Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

The donkey, the rooster and the lamp: A lockdown story

The tale of Rabbi Akiva's unfortunate night in a field may seem simple, but a deeper dive reveals a massive tragedy – and a hopeful message for humanity

Once upon a time, the famed Tannaic sage Rabbi Akiva was travelling alone. He came to a certain town and sought lodging there, but they refused to host him. Instead of growing frustrated or upset, Rabbi Akiva simply said: ‘Everything that the Merciful One does, He does for the best.’ Lacking other options, he went and slept in a field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. While he was there, a strong gust of wind extinguished the lamp, then a wild cat came and devoured the rooster. And finally, a lion attacked and consumed the donkey. Once again, Rabbi Akiva simply exclaimed: ‘Everything that the Merciful One does, He does for the best!’. That night, a legion of soldiers marched on the town and took it into captivity [and Rabbi Akiva no longer had a candle, rooster or donkey to give away his location, so evaded capture]. Rabbi Akiva said to them: Is it not as I have always told you – everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He does is ultimately for the best!’ (Berachot 60b)

Perhaps you encountered this story as a child, perhaps in a song, perhaps in a compendium of Jewish folklore. Or maybe you’re reading it right here right now for the very first time. Whichever it is, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if you read through it with a  skeptical eyebrow arched toward the ceiling.

The funny thing about Talmudic and Midrashic stories is that they often come across as slightly too convenient. Not that convenience is a commodity to be sniffed at in this day and age, but the issue stands nonetheless: How much can realistically be extrapolated from a story of doubtful historic accuracy where every domino falls perfectly into place to create the most unlikely of happily-ever-afters? Like Disney executives self-isolating in their ivory towers, expecting us commoners to blithely accept the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine out of absolutely nowhere, we tend to be left with more questions than insights as the credits role and Rabbi Akiva rides off into the sunset. Except he didn’t have a donkey anymore, so that should be ‘walked off’.

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Let’s dig a layer deeper and ask the hard-hitting questions. Who knows, maybe we’ll make sense of this yet.

Riddle me this: Rabbi Akiva was without question or challenge the leading scholar of his generation. Such was his expertise in the exegesis of Torah law that the Talmud recounts elsewhere (Menachot 29b):

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai on Shavuot to receive the Torah, he noticed that many of the letters were adorned with miniature crowns. Curious, he asked God why these crowns were necessary. ‘You see’, God explained, ‘in generations hence there will be a scholar who will expound innumerable ideas based on the placement of these crowns, such will be his level of insight.’. Curiosity piqued further, Moses asked to see him in action, and was shown a vision of Rabbi Akiva teaching his students. The brilliance and profundity of Akiva’s discourse was so impressive that at the vision’s conclusion Moses exclaimed: ‘Master of the universe! Why give the Torah through me when you could do so through this brilliant man?!’

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Indeed, the period of mourning observed by Jews around the world during the period between Passover and Shavuot – known as the ‘Omer’ – marks the untimely deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students in an epidemic. Now, irrespective whether or not the admittedly strangely well-rounded total of 24,000 is meant literally, the overarching message is clear: Rabbi Akiva had a lot of students. As Prince Boromir/Sean Bean would say: One does not simply…acquire so many students without being possessed of true greatness.

With that brief introduction to the persona of Rabbi Akiva said and done, here’s the riddle: It is the part of the story that bothered me far more than his unusual choice of luggage, and even more than the improbably convenient sequence of events that led to his safety. If Rabbi Akiva was so great, why didn’t a single resident of the soon-to-be-doomed town offer him accommodation? Was the town wholly evil? There is no mention of this in the Talmud, nor for that matter is the nocturnal military attack presented in any way as an act of divine retribution for mistreating the venerable sage. Indeed, that an entire town was carted off into captivity is portrayed in exactly the same style as the demise of the candle, rooster and donkey: Just another domino in the sequence.

Let’s rephrase this question in modern-day terms. Picture the scene: you’re tidying the house at the end of a busy day, the sun is setting. Add some dramatic ambiance here too just to hammer the point home: You’re in Manchester, England, so it is raining too. And suddenly there is a quiet knock at the door. ‘Who can that be?’ you mutter, pattering over to peek through the keyhole. You hurriedly straighten your dressing gown and slippers. It is none other Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and renowned public figure. He is drenched. He politely asks for shelter just for the night – he’ll be on his way come morning.

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What would your reaction be?

