Getting under the skin (Daf Yomi Pesachim 69)

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“Akiva, how can you say this.”

Is there someone in your life who just gets under your skin? You try really hard to understand their perspective, but no matter how hard you try you just can’t get over a smoldering feeling of irritation. I have a friend who holds very different views than me, and he knows if he brings up certain topics, I will become distressed. It is as though he can’t help himself because it happens over and over, and I end up pleading with him to back away from the topic.

Several days ago in the Daf Yomi, we learned that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer had a strained relationship when they argued over whether one can sacrifice the Paschal lamb when the eve of Passover collides on the calendar with Shabbat. Rabbi Akiva came down on the side of stringency and said that the Passover sacrifice does not override Shabbat. Rabbi Eliezer was taken aback because it was generally believed among the Rabbinic community that the Passover sacrifice overrode restrictions on Shabbat. Eliezer challenged Akiva with the following lament, “Akiva, how can you say this?”

And those words – “Akiva, how can you say this” – reveals a lot about the relationship between the two scholars. The dynamics are even more difficult than a typical relationship among colleagues, because Rabbi Akiva studied for more than a decade with Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva was illiterate until he was 40 years old when his wife encouraged him to study the Torah. He was a mature student when he studied with Eliezer and may have had his own opinions. The notes in the Koren Talmud indicate that Rabbi Akiva studied with Rabbi Eliezer for thirteen years without his teacher recognizing his “greatness.”

It is as if Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer walked off the pages of the Talmud from a few days ago in order to continue their dispute. In their case, it is not the continuing disagreement I have with my irritating friend about politics and the pandemic that have set the two Rabbis off against each other, but the dispute they have been having about overriding Shabbat. They return to argue their respective positions on the topic, which was presumably settled a few days ago.

Rabbi Akiva argues that the act of sprinkling purifying water of a red heifer in order to prepare someone for the Passover sacrifice is prohibited on Shabbat because the sacrifice is prohibited. His forward walking approach is logical, but then he walks it backwards. He argues that if sprinkling is prohibited, then the slaughter that precedes it is also prohibited. Eliezer is really irritated by this argument and accuses Akiva of putting forward a lighthearted response and shockingly says that Akiva’s punishment for such disrespect is to be slaughtered by other people. It is a horrible pronouncement by Rabbi Eliezer, especially in light of Akiva’s death many years later at the hands of the Romans.

Rabbi Akiva is not done with making his point. He responds to Rabbi Eliezer by saying that “for this tradition I received from you: sprinkling is forbidden by rabbinic decree and does not override Shabbat.”  We are told by Ulla (remember him from the story of Yalta?) that Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching was more nuanced than Akiva suggested and that it was specific to sprinkling that is performed in order to enable a ritually impure priest to partake of teruma. We are told that in this instance, the sprinkling does not override Shabbat, because the separating of teruma does not override Shabbat. It is unclear if Eliezer was indeed tripped up by Akiva, if Ulla was attempting to justify what some might read as the august Rabbi forgetting a former teaching, or if  Akiva misstated Eliezer’s teachings in order to make his point.

Akiva’s veiled animosity toward Eliezer may have been simmering within him for a very long time. Perhaps, he felt overlooked when he was studying with his teacher in the yeshiva. He might have been annoyed with Eliezer’s conservative views, and just had to go in there and push his point. This story seems out of character for him, but like all of us, he was very human and had his own sensitivities and irritations.

I try very hard to listen to other voices and perspectives. It is challenging when my friend argues that the best way to manage the pandemic is to let the virus spread through the community “naturally” until we have achieved a state of herd immunity. He does not “believe” in wearing masks and thinks that restricting large gatherings – even during a dire pandemic – is a violation of human rights. When he says that the numbers of the dead and dying from the pandemic are inflated, I try with every ounce of my being to not engage in a discussion that will escalate very quickly. I just shake my head and mutter to myself, “Akiva, how can you say this?”

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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