Rachel: Wife of Rabbi Akiba

How they met and the economic support she offered him.

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In any case, both versions contradict the stories of Akiba’s wife told in the Jerusalem Talmud and in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan and pose chronological complications. If Rabbi Akiba died a martyr’s death in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt (135 C.E.), it is not very likely that he was an employee of the Jerusalem millionaire of 66 C.E., who, according to legend, could supply the city with food for twenty years but lost all his riches when armed bands burnt the food supplies in besieged Jerusalem (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a).

Thus one should conclude that the Babylonian Talmud story is legendary and was composed for didactic purposes, primarily in order to justify husbands in Babylonia leaving their wives at home for protracted periods of time in order to study Torah. Perhaps the true father of Akiba’s wife was a certain Joshua, whose son, Rabbi Yohanan, is described in one source as “Rabbi Johanan, son of Joshua, Rabbi Akiba’s father-in-law” (Mishnah, Yadaim 3:5). Rabbi Akiba’s son was certainly called Joshua (Tosefta, Ketubbot 4:7), probably after his grandfather.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, a completely different story is related about the help Akiba’s wife rendered her husband. According to this version, she sold her hair and thus supplied him with the funds for his study. Apparently women’s hair was a real commodity and could become a source of income for women at the time (e.g. Mishnah Arakhin 1:4) but women’s selling their hair is a very common and also an ancient literary motif (see the apocryphal Testament of Job 23:7–10). Furthermore, the story of the sale of hair serves the literary strategy of measure for measure. Akiba’s wife sold her hair in order to assist her husband, and he later rewarded her with a magnificent headdress.

The Jerusalem Talmud version, which tells of the economic assistance that Rabbi Akiba’s wife rendered her husband, does not involve the husband’s long absence from home. In this it disagrees with the Babylonian Talmud version. The third version of the story, found in the two editions of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, seems to reject the stories of both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. It relates how Rabbi Akiba started off as a pauper and an ignoramus, deciding on his own initiative to go and study. He already had an adult son when he began school. While he was learning he also supported himself economically. Yet the story ends with Rabbi Akiba buying his wife a golden crown; when questioned about the inappropriateness of his actions, he responds by claiming that his wife too had “suffered much with me in the Torah.”

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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.