Susan Barth
Marriage Education, Enrichment / Enhancement & Advocacy

Rabbi Akiva and Rachel – Role Models for Marriage

With all the turmoil and uncertainty going on during these days, I felt that a quick visit post Pesach to the graves  of my “role models” Rabbi Akiva z”l and his beloved wife Rachel z”l (who are buried in Tiberius) would be an appropriate venue for expression of my prayers – and opportunity for meditation and reflection. The visit to both gravesites also was spurred by the focus on Rabbi Akiva during this period of the counting of the Omer.

I have always been enamored with the love story of Rachel wife of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Akiva and how this heiress to her father’s fortune gave up her riches in order to marry an unlearned shepherd – who, thanks to her keen vision, became the great sage Rabbi Akiva.

In fact, at the gravesite of Rachel, the topic of marriage is prominently displayed through various prayers one can recite – including ones for finding a partner and for a wife to recite for supporting her husband and the husband to recite regarding his wife.

Given my passion for marriage education, I was mesmerized by the focus on marriage and spent part of my time concentrating on the individual prayers and thinking about the prospective lessons which could be internalized regarding the marriage of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel.

This blog is my reflection on those lessons for couples especially for those couples who are either engaged or in their first year of marriage.

The abbreviated history of Rachel and Rabbi Akiva

The story of their match is outlined in the Talmud in Kesubos Chapter 5 62b which in short describes the history of the union between Rachel and Rabbi Akiva. According to the text:

“Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd for Ben Kalba Savua (considered one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem). His daughter Rachel saw that he was modest and of find character, and she asked Rabbi Akiva “If I become betrothed to you, will you go to the academy to study Torah? He agreed and betrothed her in secret and she sent him away to the academy.” [1]

Despite the objection and subsequent disavowel of Rachel by her father in response to her marriage to Rabbi Akiva, Rachel’s recognition of Rabbi Akiva’s potential over shadowed the sacrifice of a life of luxury as well as subjecting her to subsequent poverty and twenty four years of separations from her husband while he studied at the academy in order for Rachel to support and encourage the former shepherd to become the great and admired Rabbi Akiva.

In doing so, Rachel demonstrated for generations to come that character traits are the most important measures of success and that belief and commitment in a marital relationship can have extraordinary dividends for the spouse but also major positive ramifications for the Jewish nation.

From Rabbi Akiva’s side, upon Rabbi Akiva’s return with twenty four thousand students, he openly and publically acknowledged and encouraged his entourage to give proper recognition to his wife as the source for his extensive knowledge with the famous words according to the commentator Rashi – that the Torah knowledge that you and I have acquired is the result of her efforts.[2] Years later, he also honored her with a crown of Jerusalem to acknowledge her sacrifices for his extensive years of Torah study away from her.

Comment on Rachel’s Love

Naftali Rothenberg, in his book Rabbi Akiva’s Philosophy of Love, writes:
“It is Rachel’s love that made Rabbi Akiva a scholar, one of the greatest and most influential figures in all of Jewish culture in his own and subsequent generations… The wisdom and Torah of the sage of love belongs to the woman who loved him. Rachel’s love brought Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom to fruition, making his Torah and that of his students for all generations hers. The sage of love is a woman’s creation, and a woman’s love gave birth to his wisdom.”[3]

Lessons to be learned from the Marriage of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel

 Harmony above All

In an interview, Naftali Rothenberg commented that for Rabbi Akiva, keeping harmony was the most important value. A lot of people preach morality, but the relationship between their spouses is terrible. According to Rabbi Akiva, however, a complete world is one of unity between lovers and is an act of tikun olam (repair the world) in the context of preserving intimacy between spouses. Rabbi Akiva advocated for marital harmony and the everyday challenges of overcoming any temptations of body and mind, and most of all, placing harmony as the most important attribute of all.[4]

Other Essentials in Marriage

Here are some key marriage education lessons we can learn from the story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife Rachel:

Mutual Support and Sacrifice for shared goals

Rachel’s sacrifices are depicted above and demonstrate the importance of each of the couple supporting each other’s aspirations and in fact discussing them before marriage and certainly in the first year of marriage

Patience and perseverance in the face of Adversity

The years of poverty and hardship that Rachel experienced both as a single and then as a mother during the lengthy separations was an understood by product of the dedication that Rachel had to the extensive Torah learning required to advance Rabbi Akiva to achieve the highest learning possible to actualize his potential.

Appreciation and recognition of a spouse’s contributions

As mentioned above, upon Rabbi Akiva’s return his declaration of acknowledgement for Rachel’s contributions to his stature was epitomized in his statement that all his learning and the students is attributed to her. This demonstrated the significance of validating a partner’s sacrifice and what each does to help the other reach their goals and potential – again a topic for discussion prior to and during the first year of marriage

Balancing Marital roles and responsibilities

In the case of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel, she was willing to forgo the domestic spousal joint responsibilities for encouraging the Torah study – this is a topic which much be mutually agreed upon so that the issues of reciprocity do not get colored with resentment. For Rachel and for many couples the wife has willingly supported the Torah learning.

These examples of lessons show how important the topics of mutual support, shared purpose and a balance of individual and relationship needs need to be cultivated in a couple. For Rabbi Akiva and Rachel – their mutual love and joint purpose served to benefit Am Yisrael and we as a nation owe a debt of gratitude to Rachel in particular.

Another couple as a role model

 This past week on April 30 was the English birthday of my late father Esir ben Avraham Benyamin who was born in 1912.

To me, the marriage between my mother Feigel bat Tuvia Nisan Tobolowsky and father was a gift to behold. The character traits which each exhibited complemented each other and included trust, mutual respect, commitment in the face of adversity, mutual dedication to goals and above all their willingness to sacrifice for the principles which they held dear. In my father’s case his commitment to carry out the legacy of his father to the synagogue meant that he served as President and Gabi at intervals culminating in 25 years of service. My mother took up the banner also becoming the unofficial “hostess of the synagogue” to greet newcomers and make them welcome.

The commitment on my father’s part was most prominent to each other during the dark days of my mother’s Alzheimer’s illness.

The amuta Together in Happiness is dedicated to my parents and started as a vehicle to publicly share the values demonstrated by my parents for the benefit of couples in Israel and the English speaking countries.

The marriage of my parents resembles in many ways that of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel in the comparable values that the two respective marriages encapsulated.

During these dark days that we are experiencing – we have an opportunity to internalize the values elucidated in this blog and to effectuate them not only in our own homes but on a societal level so that we can send the message to the next generation that marriage matters and it can serve as the glue that binds us to our heritage and be a way to bind our generations in harmony and actualize Rabbi Akiva’s famous expressions of mutual love.


[1]Talmud Bavli,  Tractate Kesubos (New York, Mesorah Publications, The Schottenstein Edition,Volume II, 2000)  Chapter 5  62b

[2] Ibid

[3] Naftali Rothenberg, Rabbi Akiva’s Philosophy of Love (Switzerland:Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) p.44.



About the Author
Susan (Sarah) Barth is founder and director of Israeli non profit Together in Happiness/B'Yachad B'Osher, promoting stronger, healthier marriages impacting Israeli and English speaking countries' societies. A Project Management Professional (PMP) and businesswoman from the US, Susan sponsored and chaired the First International Conference on Marriage Education in Israel (attended by over 360 professionals) in Jerusalem in memory of her parents and launched I-PREP, an innovative marriage education curriculum. On November 8, 2017, Together in Happiness co-hosted a historic Knesset seminar promoting government support for pre-marriage education