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Put a Little Love in Your Heart

Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Perhaps one of the most famous verses in the Torah is, "Love your neighbor as yourself."(Vayikra 19:18) This is not an isolated instruction; it comes as the concluding statement at the end of a list of commandments, all designed to create harmony, to create a just, functional, perhaps even utopian society.

In his comments on this verse, Rashi notes that Rabbi Akiva stated that this is "a great principle of the Torah," a defining principle - if not the defining principle of Judaism.

Far more often than not, Rashi draws upon rabbinic tradition without citing the author of a particular teaching. In this case, though, not only does Rashi inform us that this is the great principle of the Torah, but he also goes farther than is his usual practice, and quotes Rabbi Akiva as the formulator of this opinion. Certainly, Rabbi Akiva is one of our greatest sages, but why, specifically in this instance, does Rashi feel that the citation must be included?

While Rabbi Akiva himself is generally (universally?) remembered as one of the most saintly, holy, caring individuals in our history, there is an uncomfortable aspect of his biography that gives us pause: the tragic deaths of thousands of his students, deaths which the Talmud attributes to a lack of love, honor and mutual respect among them.

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gevat to Antipatris; and all of them died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect. (Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62a)

While in general it may be unfair to judge parents for the behavior of their child or a teacher for the behavior or accomplishments of his or her students, nonetheless the "disconnect" between this teacher and his students causes us no small degree of wonder, and perhaps a degree of worry. How could such a great teacher formulate such a great principle, yet fail to transmit the message to his students?

We may approach this problem by first examining the reaction of one of Rabbi Akiva's primary students[1] to this principle:

'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Rabbi Akiva said, 'This is the great principle of the Torah.' Ben Azzai said,"'This is the book of the generations of man[2] [on the day God created man, He made him in the likeness of God]" (Bereishit 5:1) - this is an even greater principle. (Sifra Kedoshim parasha 2 perek 4:12)[3]

For Rabbi Shimon Ben Azzai, the larger principle that informs all of Jewish thought is that each and every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore deserving of love, respect, and reverence. In Ben Azzai's view, if we remain cognizant of the image of God inherent in every human being, we will necessarily treat others with love and respect.[4] Thus, in Ben Azzai's opinion, his own principle subsumes that of his teacher and colleague Rabbi Akiva: Loving one's neighbor would be a natural consequence of recognizing the divinity of every other person. Rabbi Akiva's principle becomes redundant if Ben Azzai's principle is scrupulously obeyed.

From Ben Azzai's comment, we begin to understand what at least one of Rabbi Akiva's students thought was an unfortunate limitation of his great teacher's principle: What if a person is an ascetic, and holds himself up to impossible standards of deprivation, self-criticism or harshness? Would he be justified to treat others as he treats himself? To phrase this more cynically, would the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself give license to the masochist to be a sadist?[5] Ben Azzai's principle circumvents this problem: Rather than using the individual as the benchmark for how others should be treated, Ben Azzai stressed the need for an objective, Divine benchmark for interpersonal relations.

Something had gone terribly wrong; Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students, but he did not despair. He started again, but this time he focused on a much smaller group of disciples - five students, to be precise. It is from these students that Torah spread; it is they who transmitted the legacy of Rabbi Akiva.

The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our masters in the south and taught Torah to R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Yossi, R. Shimon [bar Yochai] and R. Elazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. (Talmud Bavli Y'vamot 62b)

The phrase "until R. Akiva came" is used many times in rabbinic literature; in fact, it is used twice as many times in reference to R' Akiva as it is regarding all other sages combined. This is the only instance in which the phrase is descriptive: It is not a general statement, along the lines of "until he came up with the idea;" rather, it describes an actual relocation - he came to the south of Israel and began to teach his new students there. One may theorize that whenever this phrase is used, it refers to a teaching Rabbi Akiva imparted to his new students in the south. These particular teachings were aimed at insuring that his new students would be emotionally sophisticated, sensitive and kind, and avoid the mistakes that led to the demise of his earlier followers.

