כ״ז באלול ה׳תשע״ח (September 7, 2018)

Menahot 29a-b: Moshe Sits in Rabbi Akiva’s Classroom

One of the most well-known anachronistic scenes of the Talmud appears on today’s daf.

R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Said Moshe, “Master of the Universe, who is preventing you from giving the Torah without these additions?” He answered, “There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Yosef by name, who will derive from each thorn of these crowns mounds and mounds of laws.” “Master of the Universe,” said Moshe, “permit me to see him.” He replied, “Turn around.” Moshe went and sat down behind eight rows and listened to the teachings presented by Rabbi Akiva to his students. Not being able to follow their arguments he became weak and ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to Rabbi Akiva “What is the source for this teaching?” and he replied, “It is a law given unto Moshe at Mount Sinai;” he was comforted.

After this experience, Moshe returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Master of the Universe, You have such a man and yet You are giving the Torah by my hand?!’ He replied, “Be silent, for such is My decree.”

Then Moshe said, “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, show me his reward.” “Turn around,” said He; and Moshe turned around and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls, for Rabbi Akiva was one of the ten Sages martyred during the Hadrianic persecutions. “Master of the Universe!” cried Moshe, “this is Torah, and this is its reward?” He replied, “Be silent, for such is My decree.”

The simple explanation for God’s reply “such is My decree” is, as the prophet Yeshayahu (55:8) teaches, that God’s thoughts are unlike those of man, and, indeed, are incomprehensible to man. In his Tzon Kodashim, Rabbi Avraham Ḥayyim Schorr suggests that this can be understood based on the idea of that God’s original decree was to create a world of total justice, but that was changed when He recognized that such a world could not exist. Thus, the righteous Sages like Rabbi Akiva and his companions are not judged with mercy like ordinary people, but are treated according to the letter of the law, according to God’s original decree of creation.