Rabi Akiva - The Inspiration for Religious Zionism - Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
The Y4 Shiur of TABC in 5764 had the privilege of hearing a very special Shiur from Rav Yoel Bin Nun, who is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz HaDati and a leading voice in the area of Tanach. In honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, we will begin a series based on this beautiful Shiur, with a number of additions to Rav Yoel’s core thesis. I am aware of the awesome responsibility of presenting Rav Yoel’s Torah and I assume responsibility for any error in transmission. I also wish to thank the many audiences to whom I have presented this Shiur who have shared their insights, some of which are incorporated into this essay. I also discussed this topic further with Rav Yoel in the summer of 5765 and have included some of his insights into this series. I also thank my Talmid Roni Kaplan (TABC ‘06) for the discussions that we have had about this topic over the past two years.
The Last Time to Eat Korban Pesach – Rabi Akiva vs. Rabi Elazar ben Azariah
The Gemara in a number of places (Berachot 9a, Pesachim 120b, and Megilla 21a) records a celebrated dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah regarding the latest time one is permitted to eat the Korban Pesach. Rabi Akiva permits the Korban Pesach to be eaten until dawn, while Rabi Elazar ben Azariah believes that one may eat the Korban Pesach only until Chatzot (midnight). Rava (Pesachim 120b) states that this dispute also applies to the latest time one is permitted to eat the Afikoman which, in the absence of the Beit HaMikdash, symbolically represents the Korban Pesach. Interestingly, the Rishonim (see the opinions summarized in the Biur Halacha 477:1 s.v. VeYehei) are divided regarding which opinion is normative. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 477:1), while not resolving the dispute, recommends finishing the Afikoman before Chatzot in order to accommodate Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s opinion (also see Biur Halacha ad. loc. s.v. VeYehei).
This dispute seems to depend upon the question of when exactly Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim (see Ramban Shemot 12:31 and the Ritva’s commentary to the Haggada page 37 in the Mossad HaRav Kook Torat Chaim edition; but see Rabi Abba’s understanding of this dispute as presented in Brachot 9a). Rabi Akiva believes that Bnei Yisrael left at dawn, whereas Rabi Elazar ben Azariah seems to believe that we left shortly after midnight. A straightforward reading of Shemot 12:29-39 seems to indicate that Bnei Yisrael did leave shortly after midnight. It also explains why they were unable to bake bread before they left. If we did not leave until dawn, then there would have been ample opportunity to bake bread before we left. On the other hand, Hashem’s unambiguous command not to leave our homes until dawn (Shemot 12:22) seems to support Rabi Akiva’s view.
Rav Yoel explaines that, according to Rabi Akiva, Bnei Yisrael did not have the opportunity to bake bread before dawn because they were “on-call” that night. They sat waiting to receive word to leave Mitzrayim at a moment’s notice and thus were unable to bake bread all that night. Rav Yoel compares this situation to his service in the Israeli army. Often times, his unit would be put on alert and had to be ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. In such a situation, one simply had to sit and wait and could do nothing else.
Rav Yoel asserts that according to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah, Bnei Yisrael indeed did not leave their homes before dawn because it became “dawn” sometime after midnight on the fifteenth of Nissan. In other words, Rabi Elazar ben Azariah believes that the departure from Mitzrayim occurred in a miraculous fashion – it became dawn in the middle of the night.
Incidentally, this might be a way to defend the Avnei Neizer (O. C. 381) from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s criticism (presented in Harerei Kedem 2:196-197). The Avnei Neizer believes that, according to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah, the prohibition to eat after consuming the Afikoman expires after Chatzot. After Chatzot on the night of the fifteenth is considered to be morning according to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah regarding the Mitzvot of that night, and the prohibition to eat after Afikoman does not extend into the next morning.
The Philosophical Basis for the Dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah
Rav Yoel asserts that the philosophical basis for the dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah is how Geulah (redemption) operates from a Torah perspective. According to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah, Geulah is a purely miraculous process. We define an event as an authentic Geulah experience only if a miracle such as night being transformed into day occurs. Rabi Akiva, on the other hand, believes that the process of Geulah can also be a natural one- night does not have to turn into day in order to define a process as Geulah.
