found it since (Jellinek, "Bet ha-Midrash," vi. 27, 28; ii. 67, 68; Braunschweiger, "Lehrer der Mischnah," 192-206).