Introduction: Akiba ben Joseph is one of the most revered names in all of Jewish history, ranking in importance with Moses and Maimonides. It was largely due to Akiba’s leadership in the black days after the destruction of the Second Temple, A.D. 70, that the legal and religious foundations were laid for Israel’s long years of expatriation. On the other hand, Akiba was partly the cause of the Jewish exile as well. For, despite the Roman warning against fomenting insurrection, in 132 he openly proclaimed Simeon ben Cosiba (bar Kokhba) to be the King Messiah, the Liberator of Israel, and thus helped spark a full-fledged rebellion which lasted for three frenzied years. After that, the Romans enacted the hateful decree renaming Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina,” and closing it to Jews forever. Indeed, this historic exclusion was not completely overcome until the recent recapture of the Arab sector of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967.
In any case, some time during the fourth or fifth century, long after the tumultuous events of the Bar Kokhba rebellion had subsided, the rabbinic sages in exile in Babylon were examining the meaning of the phrase in Deuteronomy 6:5, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, etc.” This phrase reminded them of the occasion of Akiba’s death at the hands of the Romans, for Akiba had taught, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God … with all thy soul’—that is, even if he takes away thy soul (= life).” The following excerpt contains the Babylonian sages’ memory of how Akiba lived up to his own teaching.
Our rabbis tell of the time when an evil Kingdom (Rome) forbade Israel to be occupied with Torah. Rabbi Pappos ben Yehudah went and found Rabbi Akiba gathering people (openly) in the streets and instructing them in Torah. He said to him, “Akiba, are you not afraid of the evil kingdom?” He said to him, “I will tell you a parable. To what is it (our situation) similar? It is like a fox who was walking along the bank of the river, watching fishes grouping themselves, first in this spot, then in that. He said to them, ‘From what are you fleeing?’ They said to him, ‘From the nets which the sons of man (benē adam) cast upon us.’ He said to them, ‘Quick! Come up onto the shore and we will dwell, you and I, in the way my fathers dwelt with your fathers.’ They said, ‘Are you not he whom they call the smartest of all living things? You are not smart but stupid! If we are afraid in the place where we can live, how much more in the place where we would die?”