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I heard from someone that Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd, a laborer, an am ha’aretz – religious in observance, but ignorant of Torah knowledge. At age 40, he didn’t even know how to read the aleph-beis.

Where can the entire story of Rebbe Akivah background be located?

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    You can find Rebbe Akivah's background discussed in his wikipedia page. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akiva_ben_Joseph#Biography This question does not show even the slightest bit of research effort -1 – Double AA Apr 26 '15 at 16:41
  • @DoubleAA I would agree, but was told on meta that research isn't needed meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/3435/1362 – rosends Apr 26 '15 at 18:53
  • @Danno No, you were told on meta that it is not the case that "[a] good question can not be answered with a link alone." – Double AA Apr 26 '15 at 19:12
  • Well, Isaac Moses said, "I'm under the impression that there's no "leg work" required here" and my citing the FAQ which expected research was said to be inaccurate on this site ("It's not correct here"). @DoubleAA – rosends Apr 26 '15 at 19:19
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    I don't know if "religious in observance but ignorant of Torah knowledge" is the best or most complete characterization of Rabbi Akiva's prior status as an 'am ha'aretz. See P'sachim 49b: "Rabbi Akiva said: 'When I was an 'am ha'aretz, I said, "Who will give me a Torah scholar, that I may bite him like a donkey!"'" – Fred Apr 26 '15 at 19:52
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You can find a good summary in Avot D'Rav Nattan ch 6, mishnah 2.

Summarizing some of the story cited there:

He was a shepherd and began learning at 40 years old. Once he passed by a well and noticed a carved stone. He asked who carved this stone, and they told him that it was the water that constantly dripped on it. From this, he said that if water was able to carve a hole in the hard rock, surely the words of Torah could carve his heart.

Immediately, he and his son went to learn at a childrens teacher. He asked the teacher to teach him the Aleph Bet. Eventually, he learned the entir Torah.

Then, he went to learn before R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua asking them to teach him Mishnah. When they taught him, he would ask, "Why is the letter Aleph written this way, and Bet written this way?" They pushed him aside (because they thaught that he wasn't focusing). However, because Rav Akivah was so curious and exacting on seemingly small details, he developed the unusual talent of revealing and explaining deep secrets that no one else was able to.

Personal note: To me Rav Akivah is a prime example of the adage in Pirkei Avot 4:3:

[Ben Azai] would say: Do not disparage anyone, and do not shun any thing. For you have no man who does not have [his] hour, and you have no thing which does not have a place.

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You can find the story of Rabbi Akiva in both Nedarim 50a-b, as well as in Kesuvos 62b-63a. Avos D'Rabi Nosson (6-2) also has the story with some other details filled in.

In English, you can find a historical novel called "And Rachel was his wife" written by Marsi Tabak and Ben Zion Sober which recounts and coalesces all the sources pertaining to Rebbe Akiva from the perspective of his wife Rachel.

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    The Talmud Yerushalmi in Shabbos 6:1 and Sotah 9:15 also tells the story of Rebbe Akiva. Important note: these three sources (Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Avos de'rebbe nosson)do not tell the same exact story. – Eilu V'Eilu Apr 27 '15 at 18:26
  • @EiluV'Eilu may i incorporate the sources you provided in my answer? – Shoel U'Meishiv Apr 27 '15 at 19:03

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