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I have heard there is a not so well-known opinion that Rebbi Akiva actually knew Torah before the age of 40, but had left the path of Torah observance. His story would actually make more sense if that's true.

But, has anyone heard of this opinion and what the source is for it?

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  • I've always heard the story as follows: Akiva had a great respect for Torah and its observance, even though he was too poor to go to Yeshiva. One day he passed a dead Jew on the side of the road, and Akiva picked up the body and traveled with the dead man on his shoulders for many miles, finally burying the body in a Jewish cemetery. But then the Rabbis of his day notified him that he did an aveira, for moving a body found dead from the place where it is found is against halacha. Akiva became so upset he left Torah and mitzvos and the story picks up where everyone knows.
    – ezra
    Dec 13 '16 at 15:38
  • @Ezra Hoerster Do you know what the source is for this part of the story? Dec 13 '16 at 15:54
  • I think that Rabbi Marcus Lehman zal wrote a book intetled Rabbi Akiva. May be you can found a lot of references inside.
    – kouty
    Dec 13 '16 at 17:28
  • @kouty - yes I have read that sefer as well and he seems to follow the opinion that rabbi akiva knew no torah until after getting married to rochel and attending yeshiva
    – ezra
    Dec 14 '16 at 15:52
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You can see below this opinion and its two arguments.

See Avot Derabbi Nathan chapter 6, you can read that Rabbi Akiva, before taking his decision to learn Torah, was at the edge of the spring, and asked where dug the rock, water that's flowing over and over, have you not ever read the verse "water will erode rocks" (Job 14, 19*). In the link, you can read in left margin the comment of Rabbi Chayim Yosef David Azulay. He reported in the name of Harav Binyan Yehoshua, that he previously studied scriptures, according to the comment of RCYDA, one sign of the fact that RA already studied is the sentence "have you not read" in text of the Avot Derabbi Nathan and further, the expression "he returned to study Tora", instead of "he went to study Tora".

מיד חזר ללמוד תורה.‏

You can see the whole text version A, Chapter 6, mishna 2 in Wikitext,


  • English translation of the verse found in dTorah "The waters wear the stones;"
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  • I think that ___חזר ו is an expression that does not connote formerly engaging in said activity. Cf. Deut. Rabba (Devarim): דברים רבה (וילנא) פרשת דברים ט ד"א אלה הדברים רבנין אמרין אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה הואיל וקיבלו עליהן תוכחותיך צריך אתה לברכן, מיד חזר וברכן, (V'ethanan): דברים רבה (וילנא) פרשת ואתחנן מיד חזר ופירש את הדבר, etc.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 13 '16 at 16:07
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    @mevaqesh I am not the attorney of th Chida, the OP asked about an opinion following which RA previously studied before he turned 40, I only want to quote the comment of the Chida in which this opinion is cited. The page on Hebrewbooks is in a link
    – kouty
    Dec 13 '16 at 16:12
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Rabbi Yisrael Salanter writes about this story in Or Yisrael, letter #10. He notes the word "chazar - returned", but also that it was said that Rabbi Aqiva hadn't studied Torah until he was 40. In his depiction, Akiva starts studying and feels like he's not getting anywhere. About to give up, others show him the water on the stone, letting him draw the conclusion about carving. Akiva learns that these things take time, and giving up that soon was premature.

באבות דר׳ נתן פ״ו וז״ל: מה היתה תהילתו של ר׳ עקיבא , אמרו בן ארבעים שנה היה ולא שנה כלום. פעם אהת היה עומד על פי הבאר, אמר "מי חקק אבן זו?" אמרו לו "המים שתדיר נופלים עליה בבל יום." אמרו לו "עקיבא, אי אתה קורא אבנים שחקו מים." מיד היה דן ר' עקיבא קו״ח בעצמו, מה רך פסל את הקשה , ד"ת שקשה בברזל, על אחת כמה וכמה שיחקקו את לבי שהוא בשר ודם! מיד חזר ללמוד תורה כו׳ ע״ש.

כי ר׳ עקיבא בתחילת לימודו , באין רושם מוצאת אצלו; אמר נואש לנפשו, והראו לו סתירת הדבר משפיכת המים על האבן ׳ אשר לא יראה מאומה השתנות בהאבן, ועכ׳׳ז המחקרים בשכלם גוזרים, כי נעשה רושם נעלם מהרגש אנושי, היא הסיבה לחקיקת האבן ׳ מריגוי המים ברבות הימים , מחתקבצות הרשימות הבלי נרגשות:

Avos DeRabbi Natan ch. 6: What was R' Aqiva's beginning? They said he was 40 years old and hadn't studied anything. One time he was standing by the mouth of a spring. He said, "Who engraved into this stone?" They told him, "The water that constantly falls on it every day." They said to him, "Aqiva, do you not encounter [other] stones that were engraved by water?" Immediately, R' Aqiva made an a fortiori argument about himself. "If something soft can carve something hard, Torah thoughts which are as 'hard as iron' all the more so it can engrave itself one my heart which of flesh and blood!" Immediately he returned to his Torah study. (Etc... See there.)

Rav Yisrael explains the quote:

When Rabbi Aqiva was starting his learning, there was no impression left on him. He said he felt desperately alone. So they showed him a contradiction to this idea [his frustration and desperation -mb] from the pouring of water upon stonem which does not appear capable of changing the stone. even so those who seek with their minds conclude that it makes an impression that is hidden from human perception. It [that invisible impression] is the reason for the engraving in the stone from all the water in the multitude of water in the accumulation of unfelt impressions.

To Rabbi Yisrael, the story is one of not giving up hope when one's learning just isn't working. We might think nothing is happening, but we are wrong. Every exposure is an impression, and added up over time change is real.

(The advertising industry is built on abusing this same idea. No one thinks someone will choose heart medication or a political candidate because they saw an ad once. But many such impressions, over time, does end up swaying attitudes.)

Notice that R' Yisrael's message requires understanding that R' Aqiva didn't once learn in his youth and pick it up a long time later when he saw the stone. Rather, the stone was a step within his starting to learn. Just not the very first step.

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