Tuesday, January 20, 2009

R' Akiva, Bar Kochba ,and lots of frogs

סנהדרין סז: ותעל הצפרדע ותכס את ארץ מצרים אמר ר' אלעזר צפרדע אחת היתה השריצה ומלאה כל ארץ מצרים כתנאי רבי עקיבא אומר צפרדע אחת היתה ומלאה כל ארץ מצרים אמר לו רבי אלעזר בן עזריה עקיבא מה לך אצל הגדה כלה מדברותיך ולך אצל נגעים ואהלות צפרדע אחת היתה שרקה להם והם באו

I once heard a rather cute explanation that attempts to give the surprisingly vehement response to R' Akiva explanation a historical basis (although it doesn't work for the similar Gemara in Chagigah, see also Chasam Sofer here and this paper). Acording to this explanation , R' Akiva was hinting that the more the Romans oppress, the greater force with which Bar Kochba's rebels will arise against them. To this R' Eliezer is saying that in the case of the frogs - one called the other - which doesn't apply to Bar Kochba who had no further support to call upon.

As is known, the connection between R Akiva and Bar Kochba has been subject of some dispute among historians - R' Yitzhak cited this source in an Avodah posting:

"See, e.g., Ben-Zion Rosenfeld's article "The Sages in the Generation of Bar Kochva and their Relations to the Revolt Based on Tannaitic Literature" in "Ohev Shalom: Mehkarim Le'Kevodo Shel Yisrael Friedman Ben-Shalom", who begins by pointing out that the majority of sources consulted by scholars for information on the relationship of R. Akiva and his contemporaries to Bar Kochva and his revolt are from theTalmudic and later Medrashic literature, which are dated generations after the events, and he then struggles mightily to mine the earlier Tannaitic \ literature for more contemporary information. Ultimately, he has very little success in finding any concrete reference to the rebellion in those earlier sources (at least according tomy fairly brief perusal of the article); the best he can do is to argue that given the apparently religious natures of Bar Kochva and his comrades, and the importance of R. Akiva and his colleagues as religious authorities, we must assume that those Sages at least tolerated, if not actually supported him, since otherwise the revolt's apparentorganizational and logistical success would not have been possible."

Here is a cute but very weak attempt to find a source from the coins minted by Bar Kochva:

From R. Katzoff - P. Yadin 21 and Rabbinic law on widows' rights - JQR '07

Second, the association of a juristic opinion of R. Akiva with P. Yadin 21-22 raises an intriguing issue. As is well known, rabbinic tradition (yTa'an 4.8 68d) portrays R. Akiva as a particularly ardent supporter of Bar Kokhba, more than other rabbis, going so far as to declare him the messiah. Though this in itself does not mean that R. Akiva had any leadership role in the rebellion as such, it has long been commonly held that he did. (76) During the last century there have been voices of dissent, some even declaring the tradition in the passage cited above to be unhistorical, thereby removing R. Akiva's name entirely from any connection to Bar Kokhba. (77) On the other hand, there have also been recent vigorous defenses of the former view. (78) Archaeological finds, I suggest, may point to a particular association of the Bar Kokhba movement and R. Akiva's halakhah.

First, a pair of coins provide a poignant illustration. A coin of the fourth year of the Great Revolt depicting on its reverse the "four species" of the Tabernacles festival, lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow, in a basket-holder, (79) is clearly the model for a similar undated coin of Bar Kokhba (as well as one of the latter's second year).80 However, the lush profusion of vegetation depicted on the earlier coin, symbolizing victory and fecundity, is replaced on the later coin by anemic-looking single blades of palm, myrtle, and willow, barely identifiable as such; the pair of etrogim arranged symmetrically about the basket-holder in the earlier coin is replaced by a single asymmetrically positioned etrog on the later coin. What was lost in aesthetics was to be gained by "halakhic correctness," according to the halakhah of R. Akiva, in dispute with R. Tarfon (and R. Ishmael), recorded in mSuk 3.4:81 "R. Akiva says, as one palm branch and one etrog, so one myrtle twig and one willow twig."


E.g., Louis Ginzburg, The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) s.v. Akiba ben Joseph, 1:304-10 at 305; Isaak Halevy, Dorot Harischonim: Die Geschichte und Literatur Israels (Hebrew; Berlin, 1923), 1:626-29; G. S. Alexandrov, "The Role of 'Aqiba in the Bar Kokhba Rebellion," in J. Neusner, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man, (Leiden, 1973), 2:422-36; David Goodblatt, "Did the Tannaim Support Bar-Kokhba?" (Hebrew), Cathedra 29 (1983): 6-12; idem, "The Title Nasi and the Ideological Background of the Second Revolt" (Hebrew), The Bar Kokhva Revolt: A New Approach, 113-32 at 124-26; idem, The Monarchic Principle: Studies in Jewish Self-Government in Antiquity (Tubingen, 1994), 256. Menachem Mor, The Bar-Kochba Revolt: Its Extent and Effect (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1991), 218-23; Peter Schafer, Studien zur Geschichte und Theologie des rabbinischen Judentums (Leiden, 1978), 86-90; idem, "Rabbi Aqiva and Bar Kokhba," in Approaches to Ancient Judaism II, ed. W. S. Green (Missoula, Mont., 1980), 113-30 at 117-19; idem, Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand: Studien zum zweiten judischen Krieg gegen Rom (Tubingen, 1981), 168-69; idem "Bar Kokhba and the Rabbis," The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered, 1-22.

(78.) E.g., Israel Ben-Shalom, "The Support of the Sages for Bar-Kokhba's Revolt" (Hebrew), Cathedra 29 (1983): 13-28; Ben-Zion Rosenfeld, "Ha-h. akhmim be-doro shel Bar Kokhva ve-yah. asam la-mered al pi sifrut ha-tanaim," in The Path of Peace: Studies in Honor of Israel Friedman Ben-Shalom, ed. D. Gera and M. Ben-Zeev (Beer Sheva, 2005), 319-59. Noah Hacham, "Rabban Simeon Son of Gamaliel in Beitar" (Hebrew), Tarbiz 74 (2005): 547-64.

This article (attempting to explain a strange contract from the Babatha Archives - discovered in a cave in the Judean desert - on the basis of Akivian Halacha) bases itself on a mistaken reading of Tractate Kesubot. I hope to write on this at some future time.
[Update: Ari Kahn has an interesting discussion on this Gemara at his blog - here]

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