The Orchard

by Yokhi Brandes

Other authorsDaniel Libenson (Translator.)
Book, 2017



Call number




Jerusalem, Israel ; Springfield, New Jersey : Gefen Publishing House, 2017


"The Orchard mines ancient Jewish sources to tell the story of a singular period in the history of our people through the all-too-rare female point of view."- Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of IsraelThis spellbinding historical novel by celebrated Israeli author Yochi Brandes tells the story of the venerated yet enigmatic Rabbi Akiva, placing him in the context of his contemporaries, the Sages of Jewish tradition and of early Christianity. Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Ishmael, Rabban Gamaliel, Paul of Tarsus, and many others become flesh and blood in this stunning interweaving of biblical and Talmudic lore into a page-turning read.At the heart of the novel is Rabbi Akiva and his complicated relationship with his wife Rachel, who meets him as a forty-year-old illiterate shepherd, marries him against her father's wishes, and compels him to study until he becomes the nation of Israel's greatest sage. Rabbi Akiva's innovative method of interpreting Scripture provides his people with a life-giving elixir after Rome's destruction of the Second Temple, but also fuels the lethal Bar Kokhba Revolt, with disastrous consequences. The Orchard offers a brilliant narrative solution to the fascinating story of four sages who entered a metaphysical orchard: one died, one lost his mind, one became a hater of God, and one - Rabbi Akiva - made it out unscathed. Or did he?Key Points about The Orchard- Bestselling Israeli novel available in English for the first time- Brings the sages of Israel and the history of early Christianity to life in a page-turning novel- Rich with biblical and Talmudic quotes in a comprehensive narrative that contextualizes the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditionsAbout the AuthorYochi Brandes was born in Israel to a family of Hassidic rabbis. With degrees in both biblical and Judaic studies, she has been a prominent and sought-after lecturer on the Bible and on Jewish cultural topics for many years. She has been awarded the Israel Book Publishers Association's Platinum Prize for all eight of her novels, including The Orchard.Daniel Libenson is president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future and co-host of the popular Judaism Unbound podcast.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member astridnr
I was excited to receive this book and to learn about the life of Rabbi Akiva and the history of the Jewish religion in the early days of the common era. The book was originally written in Hebrew and translated into English. I found the author’s attention to detail and quest for historical
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accuracy challenging. While the subject matter interested me, I was not a huge fan of the writing style. But that is not to say that the book does not have merit. I believe that it makes a significant contribution to the understanding of this period in history.

What I found most intriguing was Rachel’s story. Rachel, Akiva’s wife, had been betrothed to the most handsome Judaic scholar and rabbi, Ishmael. She, however, was so intrigued by Akiva, a lowly shepherd when she met him, that she called off her engagement and married Aliva. She knew from the first moment she met him that he was destined for greatness. She lives a life of great hardship in order for her husband to realize his potential. In essence, she sacrificed herself entirely for him.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in this subject matter. It is highly informative.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Rabbi Akiva, born shortly after the birth of Jesus, is still venerated in Judaism as one of the greatest rabbinic sages, although much of the stories about him are sketchy and wrapped in myth and mystery. This book purports to tell his story from the point of view of his wife Rachel.

According to
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what little history is known, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd working for one of the wealthiest men in Israel, Kalba Savua. On the morning that 19-year-old Rachel, Savua’s only daughter, was to be betrothed to Ishmael, the handsome and brilliant son of a priest, Rachel chanced to meet 38 year old Akiva. She was so struck by his mind and character that she reneged on her betrothal and turned all her attention to Akiva. At first, she just taught him to read, and found to her delight that he read like no one else.

Judaism has always allowed for a multiplicity of voices in the interpretation of its laws and traditions, albeit with different “schools” having strong ideological bents. In the yeshivas, or institutes of learning where Jewish students study sacred texts, energetic participation is encouraged for interpretation and analysis. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement. As reinforcement for this idea, a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures must contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. Thus, Jewish law grows from the constant creation and interpretation of texts.

Akiva was apparently especially adept at noticing the differences between the construction of words and at ascribing meaning to the letters and spaces. Rachel becomes determined that Akiva go to a yeshiva, and sells her hair for the money to send him. As Brandes tells the story, Akiva is appalled that she “disfigured” herself:

“‘Why didn’t you marry Rabbi Ishmael’ he shouts.
‘I don’t want Rabbi Ishmael. I want Rabbi Akiva.
…. You will become Rabbi Akiva. I know will be Rabbi Akiva. I have known it from the moment I first laid eyes on you….’”

He agrees, and promises never to return until he is “Rabbi” Akiva.

Rachel thus becomes “Agunah” - an abandoned woman shackled to a missing man. She is scorned by most of the rest of society. But through associates of rabbis at the yeshiva, she learns what is happening with Akiva, who doesn’t return for twelve years.

