“Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer— Bringing the Legend to Life


Hammer, Rabbi Reuven. “Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy”, Jewish Publication Society, 2015.

Bringing the Legend to Life

Amos Lassen

This might sound a bit sacrilegious but as when I was a kid, Rabbi Akiva was like the Lone Ranger to me— I loved him even though I did not know much about him but I think it was the fact that he was such a mysterious yet heroic figure that I wanted to grow up and be just like him. He was a man among man. As I grew he remained mysterious but we part ways when I became involved in higher education when our heroes change to philosophers and those who dared to buck the status quo. I suppose I had forgotten that Akiva did that as well.

And then I moved to Israel and the good rabbi reentered my life. So who was this paragon who I worshipped? Akiva ben Yosef was one of the early sages and one of the most important ones. He lived at a time that was crucial in the development of the Jewish religion. The theology that he developed became a very important part of what we refer to as Rabbinic Judaism. I still remember as a kid in Young Judaea singing “Amar Rabbi Akiva” so when I participated in my first Lag B’Omer celebration in Israel it was very special because it brought my childhood hero back to me. Now all that I want to know about him is in this wonderful new book by Rabbi Reuven Hammer. What I gathered here is that it is not what kind of life Akiva lived that is so important, what really matters is what he left behind—his legacy.

He was not just fascinating for me—he was fascinating for Jews for hundreds of years. When we look at the oral law, we realize how important Akiva was and I find it interesting that there has not been a book written about him in English since 1936. Yet our religion is filled with his influence. He helped his people; those who became known as the Jewish people, survive difficult periods and challenges and taught them how to live good religious lives.

Akiva during the time before the destruction of the Temple in 70 B.C.E. through the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 B.C.E. That legacy played an extraordinarily important role in helping the Jewish people survive difficult challenges and forge a vibrant religious life anew and it continues to influence Jewish law, ethics, and theology even today. Akiva’s contribution to the development of Oral Torah cannot be overestimated, and in this first book written in English about the sage since 1936, Hammer reassesses Akiva’s role from the period before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE. In a nutshell, Akiva was born in 50 B.C.E. and was a leading contributor to the Mishnah  and Halacha. He is referred to in the Talmud as “Rosh la-Chachamim” or Head of all the Sages. He recognized Bar Kochba as the messiah, and was executed by the Romans in the disastrous aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt. He was an important figure in creating the Biblical canon and protested against the inclusion of parts of the Apocrypha  yet he strongly defended, however, the canonicity of the Song of Songs and the Book of Esther.

Akiva systematized Halacha and his hermeneutics and exegeses make up the foundation of Talmudic learning. Akiva created his own Midrash in that he was able “to discover things that were even unknown to Moses” and is responsible for making the oral law a place from which new treasures might be continually extracted. The essence of his religiosity is based upon these principles:

  • “How favored is man, for he was created after an image; as Scripture says, “for in an image, Elohim made man” ( ix. 6).
  • “Everything is foreseen; but freedom [of will] is given to every man”.
  • “The world is governed by mercy… but the divine decision is made by the preponderance of the good or bad in one’s actions”.

Anthropologically speaking, Akiva saw man as having been created not in the image of God but after “a primordial type; or, philosophically speaking, after an idea”. He taught that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice and that “God rules the world according to the preponderance of good or bad in human acts. Rabbi Hammer here looks at what we know about the growth of early Judaism, why Akiva spoke out about “Christian Jews,” as well as at the influence of Hellenism, the Septuagint, and the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. What we really see is that had there been no Akiva, Judaism would have been very different. The book clarifies a great deal about Akiva especially in the realms of thoughts, beliefs and concern about the Jewish people. By reading about him, we not only learn of who he was but also how to deal with issues of the present day. Once again we see here how learning about the past helps us with the present.

Leave a Reply