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Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, among the most brilliant, original, and humane of the rabbis whose lives are recounted in the Talmud, was taken captive by the Romans on this date (5 Tishrei) in 134 CE, according to Jewish religious reckoning, and would be tortured and executed five days later. The legend of Akiva is of an ignorant, illiterate shepherd, age 40, who has a profound revelation about learning and self-knowledge and takes himself off to a children’s school to learn to read. He marries Rachel, the daughter of a wealthy Jerusalemite (who disowns her), and with her encouragement he goes off to study for a total of 24 years, transforming himself into an original religious thinker with thousands of followers. Akiva was a great systematizer of Jewish law and was instrumental in determining which holy books were included or excluded in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. (“What was Rabbi Akiva like?” asks the Midrash. “A worker who goes out with his basket. He finds wheat - he puts it in, barley - he puts it in, spelt - he puts it in, beans - he puts it in, lentils - he puts it in. When he arrives home he sorts out the wheat by itself, barley by itself, spelt by itself, beans by themselves, lentils by themselves. So did Rabbi Akiva; he arranged the Torah rings by rings.”) Akiva is thought to have given his imprimatur to the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 CE, and to have declared its leader to be the messiah. He suffered martyrdom for defying the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s edicts, following the defeat of Bar Kokhba, against the practice and the teaching of Judaism.
“When he came [back from his studies], he had twenty-four thousand students with him, and everyone went out to meet him . . . [Rachel] came to see him, and the rabbis pushed her away. Said he, “Leave her alone! All that is mine and yours is hers.” —Kettubot