Rachel: Wife of Rabbi Akiba

How they met and the economic support she offered him.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Rachel is the medieval name given to the wife of Rabbi Akiba in the late Avot de-Rabbi Nathan version A (chapter 6). In none of the older sources is a name attached to this woman, although she was well known.

Rabbi Akiba’s wife is mentioned in three separate sources. While these tell different stories about her, they agree on two details, which may represent the historical core behind the woman. All sources--The Babylonian Talmud (Ketubbot 62b; Nedarim 50a), The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 6:1, 7d; Sotah 9:15, 24c) and Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (Version A, chapter 6; Version B chapter 12)--agree that Rabbi Akiba’s wife was in some way instrumental in her husband’s rise to prominence. He began his life as a pauper and through her agency became learned and rich. In addition, all the sources know that her husband rewarded her for her troubles with a glamorous headdress usually identified as a golden city, or a golden Jerusalem (see also Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 59a–b).

tomb of rachel wife of rabbi akibaAside from these two details, the sources tell different stories about how Akiba’s wife helped her husband, and in some details contradict one another. Thus the Babylonian Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiba was a shepherd employed by the rich Jerusalem magnate Ben Kalba Savu’a. His daughter saw Akiba, recognized his hidden qualities and proposed to him on condition that he go and study. This resulted in her father’s disowning her. Disowned by her father and deserted by her husband, Akiba’s wife was left to fend for herself for twenty-four years, until finally her husband returned in glory and recognized his wife’s role in his success, saying to his disciples: “Mine and yours are hers.”

This story, told twice in the Babylonian Talmud, seems to contradict itself in some details. In one of the versions Akiba’s studies are presented as a condition without the fulfillment of which no marriage will take place (Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 62b). Thus Akiba goes off to study after betrothal, but without consummation. In the other version (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 50a) Akiba sets out on his studies only after the couple has lived in poverty for some time.

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Tal Ilan is currently a professor of Jewish studies at the Free University, Berlin (Germany). She was born in Israel and received all her degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a historian who specializes in Jewish women's history in antiquity.