Rachel, Rabbi Akiba’s Wife

I am sure, all of you know of Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, about whom our Sages say that he was one of the greatest Scholars of all times. With his sharp mind the Sages said, he could “uproot mountains,” and he explained every single letter of the Torah, even the little crowns that adorn many of the letters of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba- was one of four great Sages who tried to enter the deepest secrets of the Creation and of learning, and he was the only one .who came out sound of body and sane of mind.

But do you also know that all the extraordinary scholarship of this most famous of all Tanaim was due to the self sacrificing love of Torah of his wife?

You see, Rabbi Akiba was not one of the fortunate ones who are born to riches, or into the house of a scholar. He had to get everything the hard way. He was born as the child of a very poor family and became an ignorant shepherd, one of the many who took care of the thousands of flocks of the wealthy Kalba Sabua, about whose riches the Talmud tells many stories. The daughter of this fabulous man, was a beautiful and G‑d fearing girl. The richest and most learned young men of that time would have considered themselves fortunate to marry her. But Rachel, Kalba Sabua’s only child, the heir to his riches, had observed the shepherd Akiba and some inner voice told her that this ignorant youth had the making of a great scholar. On the condition that he would leave her father’s work to go and study Torah, she married him secretly.

As Rachel refused one young man after the other, Kalba Sabua found out about her secret marriage to his former shepherd. He was very angry and he vowed that he would have nothing to do with her or her husband. Gladly, the only child of the richest man of those days left all the luxuries and comforts to which she had been used, and went to live with Akiba in a shack, sleeping on a bundle of straw, and working hard with her own, soft hands, so that her husband could devote himself to the study of Torah. Once when she could not find work, she even cut off her beautiful long hair to sell it, so that she would have some money with which to buy a dry crust of bread for both.

Yet even in their poverty, they were willing to share with others the little they possessed. Once a poor man passed the shack of Akiba and Rachel, and begged, “Pray, good people, let me have a handful of straw. My wife is sick and I have nothing to bed her on.” At once Akiba shared his own bundle of straw with the poor man, remarking thus to Rachel: “See, my child, there are those who fare worse than we.” The poor beggar, say our sages, was none but the Prophet Elijah who had come to test Akiba’s good heart.

After Akiba had mastered the basic knowledge of the Torah, his wife and he agreed that he was to go to the academy of the great scholars of those days, headed by Rabbi Eliezer, to devote twelve years to intensive study. Thus the two parted and for twelve long years Rachel slaved hard to support herself, while her husband grew to become one of the most learned of all men that ever lived. At the end of twelve years Rabbi Akiba returned to his wife, as he had promised. When he came before the shabby old shack he heard a conversation between his wife and a neighbor who was taunting Rachel for being foolish enough to wait and slave for her husband who had left her to study Torah. “You could live in riches and luxuries, if you were not so foolish,” said the woman.

“For my part he could stay away another twelve years at the Yeshivah to acquire more knowledge,” was Rachel’s reply.

Full of pride and admiration for his great wife Rabbi Akiba turned around to do as Rachel wanted him to do.

At the conclusion of the twenty four years Rabbi Akiba had become the most famous of all living scholars. From near and far came the youth of Israel to study under his direction.

Accompanied by twenty four thousand students, Rabbi Akiba returned home in a triumphant journey from city to city, welcomed everywhere by the highest nobility. The masses, rich and poor, turned out when he came home to Jerusalem.

Kalba Sabua, too, was among those who tried to get close to the master. Suddenly Rabbi Akiba saw his disciples trying to hold back a woman dressed in ragged clothes. At once he made his way through the crowd to greet the woman and led her to the chair by his side. “If not for this woman I would be an ignorant shepherd, unable to read the Aleph Beth. Whatever I know, I owe to her,” Rabbi Akiba declared.

The whole huge crowd bowed in respect before the woman to whom Rabbi Akiba owed his great scholarship. Kalba Sabua, too, suddenly discovered who his son-in-law was. Publicly he expressed his regret for having treated his daughter and her husband so badly. Now all his wealth would be theirs.

Thus ends our story of Rachel, Rabbi Akiba’s wife, whose heroism and self-sacrifice gave us the great Rabbi Akiba.


Published and copyright by Kehot Publication Society, all rights reserved.