Rachel's tale: A novel about Rabbi Akiba's long-suffering wife

Set in the turbulent and confusing times after the destruction of the Second Temple, the novel makes you feel the chaos and uncertainty of the times.

Yochi Brandes, one of Israel’s top writers, at her home outside Tel Aviv (photo credit: YOGEV AMRANY)
Yochi Brandes, one of Israel’s top writers, at her home outside Tel Aviv
(photo credit: YOGEV AMRANY)
FOR ME, “The Orchard” by Yochi Brandes was the perfect novel to read over a Shabbat afternoon and evening, in that although I found myself racing to finish it, I knew that the moment I read the final page I would regret not having more of it to read.
The story of the book’s central characters of Rabbi Akiba (Akiva, in Hebrew) and his long-suffering wife Rachel have been told many times, but this rendering left me in amazement at the breadth of the author’s knowledge and the depth of her research. I found myself needing to remind myself that compelling as the writing is, the book is a novel. So the characters, their lives and times have been subject to the author’s imagination and interpretation.
The book’s title is based on the story of the four sages who entered the “pardes” (orchard) – a mystical experience of meeting with God. According to the tradition, only Rabbi Akiba came out of the orchard unscathed.
The characters in the book, the sages and their wives were real people made of flesh and blood, and on a walk into any of the religious areas of Jerusalem you could meet their like today. Indeed, there were moments when I felt a flash of irritation with poor Rachel, Akiba’s wife. One could almost feel it would have been nice to have had her round for a coffee and heart-to-heart chat. Rabbi Akiba, while undoubtedly charismatic, and the sages of the times do not come over as particularly lovable or even admirable characters.
They are all too human in their over Yochi whelming sense of self-righteousness. Rabbi Akiba, it should be noted, met Rachel when he was a 40-year-old illiterate shepherd; she married him against her father’s wishes, and compelled him to study the Torah until he became one of the Jewish people’s greatest sages.
What the author has succeeded in doing so admirably is to make the reader aware of the rabbis of those far off days. When I first came to live in Jerusalem, I lived on Rehov Beruria, and there she is, a real-life woman along with her husband (the next road, Rabbi Meir). Reading the pages of the book, the voices of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazaria, Rabbi Tarphon, the rabbis disputing the number of plagues in the Passover Seder service, can almost be heard, so clearly is the atmosphere evoked.
Set in the turbulent and confusing times after the destruction of the Second Temple, the novel makes you feel the chaos and uncertainty of the times, when black and white blended into various shades of gray, when the authoritarian voice that one had always looked to for confirmation of beliefs and practices could be superseded by different voices, different views, all of which could be considered the “right” way.
It would be hard to read this book without finding oneself comparing certain moral and ethical dilemmas facing contemporary Israel and Judaism. Indeed, if I have a criticism it is that some points are perhaps a little too labored, as if the author hasn’t quite trusted the reader to get the point on their own without a signpost.
Anybody reading the Bible or Shakespeare’s plays realizes that times and places change, people don’t. Faced with antisemitism and antagonistic surrounding powers, the ancient quandaries resound just as loudly today; to appease or to fight, to try to justify and placate or to follow the path we perceive to be right no matter what, and the doubt as to whether the right path is indeed so.
And Brandes demonstrates very clearly that some of the problems and choices that we living in modern Israel face are very similar to the problems faced in the earliest century of the common era. Perhaps the author has been tempted to impose her own views on such contemporary problems as agunot (chained wives), and the state’s official policy toward Messianic Jews.
But page after page I found myself thinking, “Yes, that’s how it must have been,” and the book definitely had the effect of making me question some of my assumptions and opinions of the here and now. And possibly that is what the author brings off so well, making the reader question long accepted views.
Of course, hindsight is always twenty- twenty, and the fact that Rachel can so clearly predict problems, which could not possibly have been anticipated or dreamed of in the worst nightmare, owes more to the author’s fertile imagination than any historical reality. Or are some of her conclusions meant to be cautionary warnings as to how we relate to Jews with other beliefs, such as Messianic or Reform Jews, for instance.
So the success of this novel is to leave you pondering.
Yochi Brandes, who was born in 1959, in Haifa, to a family of Hasidic rabbis, is one of Israel’s top writers, and this is her eighth book. She holds a BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies. She taught bible and Judaism for many years, as well as creating courses on Jewish thought for various schools. She had her own column in the daily Maariv, and was the editor of a book series on Judaism. Today, she lectures widely on bible and literature. Brandes has published both novels as well as essays on biblical women – all of them bestsellers in Israel.
She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prize for seven of her books, including “Kings III” (2008), and the Steimatzky Prize for “Akiva’s Orchard” (2013).
The book has received rave reviews. “I read this marvelous book by Yochi Brandes in a single weekend,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote. “It swept me into the orchard and into the sources of our tradition.”
“Yochi Brandes takes Rabbi Akiba out of the world of history books and places him into the realm of the familiar in this Israeli classic,” said renowned author A.B. Yehoshua.
I enjoyed reading this book so much that it feels slightly ungracious to end with a quibble. However, even in her introduction the author mentions the difficulty the reader may have differentiating between characters with similar names as well as different characters bearing the same name. I feel that a list of characters at the beginning of the book would have been a useful addition.