As it was taught: Shimon HaAmsuni (others state that it was Nehemiah HaAmsuni) interpreted every 'et' in the Torah, but when he came to the verse, "Thou shalt fear [et] the Lord thy God," he desisted. Said his disciples to him, 'Master, what is to happen with all the instances of the word 'et' which you have interpreted?' He replied: "Just as I received reward for interpreting [them], so will I receive reward for desisting." Until R. Akiva came and taught: 'Thou shalt fear [et] the Lord thy God:' [the addition of the word 'et' teaches us that this fear] includes (students of) scholars. (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 57a)

Rabbi Akiva taught that students of Torah are deserving of respect, and their honor is a part of the awe and fear we have towards God Himself. We can easily read this as an addendum to his glorious teaching that one must love one's neighbor as oneself. Additionally, we may surmise that this may have been Rabbi Akiva's way of anticipating or responding to the critique that his "great principle of Torah" leaves a loophole for the person who mistreats themself to treat their fellow students with disrespect.[6] A second teaching of Rabbi Akiva may address this issue even more directly.

Two people are travelling on a journey [far from civilization], and one has a pitcher of water. If both drink, they will [both] die, but if one only drinks, he can reach civilization. Ben P'tura taught: It is better that both should drink and die, rather than that one should behold his companion's death. Until R. Akiva came and taught: [The verse] 'That thy brother may live with you' (Vayikra 25:36) teaches us: Your life takes precedence over his life. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah 62a)[7]

We must care for others, but when push comes to proverbial shove, one's own life must take precedence. This case uses the extreme situation to teach both sides of Rabbi Akiva's underlying principles: We must love others as we love ourselves - care for them and respect them at all times - but in order to do so, we must love ourselves, treat ourselves with dignity and care. The fact that Rabbi Akiva had to stress the idea of self-preservation and self-respect indicates that this was not only a law, but a position his students needed to hear. Rabbi Akiva, who believed passionately in the value of life just as he believed passionately in the value of altruism, could not accept the notion that altruism might cause the death of both travelers in the desert. He had seen enough death in his lifetime, and taught his students that if you can walk out of the desert alive, that becomes your obligation.[8]

Did Rabbi Akiva succeed in breaking the vicious cycle and raising a different type of student? Close examination of the words and deeds of his "new students" proves that he most certainly did - but in order to fully appreciate Rabbi Akiva's pedagogic success, we are forced to take a slight detour.

Rabbi Akiva's philosophy regarding interpersonal relationships is perhaps most clearly illustrated in his halachic rulings regarding marriage. As one of the most important and primary relationships in a person's life, Rabbi Akiva was quite concerned that husband and wife live in tranquility, in harmony, in love. For this reason, Rabbi Akiva's rulings regarding divorce were relatively lenient.

The scholars who preceded him were divided on the question of legitimate grounds for divorce: While Beit Shammai understood that the Torah would only permit divorce in cases of infidelity, Beit Hillel opined that a man may divorce his wife even if she burns his food (and it is my understanding that it is only his food, and not hers or anyone else's, which is ruined, indicating aggression, spite and hatred).[9] We may assume that Beit Hillel's relative leniency is based on an understanding that if this couple is already involved in a contentious relationship, there is no need to wait for the relationship to deteriorate to actual infidelity. And yet, Rabbi Akiva goes one considerable step further, stating that a man may divorce his wife even on the grounds that he has found another woman who is "na'ah mimenah"- more beautiful or more pleasant (or perhaps more suitable). While on the one hand it may strike us as outrageous that a wife can be "sent packing" because her lecherous husband has found a newer model with less "mileage," Rabbi Akiva seems exceptionally sensitive to the concern that this relationship should be based on love, mutual respect, and attraction. In fact, in a separate, apparently related teaching, Rabbi Akiva speaks out against the "old time rabbis" who advocated that wives should refrain from making themselves look attractive during those times that they are forbidden to have marital relations with their husbands. Rabbi Akiva permitted married women to beautify themselves as they saw fit, and did not limit physical attractiveness between spouses as a function of physical intimacy.

The early Sages ruled that she must not rouge nor paint nor adorn herself in colorful garments while she is a niddah; until R. Akiva came and taught: If so, you make her repulsive to her husband, with the result that he will divorce her! (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 64b)

Here is another instance where the phrase "until R. Akiva came" is used. If we are correct in our thesis, this is another instance in which Rabbi Akiva taught his new students to be sensitive to feelings, to legislate in favor of love and attraction. The same Rabbi Akiva who permitted the husband with a straying eye to divorce his wife, spoke out against an earlier rabbinic ruling that he feared might make wives unattractive to their husbands. Rabbi Akiva spoke boldly, in order to insure that halacha would never provide the reason for a husband's eye to stray.[10]

Rabbi Akiva further stressed the importance of a person marrying an appropriate spouse in order to avoid the pitfalls of a deteriorated relationship:

