This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, begins with God’s command to Abraham to set forth out of Haran and settle in the Holy Land. Previously, we learned that Abraham was born in “Ur-Kasdim”, presumably the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia. “Kasdim” is commonly associated with the Chaldeans, who did not arrive onto the scene until long after Abraham. In fact, their founding ancestor, Kesed, was actually a nephew of Abraham! (See Genesis 22:22.) It is possible that by the time Moses was writing about the life of Abraham centuries later, the Kasdim were already a prominent group in Ur, so he could reasonably call it Ur-Kasdim. Alternatively, we can go with the explanation of our Sages that the term is not referring to a city at all, since ur kasdim can literally mean “flaming furnaces”. What is this referring to? Continue reading
This week we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim, literally “Words”. This book is distinct from the others, for it is written from the perspective of Moses. It records Moses’ final words to the nation over his last 37 days of leadership. Devarim serves, in many ways, as a summary of the Torah, and is therefore traditionally referred to as Mishneh Torah, a “repetition” of the Torah. In fact, when our ancient Sages first translated the Torah into Greek (at the behest of King Ptolemy), they called the book Deuteronomion, “repeated law”, ie. the Greek translation for Mishneh Torah. Having said that, Deuteronomy introduces a number of new mitzvot previously unmentioned in the Torah, and contains some of the Torah’s most significant passages, including the Shema and Ha’azinu.
The reader will quickly notice that Deuteronomy has a totally different tone from the rest of the Torah. Its language is far more similar, not to the books of Torah that precede it, but to the books of Tanakh that follow it: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. (Secular scholars actually combine these books and label them the “Deuteronomistic history”.) Thus, the fifth book of the Torah plays a critical function: it concludes the Five Books of Moses while simultaneously introducing and segueing into the rest of the Tanakh. One who reads the conclusion of Deuteronomy and immediately starts Joshua will hardly notice that they’ve changed books. For instance, the former ends with Moses telling Joshua to be chazak v’ematz, “strong and brave” (Deuteronomy 31:7, 23), while the latter picks up with the same exact phrase multiple times (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18).
This signifies the fluid, continuous chain of transmission, starting with Moses, passing on directly to Joshua, then the Elders, down through the rest of the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly, and to the Sages that followed (Avot 1:1), up to the rabbis of the present day. Herein lies the true purpose of Deuteronomy: it holds together all of Judaism, including both the “Written” and “Oral” Torah. We may think of Deuteronomy as “Written”, but a careful reading shows that it is quite clearly more “Oral” in nature. One of the most puzzling things about it is that with all of the key narratives that it repeats, it appears to change the details!
For example, in the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus, Shabbat is to commemorate the world’s Creation in six days, and God’s resting on the seventh (Exodus 20:11). In the Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy, however, Shabbat is to commemorate that God took us out of Egypt and we are no longer slaves who must work around the clock (Deuteronomy 5:15). Which is it? Another example is the Sin of the Spies: in Numbers 13 we read that God commanded to send spies to scout the Holy Land; in Deuteronomy 1:22, it is the people themselves that request it of Moses. What was it? Even more problematic, in Deuteronomy 10:6, Aaron dies in a different place and at a different time than that presented in Numbers 33:38! How do we make sense of these discrepancies?
The classic answer is that Deuteronomy is Moses’ own recollection of past events. After all, the book begins by saying Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe—these were specifically the words of Moses himself. The Zohar (III, 261a) says that unlike the rest of the Torah which was dictated to Moses by God, “Mishneh Torah was spoken from Moses’ own mouth” (משנה תורה משה מפי עצמו אמרן). As such, included within it were Moses’ own interpretations of the Torah and the law. And this, therefore, serves as the foundation for the entire Oral Tradition. Moreover, this is why we always refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses our rabbi”. He is the first rabbi, the first to analyze and interpret the Torah, extracting its deeper meanings and uncovering the hidden wisdom of God buried in the plain text—in the words of the Zohar, the chokhmah ila’ah (חכמה עלאה) buried inside.
The Zohar concludes that Deuteronomy is the Oral Torah! It is from Deuteronomy that we learn about the need to interpret the Torah and extract the wisdom within it. The Zohar adds that this is why the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy have a seemingly superfluous vav before them (וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ וְלֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה) whereas the Ten Commandments in Exodus do not (לֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה). The extra vav, which means “and”, serves to teach that this is the command and, hidden inside, all the other additional laws one can extract from it! The Zohar gives an example: In Exodus we are told only not to covet a fellow’s wife (לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ), but in Deuteronomy we are told not to covet and not to crave (וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֨א תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה). Rabbi Yose explains that based on Exodus alone one might think the law is only not to actually abduct a woman, or conspire to do so, but from Deuteronomy we further learn that one is forbidden from even craving another, whether in thought or desire, even without acting on it. The Zohar gives other examples, showing how the purpose of Deuteronomy is actually to extract the true meaning of the previous four books of the Torah.
