Rabi Akiva – The Inspiration for Religious Zionism by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



The Y4 Shiur of TABC this year had the privilege of hearing a very special Shiur from Rav Yoel Bin Nun, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati, and an individual who is regarded by many to be the Gadol Hador in the area of Tanach.  In honor of Yom Haatzmaut, we will present this beautiful Shiur as well as 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 audiences to whom I have presented this Shiur who have shared their insights, some of which are incorporated into this essay. 


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 Megillah 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 and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah believes that one may eat the Korban Pesach only until Chatzot (midnight).  Rava (Pesachim 120b) states that this dispute applies to the latest time one is permitted to eat the Afikoman during an era that unfortunately does not merit having a functioning Beit HaMikdash.  Interestingly, the Rishonim (see the opinions summarized in the Biur Halacha 477:1 s.v. Viyihei) debate which opinion is normative and the Shulchan Aruch does not resolve this dispute.  The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 477:1) recommends finishing the Afikoman before Chatzot in order to accommodate Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s opinion (also see Biur Halacha ad. loc. s.v. Viyihei).

This dispute might hinge upon when Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim (see Ramban Shemot 12:31 and the Ritva’s commentary to the Haggadah page 37 in the Mossad HaRav Kook Torat Chaim edition).  Rabi Akiva believes that we left at dawn and Rav Elazar ben Azariah might believe that we left sometime after midnight.  A straightforward reading of Shemot 12:29-39 seems to indicate that we did leave some time after midnight.  It also explains why we were unable to bake bread before we 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 explained that according to Rabi Akiva we did not have the opportunity to bake bread before dawn because we were “on-call” that great night and we sat waiting to receive word to leave Mitzrayim at a moment’s notice and thus we were unable to bake bread at all that night.  Rav Yoel reminisced about how often times in his service in the Israeli army, 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 had to simply sit and wait and could do nothing else. 

Rav Yoel, on the other hand, asserts that according to Rav Elazar ben Azariah we indeed did not leave our homes before dawn because according to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah it became “dawn” sometime after midnight on the fifteenth of Nissan.  In other words, Rav Elazar ben Azariah believes that our leaving Mitzraim occurred in a miraculous fashion – it became dawn in the middle of the night. 

Incidentally, this might be a way to explain Teshuvot Avnei Neizer (O. C. 381) who believes that according to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah the prohibition to eat after consuming the Afikoman expires after Chatzot.  The reason is because 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.  In this way we may defend the Avnei Nezeir from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s criticism that is presented in Harerei Kedem (2:196-197).  



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 be Azariah, Geulah is a purely miraculous process.  We define an event as an authentic Geulah experience according to this view 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 and night does not have to turn into day in order to define a process as being Geulah.


Ramifications of this Dispute

This fundamental philosophical dispute has ramifications for many profoundly important issues.  One ramification is how to assess the Bar Kochva rebellion.  Rabi Akiva asserted that Bar Kochva had the potential to be the Mashiach.  Other Tannaim vehemently disagreed.  Rav Yoel argues that this dispute hinges on our issue.  Rabi Akiva’s disputants believed that Geulah cannot occur without an overt miracle.  Thus, they felt that we 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 if an overt miracle had not occurred. 

                Rav Yoel added that Rabi Akiva is consistent in his approach when Rabi Akiva asserts that all of the books of Tanach are holy and Shir Hashirim is Holy of Holies.  Rav Yoel argues that this 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 wish to add to this insight in light of the explanation of Professor Aviezer Ravitzsky’s (a noted Jewish philosopher at Hebrew University who spoke at Congregation Rinat Yisrael a number of weeks ago) concerning Rabi Akiva’s evaluation of Shir Hashirim.  Dr. Ravitzsky suggested that it is self-evident that all books of the Bible are holy.  However, Shir Hashirim has the potential to be misread as a secular love poem.  The choice to forego the secular reading of Shir Hashirim and instead read it as an allegorical expression of our deep connection to Hashem is Holy of Holies.  This approach is also consistent with Rabi Akiva’s attitude regarding Geulah. 


