By Robin Jacobson.
Rabbi Akiva (c.50-135 C.E.) is a storied scholar and hero in Jewish tradition. His name appears more than 1,300 times in the Babylonian Talmud alone. Following the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. – a tragedy that threatened to end Judaism – he and other luminaries started down a path that led to a new Judaism, replacing Temple sacrifices with prayer, study, and good deeds. Yet before reinventing Judaism, Akiva had to reinvent himself. According to legend, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd who did not even begin to study until age 40.
Yochi Brandes, an award-winning Israeli author, has stitched together numerous rabbinic texts to bring Rabbi Akiva and his contemporaries to life in The Orchard, a novel newly translated into English. A good read and an easy entry point into the legends and lore surrounding Rabbi Akiva, The Orchard is mostly faithful to its sources; Brandes limits her literary inventions to imagining the characters’ personalities and relationships, filling the blank spaces within traditional stories, and choosing among contradictory accounts. For further reading, however, try these excellent non-fiction works, Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud by Barry Holtz (2017) and Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy by Reuven Hammer (2015).
The traditional story of Akiva’s marriage reads like a Grimm fairy tale. Akiva’s wife, Rachel, is the daughter of a wealthy man who disowns her when she marries an ignorant shepherd. Living in poverty, sleeping on hay, Akiva picks straw out of Rachel’s hair, promising to someday buy her a “Jerusalem of Gold,” a fabulous tiara molded in the shape of the Jerusalem skyline. Meanwhile, Rachel urges Akiva to study Torah with the sages; she sells her hair to finance his studies and toils alone to support their family.
After many years away, Akiva returns home a scholar, trailed by thousands of disciples who owe all their learning, says Akiva, to Rachel’s sacrifice. Rachel’s father restores Rachel and Akiva to wealth, and Akiva presents Rachel with a Jerusalem of Gold. But in Brandes’ novel, narrated by Rachel, the family never fully reconciles. Rachel can forgive neither her father nor her husband for abandoning her for so many lonely, hard years.
Rabbi Akiva was renowned for reading the Torah closely, finding meaning in every word. The Orchard tells the classic story of a dispute between rabbis regarding the date on which the new moon was visible, which determined the timing of Yom Kippur. In a show of authority, the head of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel II, ordered Rabbi Joshua to publicly violate “his” Yom Kippur by carrying a staff and money. Akiva comforted Joshua by interpreting a Leviticus phrase “you shall proclaim them” to mean that the timing of holidays was based not on a divine calendar but on the proclamations of the humans in authority.
In the enigmatic Talmudic tale of the “pardes” (literally “orchard,” but connotes “paradise”), Akiva and three other scholars mystically ascend to God’s realm. The other scholars are so overcome by what they see that one dies, one goes insane, and one becomes a heretic. Only Akiva emerges unscathed. In Brandes’ The Orchard, however, Akiva only appeared unaffected; in fact, the transcendent experience influenced him to support the catastrophic Bar Kochba revolt against Rome (132-135 C.E.).
What did Akiva and the others see in the orchard? Brandes offers a clever solution (revealed in her book) to this age-old puzzle. As for Akiva, his resistance to Roman edicts prohibiting the teaching of Judaism led to torture and death. He died reciting the words of the Shema.