Tag Archives: Passover

The Science of Chametz

As we continue celebrating Pesach this week, and avoiding all things chametz, it is important to take a moment and explore what exactly is chametz? While we spend a tremendous amount of time and effort learning about, and implementing, the various halakhot regarding eliminating chametz, we rarely think about what chametz actually is on the chemical level. If we did know, it would help to clarify what specifically is forbidden, and might save us a great deal of time and effort in our preparations. It would also help us better understand what actually happened in Egypt with our ancestor millennia ago (the answer may surprise you). So, what is chametz?

The critical Torah chapter for understanding it all is Exodus 12. It begins with God’s command to commemorate Nisan as rosh chodashim, the first of the months. Then, God commands that on the 10th of the month, each household had to prepare a sheep, to be slaughtered on the 14th. Its blood would then be pasted on the doorposts, and its meat entirely consumed, together with bitter herbs and matzot (12:8). Intriguingly, the Torah has not yet told us anything about chametz! The command to eat matzot preceded the well-known narrative about the dough not rising. Israel already consumed matzot the night before the Exodus!

Several verses later, God commands that henceforth Israel would always celebrate a holiday with seven days of matzah-eating, before which all the se’or (“leaven”) must be destroyed, and during which anyone who dares eat chametz will be spiritually “cut off” from the nation (12:15). We have still not been told what any of these things are, or why they cannot be consumed.

After describing the last plague, with Pharaoh finally relenting and letting the Israelites go, the Torah explains that “the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:34) The previous evening they had already eaten the pesach meat together with matzot. Now, in their haste to leave, the Israelites wrapped up their uncooked dough in their kneading bowls and carried them away on their shoulders. It is worth mentioning that Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) comments here that this is why we have a custom to wrap the afikoman in a towel or cloth!

The Torah says the Israelites then journeyed out of the country, from the city of Ramses (in Egypt) to “Sukkot” (in the Wilderness). Presumably, they stopped to rest and set up their temporary sukkot there. Only at this point, free at last, did “they bake the dough which they had taken out of Egypt into cakes of matzot, for it had not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” (12:40) This must be repeated: after coming out Egypt, and having already journeyed far away, they stopped to rest and eat and, only then, in the Wilderness, they baked matzot. The reason they couldn’t bake anything fancier is because the dough they had brought out had not risen. This sparks a huge question: How could it be that the dough had not risen? They have obviously been walking for a very long time by this point! Don’t we say that, halakhically-speaking, any flour-water mixture starts to become chametz after just 18 minutes? The Torah clearly tells us that the Israelites had taken prepared dough, already in their mixing bowls, and journeyed far out of Egypt’s borders before using that dough to make matzot. It should have become chametz a long time ago! How do we make sense of this puzzle?

Ancient Egyptian depiction of the breadmaking process, from the tomb of Ramses III in the Valley of the Kings

Fungus and Sourdough

Today, we are used to buying purified “active dry” yeast in the supermarket. We assume that when the Torah says se’or, “leaven”, it refers to the same type of yeast. Of course, in ancient times there was no such thing, and no way for people to isolate yeast at all; nor could they know that yeast was actually a microscopic living organism. Yeast, a type of fungus, occurs naturally all over the place. Such fungi are involved in symbiotic relationships pretty much everywhere we look, and are absolutely vital for the survival of all plants, if not all complex life forms. For instance, pretty much every plant on Earth is dependent on a family of fungi called mycorrhiza which lives in the soil, intertwined with the plant’s roots, and provides the plant with vital nutrients. Some mycorrhizae are endosymbiotic, meaning they actually grow into the plant’s cells! They become like one hybrid organism. (Wheat is an example of a plant that has inseparable mycorrhizae growing directly into it.) There are tens of thousands of species of mycorrhizae, and a single plant might have a dozen or more different types that it interacts with and depends on.