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.  Rabi Akiva, though, would likely see it 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, today Orthodox Jews have not reached a consensus view regarding how to evaluate Medinat Yisrael.  A Talmid posed an interesting question regarding this matter.  He wanted to know whether we are permitted to eat the Afikoman until dawn seeing that we are 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 my Gray Matter p. 227) and that even we, religious Zionists, should do our best to complete the Afikoman (and Hallel, see Rama O.C. 477:1) before Chatzot.

I also find it interesting that these two approaches can be found 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 approaches to this passage in the Gemara.  One approach is that the Gemara is speaking of natural fruits and his second approach is that it is speaking of supernatural fruits.  It seems that these two approaches reflect the dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah regarding the nature of the process of Geulah. 

                I wish to add that Rav Yoel’s approach can serve as an important insight regarding a passage in the Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 3:1).  The Rambam lists the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael for more than two hundred years among the reasons for celebrating Chanukah.  Many of my Rebbeim (including Rav Yehuda Amital, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Hershel Schachter, and Rav Menachem Genack) cite this Rambam as a source for our support of Medinat Yisrael despite the spiritual flaws of many of its leaders and institutions.  They note that the Rambam believes it worthwhile to celebrate Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael from 165 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. despite the serious spiritual flaws of most of the Jewish leaders of the time.  Herod and Yannai killed Talmidei Chachamim and Chazal felt compelled to refrain from exercising Halachic authority over the Jewish monarchy of that time (see Sanhedrin 18a-19b) due to their refusal to accede to Torah authority. 

                I have often wondered what would be a sound Chareidi response to this proof.  I have posed this question to a number of Chareidi Talmidei Chachamim and have yet to hear a satisfactory response.  I believe, though, that Rav Yoel’s approach allows for an adequate response.  One could argue that the Rambam represents only the approach of Rabi Akiva.  Indeed, the Rambam consistently codifies Rabi Akiva’s opinions that we have discussed above - the latest time to eat the Korban Pesach (Hilchot Korban Pesach 8:15 and the evaluation of Bar Kochva (Hilchot Melachim 11:3). 

Rashi, on the other hand, might reject the Rambam’s approach to Chanukah.  The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) asks, “What is Chanukah?” and responds by presenting the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days.  Rashi (s.v. Mai) explains the Gemara’s question “What is Chanukah?” to mean, “Which event spurred Chazal to establish the holiday of Chanukah?”  Accordingly, it seems that according to Rashi we celebrate Chanukah only because of the overt miracle of the oil lasting eight days and not because of the military victory of the Chashmonaim and not because of the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael.  Indeed, the Maharetz Chiyut (Shabbat 21b) comments that this Gemara and Rashi teach that Hallel would not be recited on Chanukah had an overt miracle not occurred. 

Thus, Rashi seems to adopt the view of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah unlike the Rambam who follows the view of Rabi Akiva.  Thus while the Rambam seems to support the Religious Zionist outlook on Medinat Yisrael and Yom Haatzmaut, Rashi’s evaluation of Chanukah could be cited in support of the Chareidi evaluation of Medinat Yisrael and Yom Haatzmaut. 


Other Ramifications of the Rabi Akiva-Rabi Elazar ben Azariah Dispute

I suggest that this dispute between the Rambam and Rashi might also be reflected in their dispute regarding how the third Beit Hamikdash will be rebuilt.  Rashi and Tosafot (who rule in accordance with Rabi Elazar ben Azariah in most of their commentaries, see Megillah 21a Tosafot s.v.Liatuyei and Zevachim 57b Tosafot s.v. V’eba’it Eima) rule that the third Beit Hamikdash will miraculously descend from the heavens (Sukkah 41a Rashi and Tosafot s.v. Ei Nami).  The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 11:1) believes that the third Beit Hamikdash will be built by human hands.  This dispute also seems to reflect the Rabi Akiva – Rabi Elazar ben Azariah dispute regarding the nature of the process of Geulah. 

