Now that we finished the first two chapters of Fathers. we can pause and briefly review. We saw how the initial several mishnas of the first chapters reflected the ongoing search for how to re-establish religious life after the destruction of the First Temple and the Return, proceeding from the utopian theocratic vision of Shimon Hatsadik through its dissolution under the venal and unprincipled rule of later Hasmonaim and Herod. It was not until Hillel enshrined the developing understanding that Judaism will survive not as a religion of the nation and not even as a religion of isolated fellowships and groups but as a religion of the individuals banding together, that its survival became assured. From Hillel on, this was the inspiration that motivated religious teachers.
From Hillel, the course of knowledge flowed in two parallel but distinct traditions. The first one was through HIllel's descendants, the chain of Nesiim (Princes) and the other through his students to R. Yochanan ben Zakkai and his 5 pupils. The second chapter completed these chains of transmission, except that it also incorporated R. Tarfon , who was a part of an independent and unrelated school but whose recorded teaching modified and argued with R. Eliezer, a student of Hillel. Now, in the third chapter, we continue the record of individuals who perpetuated other strands of Masora.
"Akavia ben (son of) Mehalalel said, consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you have come, to where you are heading, and before Whom you will give justification and accounting. From where have you come: from a putrid drop (of semen); to where are you heading: to a place of dirt, worms and maggots; and before Whom will you give justification and accounting: before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He."
Akaviah ben Mehalel is an interesting Tanna. There are many echoes and parallels to Hillel. Not only does he appear to have been a student of Shamaya and Avtalyon like Hillel (Seder Tannaim v'AMoraim based on Brochos 19a), but even his name, Mehalel, recalls HIllel's name. At the same time, his name suggests his outsider status- literally, it means "He who was at the side". He appears to have somewhat discounted Shamaya and Avtalion and had been their school's rival, for which he may have been excommunicated.
We don'tknow much about him, but what we do know, suggests that he was independently minded and did not commit to any particular school.While discussing whether a female convert drinks Sotah water, Akaviah dismissed the testimony that Shamaya and Avtalyon gave such waters to a convert to drink by saying , "Dugma hishkuha(To one like themselves they gave to drink). This ascription of partiality to the revered Shamaya and Avtalyon led to the sentence of nidduy(excommunication). Before his death, Akaviah admonished his son to submit to the views of the majority, even in the cases where he himself had shown persistent opposition. His son expressing surprise at so apparent an inconsistency, the dying sage replied: "I have received my tradition from a majority of scholars, and so I was bound to conform to the tradition I had received; and so are they bound by their tradition. But you heard the traditions both from myself and from my opponents; from a minority and from a majority, and it is proper for you to reject the opinions of the individual and adopt the views of the majority". Here we see that his chain of transmission was not the same as that of the majority of the rabbis of his later years.
Another characteristic trait of Akavia was the great stress he laid on personal merit. When, on his deathbed, he was requested by his son to recommend him to the sages, he declined to do so. His son inquired whether his father had discovered in him any trait which rendered him unworthy of such recommendation; and 'Akabia's reply was, "No! but your own deeds will make thee welcome, or thine own deeds will make thee be distanced".(Edyuos 5:6-7)
It is not surprising then that Akaviah's version of the three things that protect from sin is quite different from that of Rebbi. Rebbi said in the beginning of chapter 2 of Avos: "Consider three tings and you will not come to sin: The Eye that sees, the Ear that hears and all your actions are written in the book".
We will, please Hashem, take this in the next post on Avos.