I mean, it’s a bit of a silly question, right? You’d probably pinch yourself at the unexpected honour, and promptly beg the rabbi to stay for longer. ‘It isn’t a bother, please! Stay as long as you need! Our house is your house! Literally – we’ll sleep in a tent in the garden – you will take the master bedroom. No, honestly – we insist. It isn’t any trouble at all!’

Yet Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the Tannaic era, was turned away at every single doorstep.

Let’s move to examine his itinerary: A lamp, a rooster and a donkey. The donkey, possibly played by Eddie Murphy, is entirely understandable. People back then needed to get from A to B and Elon Musk hadn’t been invented yet. But what of the other two items? There are only two plausible explanations behind Rabbi Akiva leaving home with a lamp: Either he left when it was already dark; or he left by daylight, but didn’t expect to find accommodation before nightfall. Neither of these explanations is particularly comforting: Rabbi Akiva’s journey was either something of a secret, or he wasn’t at all confident in finding shelter for the night in the first place.

And what about the rooster? The master commentator Rabbi Solomon Isaaci (Rashi, d.1105) offers a logical explanation: Rabbi Akiva needed it to wake him up in the morning. Think about that for a moment. We’re on a collision course with the same question as above: If Rabbi Akiva expected to be lodging overnight in a populated area – filled with roosters and people who could quite easily provide him with an alarm call whenever he wanted (he’s the leading sage of the generation, right?) – why take the rooster in the first place? Unless he anticipated being on his own in the middle of nowhere that evening.

The plot thickens.

Truth is, the way out of this labyrinth is surprisingly enough hidden in the least believable element of the story: The part where an army turns up in the middle of the night and carts an entire town into captivity.

Instinctively, we read something like that and think: ‘Metaphor. It’s a symbolic exaggeration with little historical accuracy not meant to be interpreted literally’.

But here’s the rub: What if it is accurate? And what if, by interpreting it literally, the rest of the story emerges from beneath the fog of confusion?

The thing is, there was an era in Jewish history that intersected with Rabbi Akiva’s life when the wholesale capture and massacre of Jewish towns was sadly all too common: The Hadrianic Decrees preceding and following the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-138 CE). In seeking to quash a rebellion that spread from the Judean hills to engulf most of Roman-occupied Israel, Emperor Hadrian recalled feared general Sextus Julius Severus from as far away as Britain, amassing a vast army far larger than that used by Titus 60 years earlier to besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Second Temple. And Rabbi Akiva, advanced in years and the foremost religious personality of the age, threw his full support behind Bar Kochba by declaring him the anointed Messiah (Midrash Eicha Rabbah, 2:4).

With this rabbinic seal of approval, Bar Kochba was able to attract support from across the Diaspora and wage war on multiple fronts. As Legions were drafted in from across Europe, Jews flocked by the thousand to fight at Bar Kochba’s side. For a brief period, the rebels were successful. They composed unique prayers, minted coins, wrote salutatory letters to their compatriots in Greece and Babylon. But Rabbi Akiva’s hope soon proved premature. Gradually pushed back to the fortress at Beitar, Bar Kochba slowly gave way to paranoia – seeing enemies and threats everywhere. Eventually, the misguided general accepted slander that portrayed his own uncle (and founder of the rebellion) Rabbi Elazar of Modiin as a traitor, and had him executed in cold blood.

It was the beginning of the end for Jewish life in Judea, the turning point from which the center of Judaism’s world swung back to the communities of Babylon. Hadrian’s wrath burned mercilessly. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, the final years of Rabbi Akiva’s life saw close to 580,000 Jews massacred and 1000 towns and villages razed to the ground and erased from the map. The sun set on Judea for the last time, and wouldn’t rise again until 1948.

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Rabbi Akiva became public enemy number one. The celebrated sage who had given the revolt the seal of approval it needed. The interlocutor who debated governor Tineius Rufus endlessly and defended the rights of his community tirelessly. Suddenly there was a hefty price on his head.

And so, when he arrived – unannounced – in a Jewish town, their refusal to give him shelter takes on an entirely different light. As does his decision to bring with him the necessary ‘Plan B’ (lamp and rooster) if Plan A fell through – which it did. Maybe the townspeople resented him for his role in the uprising. Maybe they blamed him for the widespread vengeance wreaked by an irate Hadrian. Or maybe they sympathised, but couldn’t dare risk opening the door for fear that they and their loved ones would be executed for sheltering a known outlaw.

