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Walter Kaufmann – The Talmud story of Rabbi Akiba and his soul

July 22, 2015

“Let us begin with the Mishnah, which is the definitive codification of the so-called oral tradition, as determined and edited in the second century A.D., and quote a passage from the first treatise in the Talmud entitled ‘Blessing.’ In Section 9, paragraph 5, we find these words:

‘Man must give praise for the bad no less than for the good, for it is written [Deut. 6.5]: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with thy whole heart, etc. With thy whole heart: with both your impulses, with the good impulse and with the bad impulse. With thy whole soul: even when He takes your soul.’ The Mishnah was discussed for centuries until finally the discussions of the rabbis were written down. These discussions form the so-called Gemara which together with the Mishnah constitutes the Talmud.

From the Gemara for the passage cited we learn that it was Akiba who taught that the Biblical command to love God ‘with thy whole soul’ meant ‘even when he takes away thy soul.’ His reason: there must be a special meaning to ‘whole soul’ which adds something to ‘whole heart.’ After crediting this interpretation to Akiba, the Gemara proceeds:

‘The Rabbanan taught: Once the infamous government had given an order that the Israelites should no longer concern themselves with the Torah. Then Papos ben Yehudah met Rabbi Akiba as he held public meetings and concerned himself with the Torah. Then he said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the infamous government? He replied: I shall tell you a parable to which this is comparable. A fox once walked along the bank of a river, and when he saw fish congregating everywhere, he said to them: what are you fleeing? They replied: the nets that men put out for us. Then he said to them: Then may it please you to come on land, and we, I and you, shall dwell together as my ancestors once dwelled together with your ancestors. Then they replied to him: Is it you that is reputed to be the cleverest animal? You are not clever but stupid; if we are afraid even in the element in which we have our life, how much more in the element in which we die! Thus it is with us, too: if it has come to that even now when we sit an study the Torah of which it is written [Deut. 30.20], “for it is thy life and the length of thy days,” how much more if we go and withdraw from it!’

A very few days later, Akiba was apprehended. After a long imprisonment, he was led to his execution at the time o day when the liturgy calls for the reading of the so-called Shma: ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with they whole heart and with thy whole soul.’ This is how the Gemara relates his death:

‘His flesh was ripped off with iron combs, but he took upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. His students said to him: Master, so far? He replied to them: My whole life I have grieved over the verse in Scripture, with thy whole soul – even when He take your soul; for I thought, when shall this opportunity be given to me, and I shall do it. And now that it is given to me, I should not do it? He prolonged the word “One” so long that his soul expired on “One.”’”

(from Critique of Religion and Philosophy [1958])


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