Rabbi Akiba was a great sage of the second century who was executed by the Romans for teaching Torah at a time when the Romans had forbidden it. Akiba, or his father Joseph, was a convert to Judaism. But Akiba is known as Akiba ben Joseph the convert. Was Akiba, or his father Joseph, the convert? In Hebrew it is not clear. I offer a Midrash to explain why Akiba’s father was called Joseph the convert:
A young man named Alexander, who was a Philistine from the city of Gaza, once went to work for a Jewish man named Joseph. Alexander was very curious about Jews because he had never really known a Jewish person before. Joseph always tried to answer Alexander’s questions and often lent him books about Judaism. Joseph also encouraged Alexander to come with him to Shabbat services. When Alexander asked questions Joseph couldn’t answer, Joseph encouraged Alexander to meet with a Rabbi.
Joseph was very proud to be Jewish and loved telling non-Jewish people about the meaning of Jewish holidays and the reasons for Jewish customs and ceremonies. One day Alexander told Joseph that he had decided to become Jewish. Alexander had stopped believing in the Philistine religion years ago. Now he felt that he had found something that was good for him.
A few months later Alexander invited Joseph to come and witness his conversion ceremony the day after Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah to both present and future generations of Jews, and to all the converts who would join the Jewish people in future generations. Joseph was happy to come.
During the conversion ceremony the person who is becoming Jewish is given a Hebrew name. Joseph was surprised when he heard Alexander pick the Hebrew name Joseph because as Akiba told everyone, Joseph had been the one who had most encouraged him to learn about Judaism. Joseph was filled with joy that his efforts had such a wonderful outcome.
A few years later, Joseph the convert got married. He asked his friend Joseph to be the best man at the wedding. Joseph the convert and his new wife had four children, three daughters and then a son. The son was given the name Akiba, ben Joseph the convert.
When Akiba grew up he became a great Rabbi. To this day more Jews are named after the great Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph the convert, then Alexander the great. Encouraging non-Jews to become Jewish is a Mitsvah that can produce benefits for generations to come. Welcoming non-Jews into the Jewish people is a Mitsvah that keeps on giving.