The tisch: Souls departing

Just as a flickering candle is enveloped by the flame of a torch, so, too, Akiva’s soul was overcome by Divine light.

THE TOMB of Rabbi Akiva in Tiberias. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE TOMB of Rabbi Akiva in Tiberias.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Talmud recounts the final moments of Rabbi Akiva’s life. The great sage had been incarcerated by the Roman authorities on the charge of breaking the law by teaching Torah publicly. After sitting in jail, he was taken out to be executed. The Romans decided to first torment him and they began to flay his flesh with iron combs.
As the Romans tortured the sage, it was time to recite the Shema, and Akiva was meditating on the unity of the Almighty. His students could not believe what they were witnessing: Even as their teacher was being brutalized, he was able to fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema with proper intent. They asked their teacher how he could focus on God even in these dire circumstances.
Akiva explained that he had been waiting his whole life for the chance to serve the Almighty “with all his soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5); that is, to sacrifice himself for the sake of God. Now that the opportunity presented itself, he was surely not going to miss it! Akiva recited the Shema, and as he reached the last word of the opening verse, ehad (one), his soul departed from this world (Brachot 61b).
The harrowing account sounds like a brilliant piece of Divine timing: At the very moment when Akiva declared the unity of God, his soul left this world. Indeed, the Talmud recounts that a heavenly voice resounded: “Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul departed with ehad” – meaning, as he recited the word ehad and declared the unity of God.
But the creative hassidic master Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900) scoffed at the notion that this timing was coincidence. In his mind, it could not even be chalked up to divinely orchestrated happenstance. Moreover, according to Rabbi Tzadok, Rabbi Akiva did not even feel the torture, as he was so intently focused on God: Just as the biblical Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah did not feel the flames when they were cast into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), and just as Daniel was unharmed by the lions when he was thrown into their den (Daniel 6), so, too, the combs had no effect on Akiva.
So how did Rabbi Akiva die?
Rabbi Tzadok explained: His soul departed as he reached the ultimate mystical experience of love and unity with the Almighty. Just as a flickering candle is enveloped by the flame of a torch, so, too, Akiva’s soul was overcome by Divine light. When Akiva experienced that great glow, his soul left his body as it became one with the Divine flame.
At first blush, Tzadok’s teaching sounds like a bona fide, innovative hassidic reading of a famous talmudic passage. The thrust of the explanation lauds the spiritual pursuit and the deep mystical desire to be one with God. But is this really a hassidic reading of Akiva’s death?
THE NOTION of life expiring out of ecstatic love and joyful devotion to God is an idea that predates Hassidism. The great Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), commonly known by the acronym Maharsha, took a similar line in another case, long before the advent of Hassidism.
A well-known Talmudic passage recounts how four sages entered the mystical realm known as Pardes. Each of the sages experienced the episode differently: Ben Azzai looked and died, Ben Zoma looked and was injured, Elisha ben Avuya “destroyed the plants,” and only Akiva came out from the experience unscathed (Hagiga 14b).
In his commentary on this fascinating but cryptic passage, Maharsha related that he found an explanation in an old book. Regrettably, Maharsha does not identify the book by name. According to Maharsha’s report, Ben Azzai had a mystical experience of such great love that his soul departed from his body. Thus Ben Azzai “looked” – not at the Holy Presence, for even Moses was not permitted to glance at that, but his soul perceived Divine goodness, and chose not to return to his body. Reaching further back in Jewish tradition, a similar idea can be found in the writings of Rabbi Hayim Paltiel, a little-known 13th-century French biblical commentator.
According to another French biblical commentator – Rashi (1040-1105) – the Bible describes Sarah’s death immediately after the story of the Binding of Isaac because when she heard about her son’s ordeal and how he was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her body and she died. Considering this explanation, Hayim Paltiel wondered whether Sarah would have really been so troubled to hear that the Almighty had chosen her son as a worthy sacrifice. Hayim Paltiel therefore suggested that Sarah’s soul fluttered out of supreme bliss, and at this ecstatic, mystical moment her soul left her body and she died.
So it would seem that the soul’s departing out of ecstatic love is a recognized – though perhaps not famous – trope in Jewish thought. Thus, the contribution of Tzadok Hakohen in this particular case is the application of an existing paradigm to a new case. This reminds us that hassidic teachings often have deep roots in Jewish tradition.
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.