Mother’s Day, Lag BaOmer, and awesome Jewish mothers and wives

This year Mother’s Day comes just two days prior to Lag BaOmer, so I offer two wonderful stories about awesome Jewish mothers and wives.

In the Land of Israel during Biblical times there were Jewish woman like Miriam, Deborah and Huldah who were Prophets (Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, and 2 Kings 22:14) yet during the reign of Orthodox Rabbis there were no female rabbis.

The first female rabbis were ordained by the Reform Jewish movement in England, Germany, Israel and the U.S.

Jewish woman filled with passion and spirit have never been absent from Jewish life: they were just ignored by almost all Orthodox Rabbis, most of whom took for granted their mothers and wives and failed to praise them and their holy activities publicly as did the following three Hassidic Rabbis.

When his wife died the Baal Shem Tov said, “I thought I could rise to heaven in a whirlwind like Elijah, but now that I am only half a body this is no longer possible.”

When Rabbi Hirsh returned from his wife’s funeral he was overheard saying to himself, “Up to now I was able to experience God’s presence here on earth through marriage. Now I shall have to experience God’s presence directly.” Two weeks later he died.

Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said, “My mother Mirl did not pray from a book because she could not read. All she knew was how to say the various blessings. But wherever she was when she said the morning blessings, that place radiated God’s presence for the whole day.”

But the Talmud does record the well known story about Rabbi Akiba’s daughter Yosefah Helene. She was named after the Persian Queen Helene of Adiabene, who had converted to Judaism a generation earlier; and Rabbi Akiba’s Roman father, Alexander Tiberias, who had converted to Judaism on Log BaOmer and taken the Hebrew name Yosef.

A few days prior to her wedding, Yosefah Helene overheard some Babylonian astrologers saying that on the day she enters the bridal chamber, a snake will bite her and she will die.

Yosefah Helene told her father Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph HaGer what the astrologers had said, but he was not very worried about it because Jewish people should not believe that their future is determined by the movement of the planets in the sky.

A few hours after her marriage she took a long hair pin and stuck it into a large crack in the wall, as she had done often before, and by chance it penetrated into the eye of a snake.

The following morning, when she took the hair pin out out of the crack in the wall, a small but very poisonous snake came trailing after it. When Yosefah Helene told her father what happened,’ he asked her, ‘What did you do?’ (to merit this miracle)

‘A poor man came to our door last evening.’ Yosefah replied, ‘and everybody was so busy at the wedding banquet, there was no one to attend to him. So I took the food that had been given to me and I gave it to him.

“You have done a very, very, good deed,’ Rabbi Akiba said to her. Then Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph HaGer went out and lectured to people: Do not trust astrology. Trust in the frequent benefits of doing good: ‘For charity delivers from death’ (Proverbs 10:2); and not only from an unnatural death, but even from ordinary death itself. (taken from Shabbat 156b)

Another example of the wisdom of the women in the household of Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph HaGer is found in (Yebamot 62b)

“Rabbi Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, and they all died during one period because of their failure to treat each other respectfully.”

The first twelve thousand of Rabbi Akiba’s students to die, were the young men who, inspired by Akiba’s support for Bar Kokhba’s revolt, joined the army of Shimon bar Kokhba to fight against the Romans.

But now things were different. The new student deaths, were not due to fighting with the Romans.

These students were dying of a strange mysterious disease. According to Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, perhaps Rabbi Chiyya bar Abin: “All of them (the second twelve thousand) died a cruel death.”

Even stranger, no one else except the disciples, and the disciples of the disciples of Rabbi Akiba, were dying of this disease.

The epidemic had started during the last Passover of the revolt against the Romans. Three to four hundred of Akiba’s students died daily.

The disease was unlike any other disease that people had ever died from. First one’s tongue swelled up and turned bright blue. Then one had great difficulty speaking, eating and finally breathing.