A man who marries a woman who is not an appropriate for him breaks five different negative commandments of the Torah: "Do not take revenge," (Vayikra 19:18) "Do not bear a grudge," (ibid., 18) "Do not hate your fellow man in your heart," (ibid., 17) "Love your neighbor as yourself," (ibid. 18) and "Your fellow man shall live with you." (ibid. 25:36). Because he hates her, he hopes that she will die, and he abstains from procreation. (Avot d'Rebbi Natan, version 1, chapter 26)

This very striking passage is, in fact, the only commentary by Rabbi Akiva himself on his "great principle of Torah." He teaches that in a relationship devoid of love, many other Torah laws are unavoidably trampled upon. The great principle is most evident in this passage, which outlines a destructive progression that begins with a loveless marriage: A cascade of negative emotions leads to hurtful thoughts and, eventually, destructive actions.

With this information, and against the backdrop of Rabbi Akiva's application of his "great principle of Torah," we may now return to our earlier question: Did Rabbi Akiva succeed in communicating this idea to his students?

Rabbi Yehuda, one of Rabbi Akiva's five new students, makes a very similar application of law, and warns of the price to be paid for a relationship that has deteriorated. Both the words and the logic he employs should seem quite familiar:

If a man takes a wife, has relations with her, and comes to hate her..." Rabbi Yehuda says,[11] ...from this we see that if a person breaks an easy commandment, he will eventually break a more serious commandment. If he does not obey the commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself," he will come to violate the commandments "Do not take revenge" and "Do not bear a grudge," [Vayikra 19:18], and the commandment, "Do not hate your fellow man in your heart," [Vayikra 19:17], the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself," and "Your brother shall live along with you." [Vayikra 25:36], and he will eventually reach the point of bloodshed. (Sifrei Devarim, Ki Tetze section 235)

Regarding a totally different sort of interpersonal relationship, the Mishna in Nedarim grapples with the problem of a person who made a vow disowning a friend from his assets. The Mishna discusses the conditions that might annul such a vow (called "opening" the vow), and Rabbi Meir's opinion on the matter also strikes a familiar chord:

Rabbi Meir also said: An opening [for annulment of a vow] may be given based on what is written in the Torah, so we say to him: 'Had you known that you were violating [the injunctions], "Do not take revenge," "Do not bear a grudge," "Love your neighbor as yourself," and "Your brother shall live with you," or that he might become poor and you would not be able to provide for him, [would you have made this vow]?' Should he reply, 'Had I known that it is so, I would not have vowed," he is absolved. (Mishna Nedarim 9:4 Talmud Bavli 65b)

The pattern that emerges is unmistakable: Rabbi Akiva's application of the great principle of "Love your neighbor as yourself" to the area of spousal relationships was applied by two of his new students - first, Rabbi Yehudah in the matter of divorce, and next by Rabbi Meir, to help heal a different sort of rift between two people.

The Sifrei records a similar teaching in a third area of interpersonal relationships:

"If one person hates another and lies in wait and attacks him:" From this we learn that if a person breaks an easy commandment he will eventually break a more serious commandment. If he breaks the commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" he will eventually come to break the commandments "Do not take revenge" and "Do not bear a grudge," [Vayikra 19:18] and the commandment "Do not hate your fellow man in your heart" [Vayikra 19:17], and the commandment "Your brother shall live along with you" [Vayikra 25:36], until he reaches the point of bloodshed.

This passage deals with hatred which may lead to murder; once again, there is a downward spiral, and along the way commandments are trampled. Again, Rabbi Akiva's teaching is implemented, although this specific teaching is not attributed to a particular scholar. However, the Talmud states that anonymous teachings in the Sifrei are the work of yet another of Rabbi Akiva's "new" students: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai:

R. Johanan said: [The author of] unattributed Mishnah is R. Meir, of unattributed Tosefta is R. Nehemiah; of an unattributed [dictum in the] Sifra is R. Yehudah, and in the Sifrei, R. Shimon; and all are taught according to the views of R. Akiva. (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 86a)

Thus, we see that three of his Rabbi Akiva's new students heard and internalized their teacher's lesson, and applied his great principle of Torah regarding the centrality of building and maintaining loving relationships in their own teachings.