In that case, Moses the rabbi was the first to reinterpret the Torah and extract new layers of meaning from it. It is in Deuteronomy that he lays out the rabbinic system, and in Deuteronomy that the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are completed. Beautifully, the numerical value of Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו) is 613. It has further been pointed out that the system Moses laid out in Deuteronomy, relayed specifically over his last 37 days, correspond to the 37 tractates of Talmud, solidifying the link. So, we see that Deuteronomy accomplishes two things: first, weaving smoothly into the rest of the Tanakh, and second, bridging to the Oral Torah. It is no coincidence that the first official written work of Oral Torah is called the Mishnah, a direct link to Moses’ Mishneh Torah.
With this in mind, there is truly little room to distinguish between “Written” and “Oral” Torah at all. The two are inseparable and intertwined, like the branches of the Tree of Life (to paraphrase the poetic words of the Zohar). The Oral Torah begins in Deuteronomy, and flows through the rest of the Tanakh, before being fleshed out in fuller form in the Mishnah, then the Talmud. There is a continuous historical, chronological, legal, linguistic chain of development. (If considering the ‘Nakh as “Oral Torah” seems strange and counterintuitive, keep in mind how the Samaritans—who deny an Oral Torah—only hold Moshe’s Torah as holy, and have no ‘Nakh at all! They reject the Prophets basically the same way they reject the Talmud!)
It is worth adding one more point here: the first person to actually codify the entire Torah, both “Written” and “Oral”, was the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”. As the famous saying goes, “from Moshe to Moshe there arose no one like Moshe”, ie. since Moshe Rabbeinu there was none as great as Moshe ben Maimon. In some ways, he completed the Torah process that began at Sinai—at least its legal portion. He summarized and codified all of Jewish law, clearly and succinctly, in a 14-volume masterpiece that he called, not coincidentally, the Mishneh Torah. It remains the only complete code of Jewish law, that covers all aspects of Torah and Judaism. In his introduction, the Rambam boldly states that no other code is required and, quite incredibly, that a person who wants to understand all of Judaism need only read the Torah, and his Mishneh Torah!
For this (among other things), the Rambam was heavily criticized. He sought to set in stone Jewish law, but Jewish law is not meant to be set in stone. Even the Ten Commandments that were literally set in stone in Exodus were already interpreted differently by Moshe Rabbeinu in Deuteronomy! Jewish law must remain alive and breathing, changing, growing, adapting with the times.
One might ask: if that’s the case, why did Moses say not to add or remove anything from his Torah? (Deuteronomy 4:2) At the same time, he said to listen to the future rulings of the Torah leaders that arise in each generation, and not to veer “right or left” from their decrees (Deuteronomy 17:11). Throughout history, many solutions have been presented to this problem. One way to understand it is to remember that, in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the soul of each individual Jew. The other four books of the Torah were God’s Word to the nation as a whole. Deuteronomy is Moses’ word to his people, to each person. Thus, in the same way that he says each person should listen to the consensus of the Torah authorities (17:11), so too should each person not add or remove anything from the Torah of their own accord (4:2). Only a recognized majority body of scholars could ever make critical emendations when necessary. This was indeed the case throughout the era of Prophets and the Talmud, when a Sanhedrin existed (it formally ended in the 5th century, see ‘An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin’).
That brings us back to the Rambam. In his Mishneh Torah introduction, he lamented the fact that, due to our exile, individual rabbis have had to make local rulings that were subsequently adopted by others and, over the centuries, Judaism started to fracture because of it, and there was growing confusion regarding the law. The Rambam therefore sought to clarify and codify the actual, universal Jewish law, based strictly on the Torah and Talmud, the only documents that carried the authority of a Sanhedrin or other recognized majority body of scholars. He explains this all in the latter half of his introduction.
While the Mishneh Torah did not end up being the last word on Jewish law, it did launch a trend where the law needed more widespread consensus and recognition. It led to more in-depth codes of law, with more explanation, and more debate regarding the finer points of law. It led to a “virtual” Sanhedrin of sorts, where legal texts attain primacy over time through majority recognition of rabbis separated by thousands of miles. And so, Jewish law continues to evolve, adapt, and grow, as always intended by the first Moses—and the first rabbi—Moshe Rabbeinu.
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…
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.