I would like to share what I believe to be an original reading of a cryptic story in today’s daf (Yevamot 98a).
We are told a Beraita that Ben Yasiyan said: ‘When I travelled overseas I encountered a convert who married his maternal brother’s wife. I said to him: “My son, who permitted this to you?” He said to me: “There is [a local] woman and her seven sons [who converted and who were told that this is permitted]. [In fact], on this very bench Rabbi Akiva sat and said two statements: A convert may marry his maternal brother’s wife, and he [also] said that the verse “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying” (Jonah 3:1) [implies that the] Divine Presence spoke with him only a second time, but the Divine Presence did not speak with him a third time.”
Before proceeding, it is worthwhile noting that we are informed here that Rabbi Akiva was overseas. In fact, if we take a broad look at the Bavli & Yerushalmi, we find that Rabbi Akiva did much travelling – with his intention seemingly being to spread his Torah teachings far and wide.
However, the primary reason why this particular teaching has fascinated so many commentaries has to do with the two teachings that Rabbi Akiva shared on the bench where Ben Yasiyan encountered this particular convert, and in particular, the relationship between these two teachings. Simply put, what is the connection between the halacha about a convert marrying his maternal brother’s wife, and the fact that God only sent Jonah two prophecies?
Admittedly, there are some commentaries who claim that since these teachings seem so totally unrelated to one another this event simply could not have happened the way this convert related it to Ben Yasiyan. In contrast, the Aruch LaNer (Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger) suggests that the intention of Rabbi Akiva in referencing the story of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was to teach that the subsequent repentance of the people of Nineveh was a form of spiritual conversion – which therefore connects it to the halacha being taught.
Personally, I understand this event in the following way: We know that Rabbi Akiva was sensitive to converts – most likely, although not exclusively, because he descended from converts. Given this, Rabbi Akiva took some time to sit on a bench in a faraway land to teach converts about some of the rules of conversion – including the fact that a convert may marry his maternal brother’s wife.
But then I imagine that the conversation between Rabbi Akiva and those converts who were present and who were listening to him moved on to other issues of conversion, with one question being whether the inspirational feeling that a convert often experiences before converting and upon rising from the waters of a mikveh and starting their spiritual life anew will be with them all the time?
In responding, Rabbi Akiva explained that inspiration and prophecy comes when a person most needs it, but like most precious of commodities, inspiration and prophecy is rare and it often occurs unexpectedly. And as part of his explanation I suspect that he told these converts that God spoke to Jonah on two occasions, and though Jonah may have hoped and expected that God speak to him once again, ‘the Divine Presence did not speak with him a third time’.
And why was it so important that both teachings be taught together? Because while a convert never loses the status of being a convert – which has halachic implications in terms of marriage etc., and while some converts continue to feel the same measure of spiritual connection after converting as they did beforehand, there are others who do not feel that they are able to continue to hear the voice of the divine presence in the same pure and compelling manner after having converted.
And when Rabbi Akiva heard that there was a group of converts looking for halachic and spiritual guidance, with perhaps some of them looking for inspiration, it seems like he made the long journey and took the time to meet with these converts and to address their questions. And given that he did so, it seems that Rabbi Akiva’s choice to do so left such an impression that all those who were present were able to remember not only what Rabbi Akiva said, but they even remembered which was the bench on which Rabbi Akiva sat when he shared his words of wisdom.