A fourth student, Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, taught this same principle of love and respect in a more succinct formulation:

R. Elazar b. Shammua' said: Let the honor of your disciple be as dear to you as your own, and the honor of your colleague as [important] as the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher as [vital] as your fear of Heaven. (Mishna Avot 4:12)

The emphasis Rabbi Elazar places on honoring teachers, colleagues and students reflects Rabbi Akiva's teachings; we may say that this Mishna is a true expression of Rabbi Akiva's legacy, as it is expressed by one of his new students.[12] Another lengthy midrash recounts that Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua's kindness and concern extended even to non-Jews, a fact that eventually saved all the Jews of a certain province.[13]

It seems clear that Rabbi Akiva was quite successful with his new students. He taught them sensitivity, he taught them kindness, and he taught them love. He taught them that love of our fellow man is truly the central teaching in the Torah. Every aspect of Torah law should be impacted by this love; every aspect of our society evolves from the great principle of love.

The Rabbi Akiva who arrived in the south and taught 5 great students was a Rabbi Akiva who himself had internalized the lesson of his earlier students' tragic deaths. When teaching his new students, he did not leave it to chance that they would understand his message; he drilled it home over and over, and was explicit and specific in teaching them. His pedagogic method, and his diligence in delivering this educational message to his new students, are preserved in another passage that tells the story of the earlier students' deaths, with slight variations:

R. Akiva said: If you have raised disciples in your youth, raise disciples in your old age, because you do not know which will survive, these or those, or whether they will be equally successful.' R. Akiva had twelve thousand disciples from Acco to Antipatris, and all died in the same period. Why? Because they looked grudgingly on each other. Eventually he raised seven disciples: R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Yossi, R. Shimon, R. Elazar b. Shammua', R. Yohanan the Cobbler, and R. Eliezer b. Yaacov. Others say: R. Yehudah, R. Nehemiah, R. Meir, R. Yossi, R. Shimon b. Yohai, R. Hanina b. Hakinai, and R. Yohanan the Cobbler. [Rabbi Akiva] said to them: My sons, the previous ones died only because they begrudged one another [the knowledge of] the Torah; see to it that you do not act as they did. They arose and filled the whole of Eretz Israel with Torah.(Bereishit Rabbah 61:3)

Any other man who had lost so many students, whose entire life's work was eradicated, would have given up. Rabbi Akiva had begun teaching at a relatively late stage of life, and he might easily have felt that all was for naught. Instead, he started again. He found the best minds around, and he filled their hearts with love.

A postscript is taught in the name of the Chidushai HaRim.[14] While it is true that law follows Rabbi Akiva, in our inner hearts we should feel the altruism of Ben Petura.[15] And even when we must value and take care of ourselves, the love for our fellow man should still be strong in our hearts.

Many generations later, in the holocaust era, another man saw the same type of destruction witnessed by Rabbi Akiva, though multiplied to impossible numbers. He was a young hassidic yeshiva student named Eli Wiesel, and many years later, he wrote about his love for Rabbi Akiva:

I love Rabbi Akiva. I love him for his humanity, for his passion for study. I love him for his love of the Jewish people. His argument with Ben P'tura on the duties and obligations of friendship? His decision teaches us something important. When the surviving friend emerges from the desert, he is no longer alone; he will have to live two lives, his own and that of his dead friend. (Sages and Dreamers, Eli Wiesel page 240)[16]

For more in depth study see:


1. Ben Azzai was a senior student and perhaps could be called "junior partner" of Rabbi Akiva, see Talmud Bavli Baba Batra 158b, Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashana 1:1.
2. Often the Talmud makes the assumption that the reader is familiar with biblical texts, and will cite the start of a text when the object of interpretation is in fact the second part of the verse.
3. This teaching is found in three places, the Sifra which is the halakhic midrash to Vayikra, Bereishit Raba and the Jerusalem Talmud in Nedarim 9:4. Only in Bereishit - when commenting on the verse in Bereishit does Ben Azzai come first, and then Rabbi Akiva's position is mentioned. In the other two instances Rabbi Akiva is cited first, and the Ben Azzai is cited as introducing a greater principle. It is possible that Ben Azzai saw himself as not arguing, but expanding the teaching of his master.
4. It is possible that Rabbi Akiva concurred. In Pirkei Avot 3:14, Rabbi Akiva says: "Beloved is man for he was created in [God's] image." It sounds as if the reason we are worthy of love is due to the image of God which we possess.
5. This legal lacuna was pointed out by R' Yaakov of Orleans (a member of the Tosafot school who was martyred in London). See R' Hayim Paltiel, Vayikra 19:18.
6. See R' Pinchas Horowitz's commentary, Sefer haMiknah Kiddushin 57a.
7. The context of this passage deals with helping someone in financial need, but the language of this verse, "v'chai" - suggests a broader application of saving lives.
8. Rav Yakov Emden ruled that as long as one life was preserved Rabbi Akiva's teaching would be fulfilled. He felt that the owner had the right to keep the water or give it to the other person, as long as one person was saved.
9. See Mishna Gittin 9:10 (found in Talmud Bavli Gittin 90a): Beit Shammai say: A man should not divorce his wife unless he has found her guilty of unseemly conduct, as it says, "...because he has found some unseemly thing about her." [Devarim 24] Beit Hillel, however, say [that he may divorce her] even if she has merely spoiled his food, since it says, "...because he has found some unseemly thing about her." [ibid.] R. Akiva says, [he may divorce her] even if he finds another woman more beautiful than she is, as it says, "If it comes to pass that if she finds no favor in his eyes."
10. This connection was noted by the Netziv in his commentary Meromei Sadeh, Shabbat 64b.
11. I am assuming it is still Rabbi Yehuda speaking in the text.
12. This emphasis of respect is found in another passage where Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua teaches that if one comes late for a lecture they should not awkwardly make their way to their seats, if this will cause discomfort to those already sitting see Talmud Bavli Sotah 39a and Rashi's comments. His disciples asked R. Eleazar b. Shammua, 'How have you prolonged your life? He replied: Never have I made use of a Synagogue as a short cut, nor stepped over the heads of the holy people, nor lifted up my hands [as a kohen] without first uttering a benediction.'
13. Kohelet Rabbah 11:1. R. Eleazar b. Shammua was walking on the rocks by the sea, when he saw a ship which was tossed about in the water suddenly sink with all on board. He noticed a man sitting on a plank of the ship [carried] from wave to wave until he stepped ashore. Being naked he hid himself among the rocks by the sea. It happened to be the time for the Israelites to go up to Jerusalem for the Festival. He said to them, 'I belong to the descendants of Esau, your brother; give me a little clothing wherewith to cover my nakedness because the sea stripped me bare and nothing was saved with me.' They retorted, ' So may all your people be stripped bare!' He raised his eyes and saw R. Eleazar who was walking among them; he exclaimed, 'I observe that you are an old and respected man of your people, and you know the respect due to your fellow-creatures. So help me, and give me a garment wherewith to cover my nakedness because the sea stripped me bare.' R. Eleazar b. Shammua was wearing seven robes; he took one off and gave it to him. He also led him to his house, provided him with food and drink, gave him two hundred dinars, drove him fourteen Persian miles, and treated him with great honor until he brought him to his home. Some time later the wicked emperor died, and they elected this man king in his stead, and he decreed concerning that province that all the men were to be killed and all the women taken as spoil. They said to R. Eleazar b. Shammua, 'Go and intercede for us.' He told them 'You know that this government does nothing without being paid.' They said to him, ' Here are four thousand dinars; take them and go and intercede for us.' He took them and went and stood by the gate of the royal palace. He said to [the guards], 'Go, tell the king that a Jew is standing at the gate, and wishes to greet the king.' The king ordered him to be brought in. On beholding him the king descended from his throne and prostrated himself before him. He asked him, 'What is my master's business here, and why has my master troubled to come here? ' He replied, ' That you should have mercy upon this province and annul this decree.' The king asked him, ' Is there any falsehood written in the Torah? ' 'No,' was the reply; and he said to him, 'Is it not written in your Torah, An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:4)? What is the reason? Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way (ib. 5). It is also written, Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother (ib. 8); and am I not a descendant of Esau, your brother, but they did not treat me with kindness! And whoever transgresses the Torah incurs the penalty of death.' R. Eleazar b. Shammua replied to him, 'Although they are guilty towards you, forgive them and have mercy upon them.' He said to him, 'You know that this government does thing without being paid.' He told him, ' I have with me four thousand dinars; take them and have mercy upon the people. ' He said to him, ' These four thousand dinars are presented to you in exchange for the two hundred which you gave me, and the whole province will be spared for your sake in return for the food and drink with which you provided me. Go also into my treasury and take seventy robes of honor in return for the robe you gave me, and go in peace to your people whom I forgive for your sake.' They applied to him the text, CAST THY BREAD UPON THE WATERS.
14. This teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (known as the Chiddushei Harim), is reported by his grandson Pinchas Menachem (Elazar) Yostman in his Siftai Tzadik Parashat Kedoshim section 11.
15. Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser - the Malbim in his commentary to Vayikra 19:18, 45 speculates that Ben Azzai agrees with Ben Petura.
16. As it says "His brother shall live with him."

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