A twentieth century dispute between Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding attending college seems also to somewhat reflect the Rabi Akiva -  Rabi Elazar ben Azariah dispute.  Rav Moshe Feinstein writes (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:36, the posthumous volume) that a boy should not attend college as it will interfere with his attaining maximum achievement in his Torah studies.  Rav Moshe argues that attending college in order to improve one’s future ability to earn a living is inappropriate.  He argues that one should be concerned with earning a living only when it becomes a relevant issue. 

Rav Aharon Rakefet, on the other hand, relates (Torah U’Madda Journal Volume 2 page 134) that when he and his friends were debating whether they should attend college, Rav Soloveitchik advised them that in “our times” one must attend college.  The Rav argued that Chazal urge us to combine Torah with Derech Eretz and that college attendance is the contemporary application of Derech Eretz. 

One might argue that the Rav follows the model of Rabi Akiva (Pesachim 112a) and the Rambam (Hilchot Matanot Anayim 10:18) who assert that “Aseh Shabatcha Chol Vial Yitztareich El Habriyot,” better that one eat ordinary meals on Shabbat rather than be dependent on charity.  Rabi Akiva and the Rambam advise acting in “natural” ways to earn a living even if it involves diminishing somewhat the spiritual quality of one’s life.  Similarly, we in the Modern Orthodox world believe in giving our children a proper secular education even if it involves some spiritual sacrifice (i.e. fewer hours studying Torah during the school year), in order that they should eventually be able to earn a proper living and not be dependent on charity or government support. 

I also find it interesting that it is Rabi Akiva who asserts (Sukkah 11b) that the Sukkot that we lived in the Sinai desert were “natural” or actual Sukkot unlike the view that asserts that we were enveloped by divine clouds that constituted our homes at that time.  Once again we find Rabi Akiva adopts the “natural” interpretation of a Biblical event. 


Rav Yoel’s Explanation of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabi Akiva’s Sharing a Seder in Bnei Brak

                Rav Yoel raises the question (that others have already posed) how Rabi Elazar ben Azariah participated in the Mitzva of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim until dawn along with Rabi Akiva in Bnei Brak if according to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah it is no longer considered “night” after Chatzot on the fifteenth of Nissan.  Rav Yoel responds that Bnei Brak was the home of Rabi Akiva (see Sanhedrin 32b) and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah acted in accordance with Rabi Akiva’s view since he was at the home of Rabi Akiva (see Shulchan Aruch O.C. 170:5). 

Rav Yoel notes that this is particularly noteworthy because of the profound Hashkafic ramifications of this dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah.  Nevertheless, Rabi Elazar ben Azariah was sufficiently open-minded to be able to participate in a Seder with Rabi Akiva that followed Rabi Akiva’s Halachic and Hashkafic views.  Rav Yoel wished that the same would occur today.  

Rav Yoel creatively explained that it was the students of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah who entered the Seder and announced that it was morning and time to recite the morning time Shema.  Rav Yoel surmises that since Talmidim tend to be less flexible than their Rebbeim, that the Talmidim of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah left the Seder in Bnei Brak after Chatzot in accordance with their Rebbe’s view.  They remained outside Rabi Akiva’s home and were upset with their Rebbe’s “caving” into Rabi Akiva’s view, especially in light of the great Hashkafic implications of his view.  However, once dawn came the Talmidim could not tolerate the situation any longer and marched into the Seder to put on end to what they perceived as an impropriety. 



According to Rav Yoel’s beautiful Shiur, the dispute that rages today among Orthodox Jews regarding the State of Israel is a reflection of the ancient dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah.  We, contemporary disputants, should learn a lesson from the respect that Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah showed each other.  Modern Orthodox Bnei Torah can be confident that they are following the “Derech” of Rabi Akiva and we can be respectful of Chareidi Bnei Torah who follow the “Derech” of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah.

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