Rabbi Yohanan b. Torta who had opposed Akiba’s proclaiming Bar Kokhba the Messiah saying, “Akiba, grass will come up between your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.”(Talmud Yerushalmi: Ta’anit 4:8/27) felt the first twelve thousand who died in the Bar Koknba revolt, died due to Rabbi Akiba’s messianic illusions; but he had no explanation for the second twelve thousand.

Others thought the disease was some kind of Roman secret weapon. A form of black magic. Most people felt it was just bad luck.

But Rabbi Akiba knew better. He knew that it is always easy to blame bad luck or other people when things do not go the way you want them to go.

And while that is sometimes the case, those who are wise also know that they have to look within their own conscious, and within their own soul, to see if they themselves did not play a role in what was happening.

Rabbi Akiba appointed his sharpest and most insightful disciple, Rabbi Meir to investigate the situation.

Rabbi Meir discovered that many of Rabbi Akiba’s students did not respect each other.

Those students who did not leave their Yeshivahs to wage war against the Romans disrespected those who did.

Those who refused to withdraw from their battle positions when their leaders said to abandon one village in order go to protect another village, disrespected those who did withdraw.

Those who were more pious disrespected those who were less pious.

He also found that all of those who had died in the mysterious epidemic, had expressed negative opinions about Jews who had converted to Judaism, or who were the descendants of non-Jews, especially Greeks and Romans, who become Jewish in previous generations.

Rabbi Meir was shocked to learn that so many of Rabbi Akiba’s students disrespected each other. Rabbi Akiba had always taught his disciples that one of the most important principles in the Torah was, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”

Indeed, many of Akiba’s students used to sing a song when they sat around a campfire in the spring and summer, that proclaims: “Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is a major principle in the Torah.”

This principle applied not just to all of your neighbors, but also to your fellow students, the people you work with, and everyone else you know; Jew or Non-Jew alike.

Plus, there is another specific Mitsvah that says, “Love the stranger as much as you love yourself.” This applies to non-Jews in general and to non-Jews who become Jewish in particular.

How sad it was then for Rabbi Meir, who himself was a descendant of converts to Judaism, to learn how many of the students of Akiba’s students had transgressed Rabbi Akiba’s teachings.

Did they not know that the full name of their great teacher was Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer: Rabbi Akiba son of Yosef the convert. Even today most Jews are ignorant of this fact.

It is stated in Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Seder HaDorot that Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.

Although most of the Talmudic sages are referred to as X ben Y; Rabbi Akiba is never quoted by his full name: Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.

Perhaps Rabbi Akiba’s students did not know Rabbi Akiba’s father was a convert because there is a tradition that one should not bring up a convert’s non-Jewish past.

This did not mean that you should not be proud of the many people who become Jewish, and whose descendants enrich the Jewish people for generations to come.

It meant only that you are not to refer to a convert’s past in a negative way, or to think that a person born to Jewish parents was a better Jew, than a Jew who had no Jewish genes.

Rabbi Meir told Rabbi Akiba why the epidemic was killing his students, and suggested that they pray that God would forgive the disrespectful students.

They did, but the epidemic did not end. They prayed again and again, but to no avail.

So Rabbi Meir suggested to Rabbi Akiba that he go to his wife Rachel, who had walked away from her wealthy father’s home to marry a poor illiterate sheepherder, whose own father was a Roman army officer named Tiberius.

Rabbi Akiba himself attributed all of his learning to Rachel his wife; because she had made him learn to read and then directed him to study Torah with the sages.

He asked her to pray on behalf of the disrespectful students.

Rachel said she would pray on the 33 day of the counting of the Omer, because that was the day when Akiba promised her he would learn to read and study Torah, and she had agreed to marry him.

Lag BaOmer was also the same date a few years later, when Akiba’s father Tiberius, inspired by Rachel, changed his name to Yosef and converted to Judaism.

She prayed on that day, and new cases of the epidemic stopped, although those students who were already stricken, died until Atzeret.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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