Other fungi grow on plant stems, leaves, and fruits. They are everywhere, and impossible to get rid of. We have all seen our fruits become covered in fungus when we leave them out too long—even fruits we have washed thoroughly. Why does this happen? Where does the fungus come from? It is already there embedded deep within the fruit’s skin, and even washing won’t help. Eventually, the fungus will grow out, like it or not! The same is true for wheat. Long before it is harvested, the wheat is already infested (enhanced?) with yeast. So, as soon as you add some warm water to flour, you are beginning the process of activating those yeasts. It takes about a week, and usually closer to two weeks, to get a rich amount of yeast turned on. The result is called starter dough, or sourdough. In ancient times, this was the only way to make fluffy bread. They didn’t have “active dry yeast” in a convenient package from the store. Either you wait a couple of weeks for your dough to rise or, since no one wants to wait that long, you keep a supply of starter dough, se’or, from which you can take a chunk and add it to a new batch of dough.

With that knowledge, everything becomes clear: the Israelites had new batches of dough, but no starter dough, for they hadn’t the time to “prepare any provisions…” (Exodus 12:40) So, when they grabbed their new dough and wrapped it up, and walked for many hours, the dough had not yet sufficiently risen, and they could only bake matzot! Based on this, I believe there is a better way to read the verse cited previously: “the people took their dough before it was leavened, their ‘kneading bowls’ [משארתם] wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:34) Most of the major commentators, including Rashi, read משארתם as misharotam, translating it as “kneading bowls”. However, it could also be read mi’se’orotam, “from their starter doughs”. In other words, the dough that the Israelites took out of Egypt was without added starter dough, which is why it did not rise despite the long journey.

Making Sense of Yeast

With the above in mind, it becomes clear that yeast itself is not the problem. Yeast is everywhere, and our ancestors did not have purified yeast like we have today. When our Sages spoke of the se’or sh’b’isah, the “leaven in the dough”, that metaphorically causes us to sin, they were referring to starter dough, not yeast. Yeast is inseparable and pretty much indestructible. In fact, recently scientists were able to extract yeast from ancient Egyptian pottery dating back over 4000 years—and then bring it back to life and bake with it! Yeast itself is not chametz, and cannot be, since we consume plenty of yeast on Pesach. In fact, we couldn’t have four cups of wine at our seders since wine is fermented with yeast, too.

Similar to breadmaking, winemakers today add yeast to speed up the fermentation process. In ancient times, however, the crushed grapes fermented on their own with the yeast that is already naturally growing all over them. Leave it longer and it will keep fermenting and turn into wine vinegar. This is mentioned in the Torah (Numbers 6:3), where it is called chometz yayin (חמץ יין). Interestingly, it is believed that hummus comes from the word chametz, too, as we read in Ruth 2:14, where Boaz tells Ruth: “Come over here and partake of the meal, and dip your pita in chometz.” Keep in mind that the letter tzadi was pronounced sa’adi back then (and still is in many Sephardic and Mizrachi communities, see ‘Shabbat or Shabbos: What’s the Correct Pronunciation?’ in Garments of Light, Volume II). So, Boaz would have told Ruth to dip her pita in chomes, ie. hummus!* This could have been either regular vinegar, or perhaps fermented beans of some sort, hence the hummus etymology.

Of course, wine and wine vinegar are kosher for Passover, so there is no issue with chometz yayin. Some might therefore argue that drinking chametz is not forbidden, since there is no prohibition on fermented grapes. After all, the Torah only speaks of achilah, “eating”, and not drinking (as in Exodus 12:15-16, 19, 13:3, and Deuteronomy 16:3). What does that mean for beer, vodka, and whiskey made from fermented grains, which are not kosher for Passover?

Drinking Chametz

How do we distinguish between drinking fermented grapes, which is allowed on Passover, and drinking fermented grains, which is forbidden? The simple answer, of course, is that fermented grains are directly related to fermented dough. Fruits are not an issue, and have nothing to do with the Exodus. Since the Torah prohibits eating fermented grains, namely dough, we can extend that prohibition to drinking fermented grains, too. The extension is certainly appropriate, for in olden times (and today) people make certain types of beer from old bread. As my mother recalls, her mother used to take old bread and dry it in the oven, then soak it in barrels of water and let it ferment to make kvass. This type of beer is made directly from old bread, undoubtedly chametz. There is no question that beer, in general, should be forbidden.

