Join Rabbi Haber's mailing list:
Home What's New Blogs Store Dedications Weekly Parshah About TorahLab Contact Us Links


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rabi Akiva

The following are two shiurim that I recently gave on Rabi Akiva and his life.

Part One: A Drop at a Time

It is always worthwhile to spend a few minutes telling the story of Rabi Akiva. Many of us know the story of Rabi Akiva, but many people do not. Besides, there is always something new to add.

Rabi Akiva’s father-in-law was a very wealthy man called Kalba Savua. Kalba Savua literally means “Satiated Dog”. Dogs are notoriously hungry, but even someone as hungry as a dog would be full when he left Kalba Savua’s house. He was that generous.

Kalba Savua had a daughter named Rachel who decided to marry one of Kalba Savua’s shepherds. According to many accounts, Akiva did not even know how to read and write. Rachel insisted that Akiva would go to yeshiva and learn, but Kalba Savua was opposed to the match and vowed that the couple would not benefit from even a penny of his wealth.

Rachel married Akiva and Akiva went to study Torah. He began at the lowest grades and worked his way up. In twelve years he was not only a scholar, but the teacher of 12,000 students. After twenty-four years he had an entourage of at least 24,000. He returned home and Rachel tried to approach him. She was dressed like a beggar and the students tried to push her away. Rabi Akiva stopped them and declared that all the Torah that he had and all the Torah that they had learned from him was due to her encouragement and self-sacrifice. (He bought her a special crown of gold with a picture of Yerushalayim and he gave her great honor for the rest of her days.)

In the meantime, Kalba Savua had also arranged a meeting with Rabi Akiva, not realizing that this was the same Akiva who he had shunned so many years ago. He tearfully described how he had estranged his daughter because she had married an ignoramus and begged for a way out of the vow. Rabi Akiva asked if he would have made the vow, had he understood that Akiva would one day become a great sage. Kalba Savua assured him that he never would have made the vow if he had known that Akiva was to learn even one verse in Torah. Rabi Akiva introduced himself and explained to Kalba Savua that his vow had been based on an error. The vow was invalidated and they lived “happily ever after”.

We need to understand what it was about Rabi Akiva that helped him succeed. Kalba Savua did not believe that he would master even one verse, yet Rabi Akiva claimed that he had been on the way to becoming a great Torah scholar. What are we missing?

The Medrash tells us that Rachel and Akiva were once walking near a stream. They came across a stone with a hole bored through it. It is not easy to make a hoe in a stone, but this hole had been made by water. Drop after drop after drop had dripped on the stone, and over hundreds, maybe thousands, of years the water had bored a hole in the stone. Rabi Akiva looked at the stone and made a “Kal V’chomer’. If the water, which was soft, could pierce the stone, which was hard – certainly the string and sharp words of Torah would be able to pierce his heart and help him understand. He left the next day t study Torah.

Rabi Akiva didn’t see a waterfall or a hydro-slicer piercing the stone. That would not have convinced him. Rabi Akiva saw drop after drop of water. Each drop had no visible effect at all on the stone, yet after thousands of years it was clear that each drop had made a dent, however tiny. Akiva realized that every step that he took, however tiny, would bring him closer to becoming Rabi Akiva. He alone, together with Rachel, took those invisible steps and became the leader of the Jewish people.

Today is the thirty-fifth day of the Omer. The Ramban writes in this week’s Parsha that the Omer is a period of Chol hamoed between Pesach and Shavuos. It is our chance to prepare to “renew our vows” and receive the Torah all over again on Shavuos. Sefirah is all about making tiny changes, and refining the way we accept the Torah. We can learn from Rabi Akiva that it is never too late to start. Whether we are forty years old or three weeks away for Shavuos, it is never too late to begin making tiny changes in ourselves. We may not see immediate results, but we see from Rabi Akiva that ultimately those tiny invisible steps can make a really big difference.

(Based in part on an article by Rabbi Yaacov Haber at

Part Two: Real Loss

The Gemara in Yevamos tells us about the funeral of Rabi Elazar. The Gemara describes how Rabi Akiva cried inconsolably at the funeral. He even hit himself in agony to the point that blood dripped from his arms. He said “I have questions that will never be answered now and there are questions that will never be asked”.

Tosfos asks how the great Rabi Akiva could have wounded himself in agony, but Rav Shalom Schwadron asks an even more basic question: How does this story fit in with anything we know about Rabi Akiva?

The Gemara at the end of Makos tells about how Rabi Akiva and his colleagues encountered the ruins Beis Hamikdash. As they passed, they saw a fox walk out of the Kodesh Hakodashim (the Holy of Holies). The sages cried to see an animal emerge unscathed from the holiest spot in the world, but Rabi Akiva laughed. He explained that he was thinking about the prophecies of Jerusalem’s rebuilding. Once the fulfillment of the prophecy of destruction had been fulfilled, he was confident that the prophecy of rebuilding would be realized as well.

Much later, when Rabi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans, he did not lose his composure. He said, “All my life I have been waiting for the moment when I could truly love Hashem with all of my being.”
We just finished a period of mourning for the students of Rabi Akiva. The Gemara tells us that on the very day that his students stopped dying, he began to gather new students and teach them Torah.

This was Rabi Akiva: he could start learning at the age of forty even as everyone, except his wife, believed that he had no hope. He remained composed during the death of his students, the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and his own tortuous death, yet he seems to have been overcome with uncontrollable grief at the funeral of Rabi Elazar.

Rav Shalom Schwadron explains that Rabi Akiva was able to make peace with everything. He was even able to make peace with the death of of Rabi Elazar. Rabi Akiva mourned so strongly because he realized that nobody would ever be able to repace the Torah of Rabi Elazar. Rabi Elazar was one of the last great students of Bais Shammai. He stood alone when everyone else went according to the majority rule of Bais Hillel.

Later, he debated with the sages in the case of the “Tanur shel Achinai” (Baba Metzia, 59b). Rabbi Elazar ruled that such an oven is Tahor (pure), but the majority of the sages ruled that it was Tameh (impure).

Rabbi Elazar refused to give in and was eventually excommunicated. He passed away while in excommunication.

Rabi Akiva realized that Rabi Elazar’ Torah was irreplaceable. He had a direct line from Shammai that was lost forever. It was true that he was excommunicated and that the Halacha did not follow him. Still, Rabi Akiva mourned the loss of the unique contribution of Rabi Elazar.

At the end of Shemona Esrei we all say “V’sein Chelkeinu B’sorasecha”. We ask Hashem to give us our personal portion of the Torah: the Torah that we are able to understand and explain in a way that nobody else can. Our job is to share our unique contribution with the world. If we do, we have fulfilled our purpose and the world will be a better place; if we do not, there is no greater tragedy.

During these days of Sefira we mourn the passing of Rabi Akiva’s students. Rabi Akiva said that they were punished because they did not respect one another’s Torah.

Like Rabi Akiva recognizing the loss of Rabi Elazar, we need to recognize the contribution that every person makes to our understanding of the Torah. Perhaps more importantly, we need to recognize that we have our own contribution. Rabi Akiva taught us that we can remain hopeful while the Bais Hamikdash is being burnt, but there is no greater tragedy than a person who does not contribute his two cents to our understanding of the Torah. 

(Based in part on Lev Shalom by Rav Shalom Schwadron)

Posted on 05/15 at 09:12 AM • Permalink
(1) Comments
Page 1 of 1 pages

Subscribe to this blog

RSS Feed

Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at