Today’s daf (Yevamot 16a) records an exchange between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yonatan ben Harkinas – who was a student of Shammai and who was described by his older brother Rabbi Dosa as being an extremely sharp adversary.
In terms of the purpose of the exchange, it related to the question of whether the co-wife of a daughter is permitted to the brother of her deceased husband (i.e. if a niece marries an uncle, and then the uncle dies without children, then technically the daughter must perform yibbum with her father. Of course, since this would constitute incest this is prohibited. However, if the uncle had more than one wife, the question is whether the co-wife of the niece must perform yibbum or Halitzah with her co-wife’s father. Beit Shammai allows this whereas Beit Hillel considers such a relationship to be absolutely prohibited and does not even demand that Halitzah be performed), and while Rabbi Dosa made it clear that he had received a tradition as passed down from the prophet Chaggai – reflecting the later opinion of Beit Hillel – that this is forbidden, his brother Rabbi Yonatan – who was a student of Shammai – not only believed that it was permitted but had collated ‘three hundred arguments as to why the co-wife of a daughter is permitted’.
Having explained all this we can now turn to the exchange between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yonatan where we are told that they had a series of debates, afterwhich Rabbi Yonatan then said to Rabbi Akiva: “You are the Akiva whose name resounds from one end of the world to the other end? You are fortunate that you have merited such a name, but you have still not reached the level of cattle herders!”, to which Rabbi Akiva replied, “I have not even reached the level of sheep herders!”.
It should be noted that many commentaries have striven to understand the deeper meaning of these words said about Rabbi Akiva as well as his retort that “I have not even reached the level of sheep herders”, and it is in this spirit that I would like to share a thought which is based in part on an approach offered by Rabbi Ephraim Oved in his ‘Torat HaAggadah’.
Undoubtedly, the primary skill of a cattle and sheep herder is to have the necessary wisdom to create order from apparent chaos (nb. this is why, as part of my Ashdown Jewish Leadership Fellowship, one of the activities we were tasked to perform was sheep herding!), and while in his youth Rabbi Akiva had been a shepherd, Rabbi Yonatan was seemingly saying to Rabbi Akiva that though he may have the skills to organize animals, in terms of Torah itself, Rabbi Akiva lacked the clarity and discipline to organize ideas in a comparable way to Rav Yonatan who, as previously mentioned, had collated three hundred arguments as to why the co-wife of a daughter is permitted.
To this Rabbi Akiva responded by saying, “I have not even reached the level of sheep herders” – meaning that he not only seemingly agreed with Rabbi Yonatan, but he actually said that he was less skilled in this discipline of Torah than the level that Rabbi Yonatan had attributed to him!
According to Rabbi Oved, the reason why Rabbi Akiva responded this way was because he knew that whatever he would say to Rabbi Yonatan would not change his mind. Therefore, he responded in this manner simply to end the conversation.
However, I would like to suggest a different approach, which is that Rabbi Akiva fully agreed that his approach to Torah differed from that of Rabbi Yonatan and he was very comfortable with this fact! This is because for Rabbi Yonatan, Torah is seemingly more like a science, with the primary skill-set required of a Torah scholar being the ability to find and create order and the wisdom to generate what might be called scientific proofs for halacha – which is why Rabbi Yonatan was so proud that he had collated 300 proofs justifying why the co-wife of a daughter is permitted.
But for Rabbi Akiva, though he recognized the importance of order and proof in Torah, he also recognized a further spiritual dimension, and for him, Torah is an art at least as much – if not more – than a science. Yes, Rabbi Akiva was formerly a shepherd and he therefore understood what it takes to create order from apparent chaos in a field of cattle or sheep. But precisely given his experience, he responded to Rabbi Yonatan by saying that he saw Torah with different eyes, and consequently, no matter however many proofs Rabbi Yonatan could provide for why the co-wife of a daughter is permitted, Rabbi Akiva knew – both from tradition, as well as from the spirit that he drew from the Torah that he studied, that it was forbidden.
Admittedly, the approach of Rabbi Yonatan is seemingly more rigorous and more scientific, and perhaps this is why I see a growing trend of people nowadays who only think in terms of proof and sources. Yet while I am not even close to being in the league of ‘sheep herders’, what I have received from the great teachers from whom I was privileged to learn is the importance of looking at halacha not only through the lens of text but also context; not just as a science but also an art; and not only in terms of religion, but also spirituality.
Ultimately, what we learn from here is that it is possible to collate three hundred proofs for something to be right, and it nevertheless it not be the preferred path of halacha – which goes to show that while we should invest much time to learn and understand texts, we must also think beyond them as well.