Ketubot 60 - 66
New Light on an Old Story
One of the best known Talmudic stories is that of Rabbi Akiva and his heroic wife, Rachel. The daughter of the fabulously wealthy Kalba Savua, Rachel recognized the extraordinary potential of the ignorant shepherd who worked for her father and agreed to marry him if he would go study in the yeshiva. The outraged father removed her from his home and made a vow forbidding her to benefit from his resources. When Rabbi Akiva returned 24 years later at the head of 24,000 disciples, his identity was unknown to his father-in-law who came to see this famous scholar in the hope that he could nullify the vow he now regretted having made.
"If you had known that your daughter's ignorant husband would be a great scholar, would you have made that vow?" he asked in the manner of every authority seeking to find an opening for the vow-maker to express regret. "If he would known even one chapter, or even one law, I would not have make such a vow," replied Kalba Savua. When Rabbi Akiva then revealed his identity and pronounced the vow null and void, his overjoyed father-in-law kissed his feet and presented him with half his wealth.
There are two interesting observations made by Tosefot regarding this touching story. Rabbi Akiva's future wife, says the gemara, appreciated him as being "modest and upright." This same Rabbi Akiva elsewhere (Mesechta Pesachim 49b) describes in graphic terms the hatred he had harbored for Torah scholars while he was still an ignorant shepherd. This hardly seems to fit the description of being an "upright" Jew! Tosefot explains that, in his ignorance, Rabbi Akiva was extremely critical of what he mistakenly presumed to be the haughtiness of learned men towards their ignorant coreligionists, and he reciprocated the hatred which he presumed they harbored towards ignorant men like himself.
In regard to the nullification of Kalba Savua's vow, the challenge is raised from the mishna (Mesechta Nedarim 64a). The mishna relates to the case of one who vows not to derive any benefit from a certain person, and that person eventually becomes a Torah scholar whom he needs; in such a case, states the mishna, there can be no nullification based on the regret that had he known he would become a scholar, he would not have made that vow. If a situation which did not exist at the time of the vow and which could not be anticipated is not a solid opening for regret, why then did Rabbi Akiva employ it? The answer, says Tosefot, is that the vow was made when he was on the way to yeshiva, and it certainly can be anticipated that one who goes to yeshiva will become a great scholar.
Seeing Fortune in Misfortune
"Rabbi, please support me," cried the young lady to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai as he rode out of Jerusalem followed by his disciples.
The poor girl had been subsisting on picking bits of oats from among the droppings of the animals of Arab nomads. When the Sage asked her who she was, she revealed that her father was the fabulously wealthy Nakdimon ben Gurion, and that Rabbi Yochanan had signed as a witness on her ketubah when she got married. That ketubah, the Sage informed his disciples, included a dowry of a million golden dinars from her father besides what was given by her father-in-law.
When Rabbi Yochanan asked her what had happened to all of her father's wealth she replied that it all had been lost because he had been negligent in his charity responsibilities. This brought about the loss of not only his money but that of her father-in-law as well.
Upon hearing this Rabbi Yochanan exclaimed:
"How fortunate are you, O Israel. When you act according to the will of Hashem no nation or culture can dominate you. But when you do not act in accordance with the will of Hashem you are delivered into the hands of a lowly people (so-called because they are nomads living in the desert -- Rashi), and not only a lowly people but into dependence on the animals of a lowly people."
How could Rabbi Yochanan see in this tragic scene a cause for commenting on the good fortune of Israel?
Each nation, explains Maharsha, has its own "mazal" and angel in heaven determining its fortune. The fate of the Jewish people, on the other hand, is determined directly by Hashem alone. When they act as Hashem wishes, they are therefore above all the nations whose fortunes are limited to the power of the heavenly forces designated for them. This is so dramatically expressed in Hashem's placing Avraham above all the stars and asking him to look down upon them, and promising him that the limitations of natural forces would be removed in order for him to have children. But when we fail to act as Hashem wishes, He removes His Presence from us and we fall to a state below that of the other nations whose "mazal" sustains them.
An awareness of this special relationship is what made Rabbi Yochanan exclaim that we are indeed fortunate!