Akiva’s Educational Manifesto

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jewish religion could easily have vanished with it. The Temple was Judaism’s cultic centre, without it the faith’s survival seemed impossible. Had it not been for a small group of people, who we now call the Rabbis. They took it upon themselves to reshape Judaism for a new future, one in which individuals rather than priests were responsible for their own spiritual needs, in which the home and synagogue rather than the Temple became the centre of religious life.

The first generation of rabbis began the process of establishing the religion’s framework. They drew on the traditions they knew, and they expounded the text of the written Torah. Subsequent generations clarified, expanded and supplemented their work. But they were a small, isolated group of scholars. For their work to have any meaning at all they would have to inspire and enthuse the masses. They needed to get their message out.

The man most responsible for this was Akiva ben Joseph. The outstanding personality among the rabbis of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries CE, Akiva’s influence can be detected on nearly every page of the Talmud. Not just because of his insights. But because of the students he taught, and his advocacy of education.

He uses Exodus 21,1, ‘And these are the regulations that you shall put before them’, as his educational manifesto:

“Teach, once, twice, three times, until they have learnt. Should they learn and not teach, teach and not know? Set it out before them as if it is a laid table, as implied by Deuteronomy 4,35 -‘You have been shown, so that you might know’”. (Mechilta 21,1)

His justification for introducing his manifesto in connection with Exodus 21,1 is the use of the word ‘put’ in the verse. The same word occurs in Deuteronomy 31,19: ‘And teach the Israelites, put it in their mouths’. The occurrence of the same word in two places allows him, under the rules of Talmudic logic, to draw an analogy between them. The word ‘put’ in Deuteronomy applies to education, therefore it can be used to apply to education in Exodus too.

Akiva’s manifesto is to set out the rabbinic system so clearly that it appears as well ordered and defined as a table laid out for a meal. This was to be done, in an age of few educational tools and when hardly anyone could read, by repeating and repeating lessons until  the students not only knew what they had learnt, but could teach it by rote and fully understand it.

Time and again in the rabbinic literature Akiva promotes the idea of education, always of course in the context of Torah. Learning is more important than action, he says in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) because learning leads to action. He compares a scholar to well of water. A well only contains what has been put into it. But just as water flows from a well, allowing others to drink, so students drink from the waters of learning that the scholar has acquired (Sifrei Devarim 48,5).

Akiva is the educator par excellence. So much so that he is compared favourably to Moses: ‘Things that were not revealed to Moses were revealed to Akiva’ (Pesikta Rabbati 14,1). This statement is made by R. Aha, a Talmudic sage who lived several generations after Akiva. He doesn’t tell us which things were revealed to Akiva but not to Moses, but among them must have been the primacy of education. After all, had Akiva’s manifesto not taken root, R. Aha would not have been able to make his statement.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books