Akiva lived after the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem and during the growth of the “Nazerenes,” or those who follow the teachings of Jesus ben Joseph from Nazareth. (It is believed that he died in 132 CE, but his date of birth is unknown.) In this period, there was dissension among Jews over how to handle this new Nazerene sect that sprung from Judaism. There was also ongoing antagonism between the Jews and the Romans. And most importantly to this story, there was continuing tension from the conflict between the oppositional teachings of the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai.

Akiva became immensely popular. Rachel understood right away why this was so. Akiva tells her “God is in the Torah. I feel Him when I study more than I ever felt Him [before]…” She says: “That is why the students flock to your classes. In the other sages’ classes they study laws, but in your classes they feel God.”

Rabbi Akiva’s method of interpretation was called midrash, or inquiry. Another rabbi explained to Rachel: “In the past, the nation of Israel encountered God in the beit mikdash’, the House of Holiness, that is the Temple, ‘but now we encounter him in the beit midrash,’ the House of Inquiry.” Rabbi Akiva’s Torah was the Torah of renewal. The other rabbi averred to Rachel, “The nation of Israel is returning to Mount Sinai. Rabbi Akiva is giving us the Torah anew.”

But the Schools of Hillel (in which Akiva teaches) and Shammai continue to argue, and the author incorporates the famous story of the oven of Ahnai into the plot. This important and widely cited Talmudic story illustrates the plural understandings of Jewish law as well as their most interesting resolution. The subject of the dispute was a legal case involving concepts of purity versus impurity. As the conflict escalated, both sides invoked magical intervention from above. Finally, a heavenly voice appeared to weigh in for the School of Shammai. But a rabbi from the School of Hillel shouted, “We pay no heed to a heavenly voice. After the majority one must incline.” [Other versions of the story have the heavenly voice proclaiming, “[T]hese and these [both] are the words of the Living God.” That is, the fact that God created a myriad of people with a myriad of opinions meant that all of these opinions were ipso facto words of God! And thus “truth” can reside in any person.]

Later a rabbi explained to Rachel that Midrash frees us from God: “We can interpret the Torah as we see fit. We don’t care what God meant to say. He gave us the Torah. Now it is ours, not His.”

The novel also includes the story of how the Passover Seder ceremony was developed. As with everything else, there were differences of opinion, and even today, there is no one definitive version. On the contrary, there are more than 3,000 versions of haggadahs (the guides to the Seder service) in existence, from denominational variations to children’s editions to those with feminist, ecological, humanist, social, and/or political orientations. None are considered to be more or less right than any other, but rather, reflect the comfort level and interests of those who choose them. The proliferation of haggadahs expresses the welcome [albeit sometimes begrudging] Judaism extends to diverse interpretations of texts.

The climax of the story comes when some of the main characters, including Akiva, enter “the orchard.” This tale comes from the Aggadah, or the non-legalistic exegetical texts from rabinnic literature that incorporate folklore, hearsay, anecdotes, practical advice, and so on.

According to the Aggadah regarding the Orchard, four sages, including Rabbi Akiva, entered The Orchard, or Paradise. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; one looked and became an apostate; and only Rabbi Akiva departed relatively intact. But he was not the same, and his belief in the place of God in their lives had radically altered, with profound repercussions for the Jewish people.

Discussion: While I enjoyed the stories of the early sages of Israel and insights into what lay behind different interpretations of the Talmud, I never felt like I understood any of the characters, not even Rachel. On the contrary, she seemed more like a plot device to illuminate the internecine struggles of the rabbis. I also felt that the author did not make a commitment on the side of either history or legend, so that supernatural elements were added to otherwise actual events without comment or explanation.

Evaluation: In spite of my reservations (see Discussion, above), this novel provides a very interesting way to learn about Talmudic lore and about the response by Jewish leaders to the challenge of Christianity.
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LibraryThing member MomMom46
Thanks to LibraryThing for the chance to read and preview “The Orchard” by Yochi Brandes. Told in Rachel’s voice, it is the story of her husband Rabbi Akiva during the years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The names of the Sages from the Passover Haggadah come
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alive..Rabbi Eliezer,Rabbi Tarfon,Rabbi Gameliel and Rabbi Ishmael...just a week before celebrating the reading of the Haggadah during our family Seder.
At times it was challenging to keep the identities of all the characters straight but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.I want to read more of this authors work. I look forward to hearing the opinions of the friends I share my books with. I spoke to my Rabbi about it last night after services.
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LibraryThing member 3bythesea
Hmmm, I definitely want to like this book. The ideas of bringing to life the personalities and politics and how they played out with Rabbis historically and the impact of all of this on how Torah was taught and understood is inherently appealing. However, the way it was executed was at time
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ponderous. I did enjoy learning about the different approaches to interpreting Torah and noticing the parallels to the way the constitution is handled in present day.
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LibraryThing member sunielevin8
The Orchard
by Yochi Brandes
A compelling journey seen through the eyes of biblical Rachel about her husband Rabbi
Akiva. You are drawn in to their lives and personalities when the ancient sages come
alive as they argue how to interpret the teachings of Jewish law by old methods or new
inquiry. Rachel
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argues “We have free will. We choose our own ways. The course of our
lives is determined by what we do, not by what is forseen.” Rabbi Akiva answers,
“everything is forseen, yet free will is given.” Yochi Brandes has written a remarkable
book that should be read by all faiths to better understand religion and our future.
Sunie Levin MEd
author of Mingled Roots: Guide For Interfaith Grandchildren
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LibraryThing member BradKautz
In her novel, The Orchard, author Yochi Brandes has painted a fascinating portrait of Israel in the late first and early second centuries. The central character is Akiva, a solitary and illiterate shepherd known locally as a source of unconventional but profound wisdom. At the age of 38 he has an
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encounter with Rachel which alters the course of his life. Through Rachel's influence he learns to read, then studies Torah, becoming the most influential rabbi of his day. His studies eventually take him into secret knowledge, ancient documents that most students don’t even know exist. These studies lead him into entering The Orchard, where he sees… You'll have to read the book to find that out!

