Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Rabbi Akiva, the Fox, and Other Key Animals in Perek Shirah

It is striking to note that several of the stories and teachings of Rabbi Akiva include animals that reflect teachings found in Perek Shirah.[1] It is no coincidence that there are opinions that claim that it was Rabbi Akiva himself who authored it. Below are a few examples of these parallels:

When the Romans decreed that the study of Torah be prohibited under penalty of death, Rabbi Akiva continued to study and to teach. When asked whether he feared the Roman decree, Rabbi Akiva gave the following example: Once the fox (animal of the week of the 17th of Tammuz in Perek Shirah, which represents the destruction of the Temple) was walking by a creek when it saw a group of fish (who represent the month of Adar, week 24, of Purim, and the ability to overcome material concerns even under great pressure). The fox asked the fish why they were all crowded in one spot, and the fish answered that they were hiding from the nets of fishermen. The fox then suggested to the fish that they should come to the dry land and stay with it. The fish responded by stating that they were not safe in the water, their natural habitat, outside the water would certainly lead to their death! Torah is our lifeline, just like water for fish.

In another fascinating parable found in the Talmud, at the end of tractate of Makkot, Rabbi Akiva again is linked to the fox, as well as to the destruction of the Temple. Once he was heading to Jerusalem with Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria and Rabbi Yehoshua, when they saw the mount where the Temple recently stood. When they saw a fox come out of where once was the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple, they all tore their garments. Each one of them began to cry with the exception of Rabbi Akiva, who began to laugh. They asked him, "Why are you laughing?" Rabbi Akiva then answered their question with another question, and asked why they were all crying. The responded: "This place is so sacred that we know that anyone who would come near it would die. Now that a mere fox enters is, should we not cry?" Rabbi Akiva then said to them: "That's exactly why I am laughing.” Rabbi Akiva then explained to them how the Torah makes the prophecy of Zachariah dependent on the prophecy of Uriah, and then continued: “According to Uriah, it is written: 'Due to your guilt, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will be in ruins, and the Temple Mount will become a heap of stones lost in the forest.’ According to Zacharias, we learn that, 'Older men and women still sit in the streets of Jerusalem [when it is redeemed].’” Rabbi Akiva then concluded: "Now that the prophecy of Uriah has taken place, it is certain that the prophecy of Zachariah will take place as well." After hearing these words, the sages replied, "Akiva, you have truly comforted us!"

There is also another classic parable with Rabbi Akiva that illustrates the concept that everything that G-d does is for the good. This story involves Rabbi Akiva, a rooster, a donkey, a cat, and a lion. Rabbi Akiva was traveling when he arrived in a certain city. Although he was refused accommodation for the night, he famously stated, “Everything G-d does is for the good,” and went to spend the night in the countryside. He was accompanied by a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. The wind came and blew out the lamp, a cat came and ate the rooster and a lion came and ate the donkey! Despite all these apparent mishaps, Rabbi Akiva repeated, “Everything that G-d does is for the good.” That night, an army invaded and took all the inhabitants of the city captive. Rabbi Akiva then said to his disciples: "Did I not explain to you that everything G-d does is for the good? For if the lamp had not been put out by the wind, I would have been imprisoned by the enemy, if the donkey had brayed or the rooster crowed, the army would have found my hiding place, and I would have been captured!"


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[1] Rabbi Akiva is a descendant of Yael, who killed Siserah during the battle led by Devorah, and who is praised in her song. Yael is also the Hebrew name of an animal: the mountain goat.

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