What about vodka and whiskey? These beverages are usually made from fermented grains, too. However, they are distilled, meaning that the ethanol (alcohol) is extracted from the fermented mixture. There is little left of the original grains, which is also why vodka and whiskey are gluten-free (while beer is not). In other words, the chametz would have been removed from the vodka or whiskey in the distillation process, leaving only ethanol, water, and perhaps tiny traces of flavour compounds. In the case of whiskey, it is when the liquid is later aged in casks that it develops its true flavour and colour.

Based on this information, vodka and whiskey probably shouldn’t be classified as genuine chametz. That does not mean they can be consumed on Pesach, since we are extremely stringent when it comes to this holiday, and don’t want to take even the slightest risk of contamination. After all, the Torah warns that one who consumes chametz will be karet, spiritually “excised”. Therefore, it is best not to consume something derived from fermented grains, even though the chances of it having real chametz is minimal.

So, what is chametz? As we’ve seen, it isn’t yeast itself, which we consume on Pesach. Starter dough is chametz, but has a special title in its own right, se’or. Can we pinpoint a specific chemical compound that is chametz? Well, chametz is what makes the dough rise. It isn’t the yeast itself that makes the dough rise, it is what the yeast generates: carbon dioxide (CO2). In bread, the carbon dioxide gas bubbles are released as a waste product by the yeast cells, and these gasses are trapped within the gluten proteins of the dough, forcing the dough to rise.

Alternatively, one can add baking powder, which has a combination of baking soda and some weak acid. As is well-known, when a base (like baking soda) meets an acid, they undergo a neutralization, “cancelling” each other out. When baking soda is neutralized, it releases CO2. Thus, adding baking powder to your cake can also make it rise, in lieu of (or in addition to) the yeast. Amazingly, the Tanakh already spoke of the neutralization reaction long ago:

In Proverbs 25:20, King Solomon teaches that trying to cheer up a sad person by singing them happy songs is like disrobing them on a cold day, or like pouring chometz al nater, “vinegar on natron”. Natron is a natural mixture containing baking soda (NaHCO3) that was mined even in ancient times. Of course, adding vinegar to natron is like adding vinegar to baking soda, causing them to neutralize each other, and making a vigorous reaction with lots of bubbles. Those bubbles are carbon dioxide.

Natural natron deposits in Chad

Can we say that CO2 is the real chametz? After all, it is the CO2 bubbles that make the bread rise. Upon further thought, carbon dioxide cannot be chametz since, once again, it is found all over the place, including within our bodies and in the air around us. Among many other things, it makes the bubbles in soft drinks, which we are permitted to drink on Pesach. Having said that, CO2 is definitely part of the chametz equation.

Perhaps we can come to the following conclusion: since what makes dough rise is the CO2 trapped within the gluten, the combination of both makes chametz. Therefore, something like wine, which is gluten-free, cannot be chametz, and neither can Coca-Cola, which has CO2 but not gluten. Beer has both gluten and CO2 so it would be chametz. Matzot generally have gluten, being made of grain flour, but no CO2, so they are not chametz. Defining chametz chemically as gluten+CO2 works well in every case I could think of.

(It is interesting to note that rice and corn also have proteins from the gluten family, so there may be something substantial to the prohibition of kitniyot besides tradition. Having said that, the types of gluten in rice and corn are not the same and can be consumed by people who are otherwise gluten-intolerant.)

A concluding thought: plants “breathe” in carbon dioxide and use it—with help from some other compounds absorbed through the roots—to make all kinds of macromolecules like sugars and proteins (gluten included). Humans, on the other hand, consume plants with their sugars and proteins and gluten, digest them and metabolize them into carbon dioxide that we then breathe out (and some other compounds excreted elsewhere). In short, what we do with carbon dioxide and gluten (chametz) is the exact reverse of what plants do with them. And so, it is quite beautiful that when we read the word chametz (חמץ) in reverse we get tzemach (צמח), a “plant”! Plants can teach us how to truly get rid of our spiritual chametz which, as our Sages teach, represents greed, ego, and “lawlessness”. Be like a plant: life-giving, oxygen-providing, food-distributing, sheltering, beautifying, purifying, peaceful and pleasant. This is how we reverse the corruption of chametz. And with this we can further understand why Mashiach—who will usher in a world with no spiritual “chametz” of any kind—is called by God to be ‘avdi tzemach, His “plant-like” servant (Zechariah 3:8).

