The stargazers predicted that Rabbi Akiva's daughter would be bitten by a poisonous snake on her wedding day. The great sage now faced a cruel question: How to contend with such a prophecy? The Talmud tells of his choice, and how his daughter ultimately saved herself, unlike a certain Sleeping Beauty…
The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, are days when we can change our fate, according to Jewish tradition. Every night, thousands set out to say the selichot prayers of forgiveness and request that this year, we will be recorded in the Book of Life. That we should merit a livelihood and redemption. That our fate should be decreed to be positive.
It is precisely in times like this that we should recall the story of the daughter of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic story which shows how a person can change a seemingly unchangeable fate.
The fate of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter was foretold, determined from on high, and was set to be grim and bitter. But she was able to change her destiny on her own, along with the reality in which she lived. True, we don’t even know her name; like many Talmudic women, she appears in the story only as the daughter of a great sage. Despite this, she succeeds in becoming a significant figure whose story touches every heart and captures the imagination of the readers.
Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Talmudic sages, whose sayings fill the pages of the Talmud and whose thought had a great impact on Jewish history and culture up to our own time.
We will tell the story, which may seem reminiscent of a certain fairy tale, here below:
In the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Shabbat, on the second side of page 156, we are told of how stargazers predicted to Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would suffer a terrible fate on her wedding day: She would be bitten by a snake and die. Rabbi Akiva now had to decide what to do: tell his daughter, protect her and not let her marry, or perhaps just eradicate all snakes in the area. But Rabbi Akiva decided not to do a thing. He did not tell his daughter of this prophecy, which might have scared or upset her. Instead, life continued as usual.
From the outset, this story is similar to that of Sleeping Beauty. Both involve a young woman with no name. Both mention a great danger facing her (Sleeping Beauty is to be pricked by a spindle’s needle and die or sleep until receiving a kiss from the prince). Both have a father who is forced to deal with this news. Both fathers decide to remain silent and not warn their daughter. But while Sleeping Beauty’s kingly father decides to order the destruction of all spindles in the kingdom, Rabbi Akiva has a different answer – he simply moves on with his life.
He doesn’t change his daily routine, and doesn’t take any decisive action. Instead, he chooses to trust his daughter, believing that she has the power to overcome the snake and save her own life. He gives her the independence to deal with this challenge on her own, granting her the ability to be tested, to cope with adversity.
Then the day comes for Rabbi Akiva’s daughter to marry. I imagine all of them excited at the meal, I imagine the dress she wore and all of the guests and relatives overcome with happiness. Only Rabbi Akiva sits in silence, worried. He doesn’t know if she will survive the night, if she will show up the next morning.
In the dark of night, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter takes out the pin holding her hair in place, and sticks it into the wall. Unbeknownst to her, the pin also punctures the eye of the snake set to kill her, killing it instead. With this unintentional act, she succeeds in saving herself and changing her fate.
In the morning, she removes the pin from the wall, discovering the dead snake attached to it.
Interestingly, despite this being a wedding celebration marking the union of a new couple, the Talmud doesn’t spend even a single word on the groom, choosing instead to focus on the bride. This tale thus contains a Talmudic twist on a story familiar to us from the legend of Sleeping Beauty – but in this case, instead of the prince saving his beloved with a kiss, she manages to save herself.
Well over a thousand years ago, long before Disney concluded that female heroines can save themselves, the Talmud placed this brave woman at the center of the story and even sent us to follow in her footsteps and change our own fate.
Approaching her father Rabbi Akiva with the dead snake, he immediately understands that she has successfully changed her destiny and asks her – “What did you do?” The sages comment that by this he did not mean – “How did you kill the snake?” but rather “What good deed did you do which enabled you to change your fate?”
She responds – “In the evening, a poor man came and called on [us at] the opening [to our home], and all were busy with the [wedding] meal and none heard him. I stood and took a meal you gave me and I gave it to him” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 156, side 2 – translation from Sefer Ha-Agaddah)
Rabbi Akiva’s daughter tells her father how, on the night of the wedding, while all the guests were busy at the wedding feast, she heard a knock at the door. A light rap, perhaps, maybe even a faint one, but she heard it. At the door was a poor man asking for food. She took her meal, given to her in honor of her wedding, and gave it to him.
Rabbi Akiva listens to her story, and immediately issues a statement which is famous for appearing on Jewish charity boxes – “And charity will save from death” (originally from Proverbs 10:2). The action she took helped her change her own fate, due to her changing the fate of that poor, hungry man. Her actions had an impact on the world.
Rabbi Akiva and his daughter teach us that our actions have real world effects, and that we need not wait for others to change our own life. We need to act on our own to change reality.
Banning all the spindles or the snakes from the kingdom won’t help. Nor will trying to hide from life as a whole. Danger is everywhere, whatever we do. The only way to make it through life is to be a good influence on one another, and to listen to the knocking at the door and the voices around us, doing our best to hear them.
Only through this, can we save ourselves, just like Rabbi Akiva’s daughter.
This wonderful story about Rabbi Akiva’s daughter is not particularly well-known. In fact, it’s rarely mentioned. Like many stories in the Talmudic literary genre known as Aggadah, it is hidden among the pages of the Talmud and its Aramaic language means few children can even read it.
This and other aggadic stories have recently been published in a book I wrote with Shirley Zfat Daviday, Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), which is all about Talmudic stories for children, with the ancient tales told in connection with modern life, in our own time. There is a wonderful treasure trove of amazing characters hidden among the Aramaic words of the Talmud. The book frees them from anonymity and brings them back to life in a fascinating manner.
The Talmud doesn’t just tell nice stories. It contains painful stories as well, tales of the wounded and tales that have the potential to wound. It includes stories of people who tried to change the world and failed and also tales of those who succeeded without trying. These are stories of human beings. The Talmud does not paint a picture of utopia, it is authentic, touching, real. This is why its stories touch us so deeply, and why its characters remain relevant to this very day.