The generous, supportive Rachel, Rabbi Akibas wife – Bryan-College Station Eagle

Posted By on December 7, 2019

The Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) ends with the famous poem known in Hebrew as Eshet Chayil. The term has no English equivalent, although we often imprecisely translate it as A Woman of Valor.

The poem addresses the role of women, not only as the homemaker but also providers for their family and as psychological supports for their families and husbands. The poem describes the ideal woman as a person who takes care of others and inspires all whom she loves.

In traditional Jewish homes, we read the poem on Sabbaths and holy days and at the funerals of righteous women. The poem provides us with what King Solomon believed to be the parameters of an ideal wife, mother and home administrator. Eshet Chayil tells us that a husband should see such perfection in his wife to be comparable to that of a precious gem and states that a man who has found such a woman is truly blessed.

In the American language, the closest we have is the late 19th century saying: that behind every successful man there [stands] a woman. The American expression is much more terse and less poetic than the Hebrew but in many ways shares similarities. In our day and age, the term eshet chayil also reminds us, who live in a time of great superficiality, that true beauty radiates from the inside out. It is not a womans outer shell that determines beauty but the depth of her being. The Hebrew expression reminds us to judge a woman not by her clothing, hairdo or jewelry but by the quality of her mind and soul.

To be an eshet chayil is to be like many of the Biblical and Talmudic women we have studied in the past: flawed human beings who overcame personal or communal challenges and made the world better.

This month we examine such a woman. Just as in the poem, she was a woman who transformed a poor shepherd into one of ancient Israels greatest scholars and warriors. This month we examine the life and inspiration of one of Israels greatest woman. She was the woman behind the man, his eshet chayil. Because of her efforts, Israel received the gift of Rabbi Akiba, one of our greatest minds and intellectuals.

Akibas wife was more than spouse; she was his mentor and inspiration. It is no exaggeration to state that much of the credit for Rabbi Akibas brilliance and success is owed to his wife and number one supporter.

Rabbi Akibas wife is known more for what she did than for who she was. In fact, we are ignorant of most of her lifes details. We are not even sure of her name. Like many of the women found in the Talmudic texts, she is described as merely Eshet Akiba/Akibas wife.

Today we call her Rachel, but it is not clear if Rachel was her name or that of her daughters. Furthermore, as is typical of the ancient Middle East, we have numerous contradicting tales about her role in life. As we delve into the details of her life, the only thing about which we are certain is that we are not sure what we know and what we do not know.

Perhaps this paucity of biographic details and factual history are to our benefit. Might the lessons of history be learned not by facts but by the legends that surround the facts? Might this lack of fact be teaching us that it is the symbolism and lessons found within each life that matter more than the banality of mundane facts? What we do know is that the influence of Eshet Akiba/Akibas wife on Israels history was so great, her capabilities so vast, her insights so profound that it is impossible to distinguish the facts of her life from the legends that surround her. Perhaps, just as in the poem Eshet Chayil, it is her essence about which the legends speak that encompasses the lessons of her life.

Despite the differences found within primary sources, all sources seem to agree Akibas wife had an eye for talent. The Talmud reports that her future husband, Rabbi Akiba (first century CE) was an ambitious but poor shepherd. He had a minimal education and seemed destined for a life of ignorance and poverty. Rachel thought otherwise. The woman who discovered Akiba and became his wife was the beautiful daughter of one of ancient Israels richest men: a young woman of privilege. According to legend, Rachel recognized Akibas brilliance and fell in love with him. The Talmudic text indicates that her father was furious, disowned her, and after she married Akiba, the couple lived in poverty.

Akibas wife insisted that he attend the academy (the university of his day). She demonstrated her support for this decision by toiling to maintain him economically for two 12-year periods.

Due to his wifes love and unwavering support, Akiba became the greatest scholar of his time. Eternally grateful to his wife, he made it known to all that he owed his success to her. He never tired of telling the world that without her support, trust and belief in him, he would never have risen to become one of Israels great leaders.

Theirs was a true partnership. Each knew when to speak and to be silent; each trusted the other and helped to transform the nation in a world of political darkness into a beacon of light. It would not be unfair to state that Akibas brilliant writing and words or wisdom come to us only due to the efforts of his wife and mentor.

Recognized as that periods greatest scholar, Akiba and his father-in-law reconciled, and Akiba became a rich man. Despite his fame and wealth, Akiba never failed to state that his success belonged more to his wife than to him. She was truly, to quote Proverbs, more precious than rubies. Legend tells us that to honor his wife, Akiba presented her with headgear made of gold.

Akibas wife was his lifelong supporter, partner and mother to his children. She asked nothing in return. Living in a time of miracles, her disciples tell us that she too performed miracles, ended plagues and made the world a better place; the eshet chayil par excellence.

Akibas wife is buried in the northern Israeli city of Tiberius along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Today, thousands of people come to visit her tomb, to pray and to ask her for her guidance.

Just as we began our journey with Talmudic masters along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, so, too, is with Eshet Akiba that we end this journey. Many of the people whom we studied performed miracles, all faced issues, and all have something to teach us who live in another place and time. May Akibas wifes life inspire all of us, both men and women, to be an eshet chayil in whatever path we choose to take through life.

Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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The generous, supportive Rachel, Rabbi Akibas wife - Bryan-College Station Eagle

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