Chag sameach!


*In multiple places in the Tanakh, the letter tzadi is replaced with samekh or sin, further indicating that tzadi was pronounced with an “S” sound. One such place is Psalm 71:4, where David asks God to save him from the “unjust and lawless”, the latter spelled חומץ, which Rashi says is the same as חמס, meaning “lawlessness” or “violence” throughout Scripture. This gives all the more meaning to removing חמץ from our homes!

Are We Actually in the Year 6000?

The Torah portion that we read on the first day of Passover tells us that “the habitation of the children of Israel, that they dwelled in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.” (Exodus 12:40) The Torah makes it quite clear that the Israelites spent a total of 430 years residing in Egypt. However, the accepted tradition is that the Israelites only spent 210 years there. This is the number derived by counting up the ages of all the people from one generation to the next. However, it contradicts the peshat reading of the Torah. To make sense of this, the Sages offered various explanations. Continue reading

The Rabbi That Made Judaism as We Know It

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

This week we continue to celebrate Passover and count the days of the Omer. The 49-day counting period is meant to prepare us spiritually for Shavuot, for the great day of the Giving of the Torah. As our Sages teach, the Torah wasn’t just given once three millennia ago, but is continually re-gifted each year, with new insights opening up that were heretofore never possible to uncover. At the same time, the Omer is also associated with mourning, for in this time period the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished, as the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) records:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua—and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot.

Rabbi Akiva is a monumental figure in Judaism. People generally don’t appreciate how much we owe to Rabbi Akiva, and how much he transformed our faith. In many ways, he established Judaism as we know it, during those difficult days following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the Bar Kochva Revolt, in the aftermath of which he was killed.

Rabbi Akiva is by far the most important figure in the development of the Talmud. From various sources, we learn that it was he who first organized the Oral Torah of Judaism into the Six Orders that we have today. The Mishnah, which is really the first complete book of Jewish law and serves as the foundation for the Talmud, was possibly first composed by Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) states that the main corpus of the Mishnah (including any anonymous teaching) comes from Rabbi Meir, while the Tosefta comes from Rabbi Nehemiah, the Sifra from Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifre from Rabbi Shimon—and all are based on the work of Rabbi Akiva. Indeed, each of these rabbis was a direct student of Rabbi Akiva. (Although Rabbi Nehemiah is not listed among the five students of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmudic passage above, he is on the list in Sanhedrin 14a.)

In short, Rabbi Akiva began the process of formally laying down the Oral Tradition, which resulted in the production of the Mishnah a generation later, and culminated in the completion of the Talmud after several centuries.

It wasn’t just the Oral Torah that Rabbi Akiva had a huge impact on. We learn in the Talmud (Megillah 7a) that Rabbi Akiva was involved in a debate regarding which of the books of the Tanakh is holy and should be included in the official canon. Although it was the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”) who are credited with first compiling the holy texts that make up the Tanakh, the process of canonization wasn’t quite complete until the time of Rabbi Akiva. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva both “completed” the Tanakh and “launched” the Talmud. This may just make him the most important rabbi ever.

That distinction is further reinforced when we consider the time period that Rabbi Akiva lived in. On the one hand, he had to contend with the destruction wrought by the Romans, who sought to exterminate Judaism for good. They made Torah study and Torah teaching illegal, and executed anyone who trained new rabbis. In fact, Rabbi Akiva was never able to ordain his five new students after his original 24,000 were killed. He taught them, but lost his life before the ordination could take place. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records:

The Evil Government [ie. Rome] decreed that whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, and the city in which the ordination took place should be demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed, uprooted.

What did Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefaram, and there ordained five sages: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. Rabbi Avia also adds Rabbi Nehemiah to the list.

As soon as their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava urged them: “My children, flee!” They said to him: “What will become of you, Rabbi?” He replied: “I will lie down before them like a stone which none can overturn.” It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spears into his body, making it like a sieve…

An illustration of Rabbis Akiva, Elazar ben Azaria, Tarfon, Eliezer, and Yehoshua, as they sit in Bnei Brak on Passover discussing the Exodus all night long, as described in the Passover Haggadah. Some say what they were actually discussing all night is whether to support the Bar Kochva Rebellion against Rome. In the morning, their students came to ask for their decision. They answered: “shfoch hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha…” as we say when we pour the fifth cup at the Seder.

