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A Man Of Principle - Akavia ben Mehalalel

It is rare to find a man so principled, that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for them. We are not speaking of those who are willing to give up their lives, to be moser nefesh, rather than worship other gods. We are speaking of men who are willing to accept a living punishment rather than compromise on their beliefs.

In the times of the Gemara there existed men like that. There were Jewish leaders who were full of faith and unafraid to uphold what they believed in at the cost of money, prestige, and when necessary - life itself.

Here we share the story of one such leader, the great Tanna (Mishnaic scholar) Akavia ben Mehalalel.

Akavia Teaches Four Laws

Akavia was a wise and noble man, whose words are brought in Pirkei Avot:

"Take heed of three things, which will enable you to keep from sin. Know from whence you come, and to where you go, and before Whom you are destined to render an account of your deeds."

It happened one day that Akavia ben Mehalalel gave a shiur (lecture) in the Beis Midrash and gave four piskei halacha (halachic rulings) which were different from the way all the other Tannaim and scholars taught.

One of the rulings he gave was that if a woman who is a convert is brought before the court as an eesha sotah, she is not given to drink from the bitter water.

The others present disagreed. They said that she would be given the waters to drink. As proof they cited the case of Karkemit, who had once been a non-Jewish maidservant in Yerushalayim. Her owner had freed her upon marriage, she converted and when brought before Bais Din, (the court), Shmaya and Avtalyon gave her to drink from the water.

Akavia Asked To Retract

Akavia ben Mehalalel argued that the reason Shmaya and Avtalyon gave this woman to drink from the water is because they themselves were descended from converts and felt the need to make converts more part of the mainstream, and not because of any halachic reasoning.

This was too much for the other sages to bear. It one thing to disagree; the Gemara is filled with disagreements between rabbanim. However, what Akavia ben Mehalalel was suggesting was that Shamaya and Avtalyon had allowed personal desires to affect their halachic ruling.

"We beg of you to retract your words, Akavia, " the other sages requested.

Akavia refused.

Again they asked him to retract. Then they added, "Furthermore, should you do so, we shall make you the head of the Beis Din."

When Akavia heard these words, he ascended the rostrum and spoke before the assemblage.

"My brothers, I prefer that people say throughout my life 'That is Akavia who gave up the opportunity to become the head of court, than for one moment even to feel that I have sinned before G-d by compromising what I believe to be right.

"Furthermore, had you convinced me that I was wrong and had I retracted my words because of this, I would never accept the position that you offered me.

"Let it never be suspected that because of prestige, Akavia retreated from principle! I would rather be called a fool all my lifetime than be a sinner for one moment."

From this we see that he was not forbidden from reaching his independent conclusions, for if so, he would have said that he would rather be called a fool and not act evilly by accepting forbidden conclusions! In fact, only instructing others to act according to his conclusion would be forbidden, as the Talmud says, "Why was Akavia ben Mahalalel not treated as a rebellious elder? - Because he did not instruct others." Despite all this, he was still considered greater than all of Israel in wisdom and fear of sin (Brachot 19a)...

The Son Of Akavia

Nevertheless, when Akavia lay on his death bed, he called his son to his side, and after admonishing him to be a faithful and observant Jew, said to him:

"I want you to retreat from the four laws that I expounded and to follow them in the way that the rabbis teach."

Akavia s son stared at his father in amazement:

"What are you saying, Father? How is it that you yourself did not retreat, and yet you ask me to?"

The Power Of The Majority

"My son," answered the dying scholar, "know you that there is a great difference there, which you should always remember. No man has the right to defy the majority without reason.

"I heard these four laws from many rabbis, just as the rabbis of my time who differed from me, heard it in their way from many rabbis. Each of us could point to many authorities to back up our views.

"You, however, have only heard these laws from me - in individual. You are obligated, therefore, to follow the majority, who differ from me."

This was the great lesson taught by Akavia ben Mehalalel to his son. Should not we, who are often tempted to do things contrary to the majority of our G-d fearing teachings, also take this lesson to heart?

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