Jewish history with a literary license

The translation of Yochi Brandes’s novel ‘The Orchard’ brings to life tales of first-century Israel

THE TOMB of Rabbi Akiva in Tiberias is a popular pilgrimage site (photo credit: GPO)
THE TOMB of Rabbi Akiva in Tiberias is a popular pilgrimage site
(photo credit: GPO)
There is a danger in the dual nature of The Orchard by Yochi Brandes. The original Hebrew novel was rendered into stunning English by translator Daniel Libenson. The storytelling is so well done, it can easily fool the reader into assuming that all the details of story are fundamentally true.
For those who are familiar with the lore surrounding Rabbi Akiva and the Jews of the first century, there is much here that is familiar.
In The Orchard, Brandes retells the story of the marriage of the ignorant shepherd Akiva to Rachel, the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Kalba Savua, who dreamed of his daughter marrying a Torah scholar. She recounts how Rachel and Akiva are plunged into poverty when Kalba Savua disinherits his daughter. The story from the Jerusalem Talmud of Rachel selling her hair to supply Akiva with funding to study Torah appears in Brandes’s telling. The talmudic tale concludes with Rabbi Akiva ultimately rewarding her sacrifice with a glorious headdress. This part of the story does not appear in the book.
The Orchard also relates the story of the famous Passover Seder in Bnei Brak that appears in every traditional Haggada. “It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining [at a Seder] in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them, ‘Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!’”
Each of the five rabbis, and many of their rabbinic colleagues, are brought to life in Brandes’s book. Her description of the ugliness of Rabbi Joshua and the exceptional beauty of Rabbi Ishmael matches Jewish tradition.
She also elaborates on the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah. At the age of 18, after taking over as head of the Sanhedrin during a dispute between rabbinic sages, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah experienced the hairs on his head turning gray overnight. He is quoted in the Haggada as saying, “Behold, I am like 70 years of age,” because his gray hair made him appear much older than he actually was.
Perhaps the most famous story that the author brings to life is the Talmudic story of the Pardes – the orchard.
“Four men entered the orchard – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher (Elisha ben Abuyah) and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.”
The gruesome martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva at the hands of Turnus Rufus (whom the book names as Tineius Rufus), a Roman governor of Judea after the failed revolt of Bar Kochba, is told in the book’s final chapters.
While the book is compelling reading, there are many things Brandes invents, and it is difficult for the reader to tease out which stories are legitimately part of Jewish tradition and which are purely from the writer’s imagination.
She paints Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, as an embittered woman, angry with her husband for leaving her for 12 years to study Torah in the great academies of Lod and then Yavneh. This is in contrast with the traditional telling of her willing self-sacrifice. Adding darkness to her story, Brandes situates Rachel living a solitary life in a cave for years after Rabbi Akiva was martyred.
In the novel, Rachel and Akiva had a daughter named Hannah who, in Brandes’s version of the story, was a close friend of the Talmudic figure Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir. The fictional version of Hannah was engaged to Ben Azzai and became an aguna after he went mad. Inexplicably, in Brandes’s retelling of the story of the Pardes, it is Ben Zoma who dies and Ben Azzai who goes mad rather than the opposite, which is how tradition records it.
In one of the most unsettling bits of fiction, she portrays Rabbi Eliezer, husband of the legendary Imma Shalom, as the nephew of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus, a Roman Jew and an apostle who taught about Jesus to the Jews of the first century.
As literature, The Orchard is a fine book and a satisfying read, even given that it includes multiple incidents of human hardship. As a source of Jewish history however, it is hopelessly convoluted, mixing just enough tradition with the author’s imagination to confuse any reader who is not thoroughly familiar with history.