Ramifications of this Dispute – The Bar Kochva Rebellion
This fundamental philosophical dispute has ramifications for many very important issues. One such ramification is how to assess the Bar Kochva rebellion against the Romans in the year 135 C.E. Rabi Akiva asserted that Bar Kochva had the potential to be the Mashiach (Talmud Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5). Other Tannaim vehemently disagreed. Rav Yoel argues that this dispute hinged on the issue of how to define Geulah. Rabi Akiva’s disputants believed that Geulah cannot occur absent an overt miracle. Thus, they felt that the people should wait for an overt miracle before joining Bar Kochva’s rebellion against the Roman Empire. On the other hand, Rabi Akiva believed that an overt miracle is not a prerequisite for Geulah, and thus Bar Kochva had the potential to become Mashiach even without such a miracle.
Rav Yoel adds that Rabi Akiva is consistent with his opinion (Yadayim 3:5) that all of the books of Tanach are holy, but Shir HaShirim is “holy of holies”. Rav Yoel argues that this statement is a quintessential expression of Rabi Akiva’s philosophy because Shir HaShirim describes our relationship with Hashem in natural terms, such as the love between husband and wife. I would add that it is possible that this statement also reflects the special relationship between Rabi Akiva and his wife Rachel, who brought him to a life of Torah study and close connection to Hashem. Rabi Akiva’s love for his wife brought him to love Hashem.
I wish to add to this insight in light of Professor Aviezer Ravitzsky’s (a noted professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University who spoke at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in 5764) explanation of Rabi Akiva’s evaluation of Shir HaShirim. Dr. Ravitzsky suggested that it is self-evident that all books of Tanach are holy. However, Shir HaShirim has the potential to be misread as a secular love poem. One who chooses to forego the secular reading of Shir HaShirim and instead chooses to read it as an allegorical expression of our deep connection to Hashem is Holy of Holies. This approach might be consistent with Rabi Akiva’s philosophy of fusing the natural with the supernatural.
Evaluating Medinat Yisrael
A most important ramification of the Rabi Akiva-Rabi Elazar ben Azariah dispute is how one evaluates Medinat Yisrael as it currently functions. Rabi Elazar ben Azariah would not consider it a manifestation of Geulah since no overt miracles have occurred. Indeed, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes in his celebrated work Alei Shur that only a Navi can determine that the beginning of the Geulah has arrived. Rabi Akiva, though, would likely see Medinat Yisrael as having potential to develop into Yemot HaMashiach even though no open miracles have occurred.
I find it interesting to note that just as the Halachic dispute regarding the last time to finish the Afikoman has not been resolved, so too Orthodox Jews have not reached a consensus view regarding how to evaluate Medinat Yisrael. A Talmid asked, based on this analysis, whether one is permitted to eat the Afikoman until dawn, as he/she is committed to Religious Zionism, which adopts Rabi Akiva’s outlook (hence the name of the Religious Zionist youth movement – Bnei Akiva). I responded that Halachic matters are not resolved by this type of analysis (see Teshuvot Heichal Yitzchak Even HaEzer 2:43 and Gray Matter 1:227), and that even we religious Zionists should do their best to complete the Afikoman (and Hallel, see Rama O.C. 477:1) before Chatzot.
Interestingly, these two approaches to Geulah are expressed in the Maharsha’s comments to Sanhedrin 98a. The Gemara there cites Rabi Abba, who asserts that the ultimate sign that the Geulah has arrived is if the trees in Eretz Yisrael are once again productive. The Maharsha presents two opinions regarding this passage in the Gemara. One approach is that the Gemara speaks of natural fruits, and the second approach is that it is speaking of supernatural fruits. It seems that these two explanations reflect the dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah regarding the nature of the process of Geulah. Rav Yoel commented to me that if one understands Rabi Abba as referring to natural fruits, then one can understand why Rabi Abba (Brachot 9a) argues that even Rabi Elazar ben Azariah agrees that we left Mitzrayim in the morning (as we explained). Rabi Abba adopts a natural approach to Geulah in Sanhedrin 98a and wishes to demonstrate that all opinions are in harmony with this understanding.
My Talmid Roni Kaplan suggested to me that Rabi Akiva might have been influenced to adopt this approach by his background. The Gemara (Ketubot 62b and Nedarim 50a) records that Rabi Akiva worked as a shepherd and was not a Torah scholar until he married. The fact that he lived a “natural” life for many years may have impacted his thinking when he became an eminent Torah scholar. One who is raised in a rabbinical home and is educated by Rabbanim from an early age might not be inclined to interpret the Torah in such a natural manner.
Next week we shall (IY”H and B”N) present more ramifications of Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s understanding of the dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah.