When the Romans decreed that teaching Torah is a crime punishable by death, Rabbi Akiva’s reaction was not surprising. The great scholar, who had supported Bar Kochba in his revolt against Rome, gathered people together and gave public Torah lectures.
It was not long before Rabbi Akiva was charged and convicted. When the rabbi was brought out for public execution, it was the hour to recite the Shema. As the executioners flayed his skin with iron combs, Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema, concentrating on fulfilling its words: to love God “with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.”
The Talmud records Rabbi Akiva’s final words before his death. His students asked him: “Our master! Even to this extent?”
The great scholar responded:
“All my life I have been troubled by this verse, ‘You shall love God... with all your soul.’ As I have explained its meaning: ‘all your soul’ — even if they take your life. I have always wondered: will I ever have the privilege of fulfilling this mitzvah? And now that the opportunity has finally arrived — shall I not seize it?”
This exchange between Rabbi Akiva and his students requires clarification. What is the meaning of their question, “Even to this extent?”
One might think that the daily recitation of Shema is a preparatory act. Each day we accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven, and prepare ourselves to love God, even at the cost of our lives. This daily declaration ensures that we will have the necessary reserves of courage and commitment should there arise a need for the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.
This is why his students were surprised. Their teacher had already withstood the test. He had accepted martyrdom with noble determination. Even the cruelest instruments of torture had failed to deter him. What need, then, was there for Rabbi Akiva to recite this final Shema? Why prepare for that which he was now fulfilling?
Rabbi Akiva, however, understood the intrinsic value of the Shema. This declaration of love for God and acceptance of His rule is not just a tool to train the spirit. Each recitation of the Shema is in itself a wonderful act. Each time we declare God’s unity, our souls acquire greater holiness and closeness to God. The Shema is not just a means to prepare oneself; its very recitation refines and elevates the soul.
Until his final declaration of the Shema, Rabbi Akiva had recited the Shema with the thought that he was willing to sacrifice his life — “with all your soul” — for love of God. His entire life, he had wondered whether he would be able to fulfill the mitzvah of the Shema in its most extreme, most demanding, form. “Will I ever have the privilege of fulfilling this mitzvah to its utmost?” At the hands of the Romans, he accepted the reign of Heaven while sacrificing his life — not just as a mental vision, but in real life.
The Talmud relates that as Rabbi Akiva concentrated on the final word of Shema, his soul departed.
Rabbi Akiva breathed his last with the word Echad — “God is one.” A master of Jewish law, the scholar was able to infer legal rulings from the smallest markings in the Torah’s text (Menachot 29b). In the final analysis, however, all of the detailed laws and myriad interpretations that he had propounded during his lifetime were all part of a single harmonious system. Everything Rabbi Akiva had taught shared the same underlying theme: how to live life according to the supreme principle of God’s oneness. It was thus fitting that his final word should be Echad.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 344-345)