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The Gemara in Shabbos 127b relates a story about the importance of being dan l'chaf zechus, judging people favourably / giving others the benefit of the doubt.

The story goes that a man left from the Upper Galilee and went to the south to work for a landowner for three years. At the end of this period, the worker sought to return home, and asked for his wages on Erev Yom Kippur. The employer apologised saying that there was no money with which to pay him. Knowing that his employer was wealthy, the worker asked for payment in produce. Once again, none was available. The worker tried asking for land, animals, pillows and blankets and received the same negative response each time. Without any other choice, the man left and returned home. After Yom Tov, his employer arrived with a wagon laden with food, drink and more. The landowner asked him what he really thought when he said he was unable to pay. The worker answered that presumably all his money had been spent on inventory, the animals and land had probably been rented out to others, the produce was possibly not properly tithed and the bedding etc. had been consecrated making it hekdesh. The employer stated that this was indeed the case, and in the same way that the worker was dan lechaf zechus, so too Hashem should be with him.

The mefarshim there, teach that this worker was none other than Rabbi Akiva (E.g. the Rama MiPano siman 63. So, we see even before he was the famous tanna, he was of a refined character.

However, in Pesachim 49b it writes:

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא: כְּשֶׁהָיִיתִי עַם הָאָרֶץ אָמַרְתִּי: מִי יִתֵּן לִי תַּלְמִיד חָכָם וַאֲנַשְּׁכֶנּוּ כַּחֲמוֹר. אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו: רַבִּי, אֱמוֹר כְּכֶלֶב! אָמַר לָהֶן: זֶה נוֹשֵׁךְ וְשׁוֹבֵר עֶצֶם, וְזֶה נוֹשֵׁךְ וְאֵינוֹ שׁוֹבֵר עֶצֶם.

It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Akiva said: When I was an ignoramus I said: Who will give me a Torah scholar so that I will bite him like a donkey? His students said to him: Master, say that you would bite him like a dog! He said to them: I specifically used that wording, as this one, a donkey, bites and breaks bones, and that one, a dog, bites but does not break bones. (William Davidson translation and notation)

Now, I appreciate that a person can perhaps maintain a hatred for a certain segment of society and yet act nicely to others, but it does seem somewhat at odds. On the one hand, he was extremely patient and courteous, the epitome of sterling middos, and yet on the other hand, maintained an intense hatred for talmidei chachomim.

Do any commentaries pick up on this?

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  • Ela mai having good middos and being soneh talmidei chachamim isn't a stirah?
    – The GRAPKE
    Commented Jan 3 at 7:05
  • Don't most of the commentaries place this incident well after Rabbi Akiba had started to do teshuva, and explain that the 'work' he was initially not paid for was teaching the man's son Torah? Commented Jan 3 at 7:32
  • 1
    See Tosafos in Kesubos (on the Gemara which says explicitly he had good kiddos before marriage)
    – AKA
    Commented Jan 3 at 9:03
  • 1
    @AKA I assume autocorrect has run amok and kiddos = middos. Commented Jan 3 at 11:14
  • 3
    Wow b'shaah tova @יהושעק - it should all go smoothly and well!
    – Dov
    Commented Jan 3 at 11:16

2 Answers 2

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Tosafos in K'subos (62b) picks up on this:

דהוה צניע ומעלי. והא דאמר באלו עוברין (פסחים מט:) אמר ר"ע כשהייתי עם הארץ הייתי אומר מי יתן לי תלמיד חכם ואנשכנו כחמור משמע דלא הוה מעלי איכא למימר דהתם לאו משום שהיה שונא תלמידי חכמים אלא משום שהי' סבור שמתגאין על עמי הארץ מפני תורתן והיו תלמידי חכמים שונאים אותם וגם משום שלא היו מניחין אותם ליגע בהם כדאמרינן (חגיגה דף יח:) בגדי עם הארץ מדרס לפרושים אבל מכל מקום שומר מצות היה. רבינו תם:

That he (Rabbi Akiva) was humble and refined: and that which it says in 'Elu Ovrin' (p'sachim 49:) "Rabbi Akiva said: When I was an ignoramus I said: Who will give me a Torah scholar so that I will bite him like a donkey?" Meaning he wasn't refined! We can say that that wasn't because he hated Torah scholars, rather because he thought that they were being arrogant towards the ignoramuses because of their Torah and that the Torah scholars hated them. And also because they (Torah scholars) wouldn't let them (ignoramuses) touch them, as we say (chagiga 18b) "the clothes of an ignoramus are midras for p'rushim". Even so, he kept the Mitzvos. Rabbeinu Tam.

So in short, Rabbi Akiva didn't hate Talmidei Chachamim, and he was a good person who kept the Mitzvos. He was just frustrated/ annoyed/ mad at talmiedei chachamim for what he understood to be arrogance, which is why he said he'd like to bite them.

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  • Great answer! Many thanks
    – Dov
    Commented Jan 9 at 22:16
  • @Dov Not only, was Rabbi Akiva a basically good person before he went off to Yeshiva, he was also kept Jewish religious practices. This is explicit in the above quoted Tosfos: מכל מקום שומר מצות היה. As such, Rabbi Akiva was not a prototype of the contemporary "baal teshuva", since he was "frum" all along. I would therefore edit the title of the question to "pre-yeshiva" days. Commented Jan 9 at 22:29
  • I've also made that more clear, @IsraelReader. And Dov - np, happy to help!
    – Lo ani
    Commented Jan 9 at 22:33
  • Ok shkoiach @IsraelReader
    – Dov
    Commented Jan 9 at 22:34
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Not much of an answer, but picks up on the final clause of my question:

Do any commentaries pick up on this?

The Chasam Sofer on the Gemara notes this apparent dichotomy and just says simply like myself and others suggested above that it is possible to be of both minds.

He writes as follows:

מעשה באדם אחד וכו' עיין תשו' רמ"ע מפאנו סי' ס"ג שכ' בשם שאילתות דאותו בעה"ב הי' ר"א בן הורקנוס והשכיר היה ר"ע כשהי' עם הארץ וכ' מזה יש להבין שגם כשהי' ע"ה הי' בעל מדות טובות שדן לזכות כל כך את בעה"ב. ומוסיף אני שמזה יש ללמוד שאפי' ע"ה בעל מדות טובות שונא חכמים שהרי ר"ע אמר ס"פ אלו עוברין כשהייתי ע"ה וכו'...

There was an incident with one man etc. - Over in the Teshuvos of the Ramah MiPano, siman 63, it writes in the name of the Sheiltos, that this baal habayis was R' Eliezer ben Horkanus and the hired man was Rabbi Akiva who was an ignoramus. From this it is to be understood that even when he was an ignoramus, he was a man of good will who judged the homeowner favourably. And I add that from this we must learn that even ignoramuses who have good morals hate the Sages, for Rabbi Akiva said at the end of the perek of "Elu Ovrin", "When I was an ignoramus, etc...

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