Imagine that the earth was going to be destroyed within five years, and that you were tasked with deciding what literary treasures to preserve? You had a time capsule into which you could put your treasured writings to keep them safe, but there was room for only a few. There was no way to could save them all. What would you choose to preserve? And why? How might you answer future generations when they asked you why this was preserved and not that?
That is the background of the Tanach that we have today.
What to leave and what to take
At the time when the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was being compiled, the rabbis weren’t at all in consensus about what should go in and what to leave out. The Talmud records the bare bones of discussions that, if we could only travel back in time, would fill volumes. Scholars fought for the inclusion of those writings that were dear to them, often against ferocious opposition from their colleagues. This was during the Roman occupation, and things were going from bad to worse. It was clear that many that much would be lost in the days to come. But surely something could be preserved. The question was what. What should take precedence?
The Book of Ezekiel almost ended up in the Apocrypha—or even lost—instead of in the Tanakh. It was thought to be too self-contradictory and mystical, and might lead to confusion.
|Truly, that man is remembered for the good, and his name is Ḥananya ben Ḥizkiya, as if not for him, the book of Ezekiel would have been suppressed because its contents, in many details, contradict matters of Torah. The Sages sought to suppress the book and exclude it from the canon. What did he (Ḥananya ben Ḥizkiya) do? They brought him three hundred jugs of oil, for light and food, up to his upper story, and he sat isolated in the upper story and did not move from there until he homiletically interpreted all of those verses in the book of Ezekiel that seemed contradictory, and resolved the contradictions.||אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: בְּרַם זָכוּר אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ לַטּוֹב וַחֲנַנְיָה בֶּן חִזְקִיָּה שְׁמוֹ, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא הוּא נִגְנַז סֵפֶר יְחֶזְקֵאל, שֶׁהָיוּ דְּבָרָיו סוֹתְרִין דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה. מֶה עָשָׂה? — הֶעֱלוּ לוֹ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת גַּרְבֵי שֶׁמֶן, וְיָשַׁב בַּעֲלִיָּיה וּדְרָשָׁן.|
And so, we owe the preservation of the book of Ezekiel to Hananya ben Hizkiya.
Rabbi Akiva’s choice
But it was the Song of Songs that was perhaps the strangest choice for the canon. A collection of wedding songs, some of them filled with double entendres and verging on the risqué—songs sung to the bride and groom at their wedding… When it came to selecting those works that would become part of Judaism’s sacred literature, one wouldn’t think that a collection of wedding songs would be high on the list!
And yet, there was someone who fought for the inclusion of Song of Songs in the canon. That someone was none other than Rabbi Akiba. Here is how the story is recorded in Mishna:
|All the holy scriptures defile the hands [meaning that they must be stored separately from grain and other food. The practical reason for this is that storing scrolls with grain would increase the likelihood of their being damaged by rodents.]
The Song of Songs and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) defile the hands. Rabbi Judah says: the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but there is a dispute about Kohelet. Rabbi Yose says: Kohelet does not defile the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs. Rabbi Shimon says: the ruling about Kohelet is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said: I have received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah head of the academy that the Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands.
Rabbi Akiba said: Far be it! No man in Israel disputed that the Song of Songs saying that it does not defile the hands. For the whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.
Yadayim 3:5 . 1
|כָּל כִּתְבֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ מְטַמְּאִין אֶת הַיָּדַיִם.
שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים וְקֹהֶלֶת מְטַמְּאִין אֶת הַיָּדַיִם. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר, שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים מְטַמֵּא אֶת הַיָּדַיִם, וְקֹהֶלֶת מַחֲלֹקֶת. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, קֹהֶלֶת אֵינוֹ מְטַמֵּא אֶת הַיָּדַיִם וְשִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים מַחֲלֹקֶת. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, קֹהֶלֶת מִקֻּלֵּי בֵית שַׁמַּאי וּמֵחֻמְרֵי בֵית הִלֵּל. אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן עַזַּאי, מְקֻבָּל אֲנִי מִפִּי שִׁבְעִים וּשְׁנַיִם זָקֵן, בַּיּוֹם שֶׁהוֹשִׁיבוּ אֶת רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה בַּיְשִׁיבָה, שֶׁשִּׁיר הַשִּׁירִים וְקֹהֶלֶת מְטַמְּאִים אֶת הַיָּדַיִם.
אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, לֹא נֶחֱלַק אָדָם מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל עַל שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים שֶׁלֹּא תְטַמֵּא אֶת הַיָּדַיִם, שֶׁאֵין כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַאי כַּיּוֹם שֶׁנִּתַּן בּוֹ שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁכָּל הַכְּתוּבִים קֹדֶשׁ, וְשִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים. וְאִם נֶחְלְקוּ, לֹא נֶחְלְקוּ אֶלָּא עַל קֹהֶלֶת. אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן חָמִיו שֶׁל רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, כְּדִבְרֵי בֶן עַזַּאי, כָּךְ נֶחְלְקוּ וְכָךְ גָּמְרוּ:
Modern scholars tell us that Song of Songs is nothing more—nor less—than a collection of wedding songs, and rather bawdy songs at that! And yet Rabbi Akiba fought tooth and nail for their inclusion. Rabbi Akiba, who would later champion a rebellion against Rome, at the cost of a generation. Rabbi Akiba, who would pay for this with his life, but only after severe torture at the hands of the Romans. Rabbi Akiva, who laughed upon seeing the prophecy fulfilled that “foxes will roam the ruins” of the Temple in Jerusalem. Because “if that prophecy has come true, then surely the other will as well”—the other being the prophecy of Isaiah that foretold the future redemption. The one that spoke of elderly men and women in the streets of Jerusalem, and the voice of the bride and groom heard once more in the land.
Not for nothing did Rabbi Akiba fight for the inclusion of a collection of bawdy, but beautiful, wedding songs in the Tanach. He believed—really believed—in the reality we live today. He truly believed that we would return to our land and rebuild, and that weddings would once more be held here. And so he made sure that we would have songs to sing at those future weddings. That is the very definition of faith.
As we celebrate Tu b’Av, the Jewish holiday of match-making, we can appreciate Rabbi Akiba’s foresight and faith in a future that he would not live to see.