In the wake of the catastrophic destruction of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and the unbearable decrees of the Romans, traditional Judaism and its holy wisdom nearly vanished. The “world was desolate”, as the Talmud describes, “until Rabbi Akiva came” and relayed that holy wisdom to the five students who would ensure the survival of the Torah. In fact, the vast majority of the Mishnah’s teachings are said in the name of either Rabbi Akiva or these five students. Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai alone is mentioned over 600 times in the Mishnah—way more than anyone else—followed by Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yose. Without Rabbi Akiva’s genius and bravery, Judaism may have been extinguished.

Meanwhile, Judaism at the time also had to contend with the rise of Christianity. Rabbi Akiva had to show Jews the truth of the Torah, and protect them from the sway of Christian missionaries. It is generally agreed that Onkelos (or Aquila of Sinope) was also a student of Rabbi Akiva. Recall that Onkelos was a Roman who converted to Judaism, and went on to make an official translation of the Torah for the average Jew. That translation, Targum Onkelos, is still regularly read today. What is less known is that Onkelos produced both a Greek and Aramaic translation of the Torah to make the holy text more accessible to Jews (as Greek and Aramaic were the main vernacular languages of Jews at the time). Every Jew could see for himself what the Torah really says, and would have the tools necessary to respond to missionaries who often mistranslated verses and interpreted them to fit their false beliefs.

Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that Rabbi Akiva may have instituted Mishnah and began its recording into written form as a way to help counter Christianity. Because Christians adopted the Torah and appropriated the Bible as their own, it was no longer something just for Jews. As such, it was no longer enough for Jews to focus solely on Tanakh, for Christians were studying it, too, and the study of Tanakh was no longer a defining feature of a Jew either. The Jewish people therefore needed another body of text to distinguish them from Christians, and the Mishnah (and later, Talmud) filled that important role. This may be a further way in which Rabbi Akiva preserved Judaism in the face of great adversity.

Finally, Rabbi Akiva also preserved and relayed the secrets of the Torah. He was the master Kabbalist, the only one who was able to enter Pardes and “exit in peace” (Chagigah 14b). One of his five students was Rabbi Shimon, yes that Rabbi Shimon: Shimon bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar. Thus, the entire Jewish mystical tradition was housed in Rabbi Akiva. Without him, there would be no Zohar, no Ramak or Arizal, nor any Chassidut for that matter.

All in all, Rabbi Akiva is among the most formidable figures in Jewish history. In some ways, he rivals only Moses.

How Moses Returned in Rabbi Akiva

We see a number of remarkable parallels in the lives of Moses and Rabbi Akiva. According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva also lived to the age of 120, like Moses. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd for the first third of his life. At age 40, he went to study Torah for twenty-four years straight and became a renowned sage. According to the Arizal, Rabbi Akiva carried a part of Moses’ soul, which is why their lives parallel so closely (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36):

Moses spent the first forty years of his life in the palace of Pharaoh, ignorant of Torah, just as Rabbi Akiva spent his first forty without Torah. The next forty years Moses spent in Cush and Midian, until returning to Egypt as the Redeemer of Israel at age 80, and leading the people for the last forty years of his life. Rabbi Akiva, too, became the leading sage of Israel at age 80, and spent his last forty years as Israel’s shepherd. As we’ve seen above, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rabbi Akiva “redeemed” Israel in his own way.

More specific details of their lives are similar as well. Moses’ critical flaw was in striking the rock to draw out water from it. With Rabbi Akiva, the moment that made him realize he could begin learning Torah despite his advanced age was when he saw a rock with a hole in it formed by the constant drip of water. He reasoned that if soft water can make a permanent impression on hard stone, than certainly the Torah could make a mark on his heart (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2). Perhaps this life-changing encounter of Rabbi Akiva with the rock and water was a tikkun of some sort for Moses’ error with the rock and water.