So he slept in a field. And the Romans, relentlessly seeking their quarry, took the entire town into captivity anyway.

But what of his cryptic message at the end of the story. “Rabbi Akiva said to them: Is it not as I have always told you – everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He does is ultimately for the best!”

Who is he talking to? The townsfolk in captivity? Impossible. The whole point of losing the lamp, rooster and donkey in the first place was divine intervention to prevent his capture! Why would he then reveal himself to the captives? And besides, the notion that Rabbi Akiva would openly mock their demise is unthinkable. And why change the ‘motto’ slightly but noticeably (“everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He does…”)? Take a look in the original text of the Talmud and you’ll notice: Rabbi Akiva switches from Aramaic to plain Hebrew at the point where he addresses the mysterious ‘them’; so much so that you could repeat that last line to someone on the streets of modern-day Holon and they would understand every word in the sentence.

In order to understand who Rabbi Akiva is talking to and why he switches vernacular, we’ll need to take a closer look at the symbolism behind the three items in his itinerary. Funnily enough, they all have one thing in common:

 There I will make a horn sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for My Messiah.” (Psalms 132:17)

The lamp that Rabbi Akiva carries is that which will banish the darkness of exile.

Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion; shout in joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you. He is righteous, triumphant, yet humble – riding on a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

The donkey he rides on is the symbol of humble yet triumphant hope, riding through the gates of Zion.

Rabbi Simlai taught: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Woe to you who await the day of God’s [redemption]….It is darkness and not light!” (Amos 5:18)? It is comparable to a rooster and a bat who were waiting for the crack of dawn. The rooster said to the bat: That I await the sunrise is understandable, as light is an indication of my time to be active. But as for you, why do you need light? Night time for you is like daytime for me! (Sanhedrin 98b)

The rooster’s crow, symbolising the lamp-like sunrise to banish the darkness of a suffering world, led to a promised future by a redeemer riding the donkey that carried the burden of a hundred generations in triumphant humility.

What Rabbi Akiva brings with him, despite all of the setbacks his life had seen, was that elixir of life, that most heady of tonics: Hope.

It was the same refusal to give up hope that guided his response to the tragedy of losing all of his students and therefore lifetime’s achievements during the period of the Omer:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect. And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva traveled to the south and taught his Torah to the sages there. They were: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. They are the same people who upheld the Torah at that time. (Yevamot, 62b)

Most people would give up. Throw the towel in. Call it a day. Not Rabbi Akiva. Not the figure who lost everything but still picked himself up and journeyed to the Negev to teach a new generation of students; the same students whose scholarship would come to form the bulk of the content upon which the Mishna is based. Not the figure who stood with his peers overlooking the ruined and desolated Temple Mount and smiled in response to their tears. Where they saw destruction, he saw opportunity. Where they saw the end, he saw a new beginning. Not the figure who, hunted and hounded from the ashes of a failed messiah and scorched-earth retaliation, still traveled the length and breadth of the land, exhorting, begging, pleading:

As dark as the night may seem, as hopeless as the case may be, as lost as the cause appears: The sun will rise again.

Who was Rabbi Akiva talking to at tale’s end, and why did he switch to simple Hebrew? Us. To every future generation of people who, like him, would stand at the precipice of despair time and again, and see no way out and no way back. To us, he says in language plain enough to understand: Don’t give up.

The past months have been horrendously difficult for so many people in so many countries. It seems unreal to think that the festival of Shavuot will be celebrated in un-splendid isolation. The days get longer, the sun shines brighter, yet the dark and depressing news keeps rolling in from across the globe. And then the ominous fore-warnings: even when this is all over and the pandemic’s spread has eased, the economic toll of its rampant destruction is impossible to gauge until it has hit.

It is so easy to give up hope. Don’t. Never, ever give up.

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The planet’s journey through the Coronavirus tragedy has been one of unexpected heroes; people who have lived and worked their entire lives with a dignified humility who now step out from under society’s shadow of indifference, triumphantly carrying the torch of courage and determination to heal the world and bring laughter back to its vocabulary.

One such hero is Captain Tom Moore, a World War II veteran who celebrated his 100th birthday with 100 laps-in-isolation of his garden. And in so doing, Captain Tom raised £33 million for the National Health Services and became a national treasure. As we gingerly take the first baby steps away from lock-down, bracing ourselves for the long-term storm still to come, let us recall Captain Tom’s message to the world as he crossed the finishing line:

The sun will shine on you again.

Chag Sameyach one and all.

About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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