Questions to Consider: Pisqa’ 31
Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest of Jewish teachers from the period of the Talmud. He was killed by the Romans for teaching Judaism in defiance of the Roman ban on teaching. Rabbi Akiva is R. Shimon b. Yohai’s teacher. Following this brief introductory sentence, the text continues as R. Shimon b. Yohai quotes four interpretations of R. Akiva, and then his own different interpretations. In each case he concludes by saying that he prefers his words to his teacher’s words.
1. We assume that these words were spoken after R. Akiva was martyred by the Romans. Given all that R. Shimon b Yohai learned from his teacher, four differences aren’t that many. Why might R Shimon b. Yohai want to point out the 4 places where he and his teacher disagree?
2. In Rabbinic culture, teachers are venerated. Why must R. Shimon b. Yohai say that he believes that he prefers his teachings to his teacher’s? Why not just state the difference and let the reader decide?
3. Is R. Shinon b. Yohai being respectful or disrespectful of his teacher? If he is being disrespectful, why might he do that, especially now that Rabbi Akiva is dead and can’t defend himself?
We have here the explanation by Rabbi Akiva of the verse in Zecharia regarding 4 fast days. The fasts are listed according to the month, and in each case Rabbi Akiva connects the description to a fast day on the Jewish calendar.
Regarding “the fast of the seventh” – Rabbi Akiva connects that to the fast of Gedalia, which is held the day after Rosh HaShanah. The destruction of the First Temple resulted in the exile of Jewish leadership from Jerusalem to Babylonia. Gedalia, the newly appointed Jewish leader of Jerusalem was murdered by a fellow Jew, Ishmael b. Netanya. After Gedalia’s death, most of the Jews who had remained in Jerussalem fled and times became even more difficult for the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva uses the fact that we fast on the day of Gelalia’s murder as well on the days associated with the destruction of Jerusalem the Temple to teach that the death of a righteous person is equal to the destruction of the holy Temple.
1. What does a righteous person have in common with the Temple?
2. Rabbi Akiva lived shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, during a time when Jewish teachers were being martyred by the Romans. Given the historical context, why might he teach that the death of a righteous person is equal to the destruction of the Temple?
3. Rabbi Akiva lived during a time when the Romans were killing Jews. Gedalia was murdered by a fellow Jew. Does that feel different? Why or why not?
4. Given what you know about contemporary internal Jewish politics, both in America and in Israel, how might this teaching help guide us today as we seek to navigate these difficult and confusing times?
The only difference expressed between Rabbi Akiva and R. Shimon b. Yohai in interpreting this text comes at the very end of this teaching. Both agree that the fast day is on the 10th of Tevet. Rabbi Akiva says that the breach of the walls of Jerusalem happened on that day. Shimon b. Yohai says that it happened 5 days earlier, and the Jews in exile only heard about it on that day. He says we mourn based on when we first heard about it in exile, not when it actually happened.
1. If you hear of a tragic event a period of time after the actual event, what would “naturally” be the anniversary of the event for you? Does it matter? Why?
2. Why do we feel the need to remember the anniversary of tragic events in our lives? Is this helpful to us in some way? How?
3. The destruction of the First Temple happened over 2500 years ago. The destruction of the Second Temple happened just about 2000 years ago. Why do we insist on continuing to remember these events, including the events leading up to the destruction and the murder of Gedalia after the destruction? How is this useful to us? Is it ever not useful?