Similarly, we read in the Torah how 24,000 men of the tribe of Shimon were killed in a plague under Moses’ watch (Numbers 25:9). This was a punishment for their sin with the Midianite women. Moses stood paralyzed when this happened, unsure of how to deal with the situation. The plague (and the sin) ended when Pinchas took matters into his own hands, and was blessed with a “covenant of peace”. The death of the 24,000 in the time of Moses resembles the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that perished, with Rabbi Akiva, like Moses, unable to prevent their deaths. In fact, Kabbalistic sources say that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were reincarnations of the 24,000 men of Shimon (see Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot, 20).

There is at least one more intriguing parallel between Moses and Rabbi Akiva. We know that the adult generation in the time of Moses was condemned to die in the Wilderness because of the Sin of the Spies. Yet, we see that some people did survive and enter the Promised Land. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joshua and Caleb, the good spies, were spared the decree. In addition, Pinchas was blessed with a long life (for his actions with the plague of the 24,000) and survived to settle in Israel. (According to tradition, Pinchas became Eliyahu, who never died but was taken up to Heaven in a flaming chariot.) We also read in the Book of Joshua that Elazar, the son and successor of Aaron, continued to serve as High Priest into the settlement of Israel, and passed away around the same time as Joshua (Joshua 24:33). Finally, the Sages teach that the prophet Ahiyah HaShiloni was born in Egypt and “saw Amram” (the father of Moses) and lived until the times of Eliyahu, having been blessed with an incredibly long life (Bava Batra 121b). In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) lists Ahiyah as a disciple of Moses, later a member of David’s court, and the one who passed on the tradition through to the time of Eliyahu.

Altogether, there are five people who were born in the Exodus generation but were spared the decree of dying in the Wilderness. (Note: the Sages do speak of some other ancient people who experienced the Exodus and settled in Israel, including Serach bat Asher and Yair ben Menashe, but these people were born long before the Exodus, in the time of Jacob and his sons.) These five people were also known to be students of Moses. The conclusion we may come to is that five of Moses’ students survived to bring the people and the Torah into Israel, just as five of Rabbi Akiva’s students survived to keep alive the Torah and Israel.

If we look a little closer, we’ll find some notable links between these groups of students. We know that Elazar ben Shammua, the student of Rabbi Akiva, was also a kohen, like Elazar the Priest. Caleb and Joshua are descendants of Yehudah and Yosef, reminiscent of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose (whose name is short for “Yosef”), the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir, often identified with the miracle-worker Meir Baal HaNess, has much in common with Pinchas/Eliyahu, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explicitly compared himself to Ahiyah haShiloni in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 35:2). As such, there may be a deeper connection lurking between the five surviving students of Moses and the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva.

Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the Talmudic passage that describes how Moses visited the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva, and was amazed at the breadth of wisdom of the future sage. Moses asked God why He didn’t just choose Akiva to give the Torah to Israel? It was such a great question that God didn’t reply to Moses!

The Greatest Torah Principles

Of all the vast oceans of wisdom that Rabbi Akiva taught and relayed, what were the most important teachings he wished everyone to take to heart? First and foremost, Rabbi Akiva taught that the “greatest Torah principle” (klal gadol baTorah) is to love your fellow as yourself (see Sifra on Kedoshim). Aside from this, he left several gems in Pirkei Avot (3:13-16), which is customary to read now between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot:

Rabbi Akiva would say: excessive joking and light-headedness accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a safety fence for Torah, tithing is a safety fence for wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.

He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in that image, as it  says, “For in the image of God, He made man” [Genesis 9:6]. Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of God, as it is stated: “You are children of the Lord, your God” [Deuteronomy 14:1]. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious item [the Torah]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious item, as it is stated: “I have given you a good portion—My Torah, do not forsake it” [Proverbs 4:2].

All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, and all is in accordance with the majority of one’s deeds.

He would also say: Everything is given as collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well-founded, the judgement is a judgement of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast.

These words carry tremendous meanings, both on a simple level and on a mystical one, and require a great deal of contemplation. If we can summarize them in two lines: We should be exceedingly careful with our words and actions, strive to treat everyone with utmost care and respect, and remember that a time will come when we will have to account for—and pay for—all of our deeds. We should be grateful every single moment of every single day for what we have and who we are, and should remember always that God is good and just, and that all things happen for a reason.

Chag sameach!