As a reader I found the story and the storytelling to be captivating. Brandes wrote her novel in Hebrew and the translation into English is rich and powerful. One reads with the feeling that they are witnessing the events first-hand. The story has a number of unsuspecting elements, but they are woven together well, without seeming contrived.

The other hat I wore while reading this novel was that I am a pastor in the Reformed tradition. Freely calling myself a Calvinist and having a high view of God's glory and sovereignty in all things I was repeatedly struck by the persistently low view of God and high view of the abilities of man found within Akiva and the other leading rabbis of his day, particularly as the story moved towards its climax. Their lives were immersed in and saturated with Torah, but what of the God of Torah and his agency in their very day? Was this typical of Akiva's day? Is this the case today as well?

All-in-all, I greatly enjoyed this book.
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LibraryThing member Savta
The Orchard by Yochi Brandes was received through Early Reviews.
The setting is the land of Israel after Rome has put down one rebellion and destroyed the Temple of Judaism in Jerusalem, killed many Judeans and enslaved many others, the remaining population is guided by the Sages. There is not a
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uniform united leadership or population. The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai contend for students and allegiance of the Judeans, most of whom are merely striving to survive. Among the population is the widowed wealthy Kalba Savua and his educated,strong-willed daughter Rachael. Among the shepherds on his estate is Akiva ben Joseph the unlearned but astute son of a convert to Judaism. The story is from Rachael's point of view as she follows her heart and turns from the future she had looked forward to of marrying a handsome Sage of the School of Hillel, adopted son of Rabbi Joshua, drawn to the much older Akiva and the future she senses he has before him. Disobeying her father who disowns Rachael, she and Akiva strive to establish their family. Rachael is so sure that Akiva's future is to be a Rabbi and Sage that she teaches him the Aleph Bet, he learns Torah with her and because of her irresistible will he goes to the Yavneh academy. There is deep love and strong strife between them. Even after their second child, a son is born, he refuses to return home until he is a Rabbi which takes years to attain. There is much disunity amongst the people of Judea some of whom want to force off the yoke of Roman servitude and the Schools of Sages are at odds with understanding Torah and how to deal with the Romans. The Nazarene sect and the Bar Kochba followers among other factions present a very unsettled fractious territory for Hadrian and the Romans. The story illustrates the establishing of the Rabbinic form of Judaism which prevailed after the ultimate destruction of Judea, Jerusalem and dispersal of Judeans through out the Roman empire. Yochi Brandes shows us the strong influence one woman had in the development of the Rabbinic tradition, but she was not alone for other wives, mothers, daughters and sisters were instrumental in guiding their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers in birthing a post-Temple Judaism that continues to this day.

I found the story fascinating. The writing is a little uneven, which may have to do with translating from Hebrew to English. Some of the language even seemed anachronistic, too modern, but the story illumines an era that is dark and painful. I like getting a glimpse into a time that is ancient but sadly contemporary; people are going through so much of the same enmities today.

I am re-reading the book to get a better understanding of the historical figures, researching people and events as I go. Too often we think that what we have for religion or government or science or literature came about without debate or contention, but there is nothing we have that didn't come without travail.

The printing is easy to read and it is a quality paperback.
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LibraryThing member jonnijones
“The Orchard” takes place in Judea in the first century after the death of Jesus. It is told from the perspective of Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, arguably Israel’s greatest sage.

To have such a beautifully rendered description of the Torah’s teachings, and how the rabbis and sages
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thought, interpreted, taught, and argued left me breathless with admiration for her story-telling ability. The rabbis, the sages, and the people of Israel are all brought alive in this beautiful story of prophesy and destiny.

I received this book in exchange for a fair review.
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LibraryThing member jlwagn
Should probably start by staying that I approached this book knowing next to nothing about the period of Jewish history or texts discussed in this book. Reading this book, I got confused quite a few times and would have to stop and do some background research for context. The positive is that I
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learned a lot about this very interesting period of Jewish history. However, I didn't take to the style of writing here - the style didn't seem to flow/fit with the themes of the story, but this could have been the English translation.
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LibraryThing member booksandblintzes
Fans of Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf and Maggie Anton's Rashi's Daughters will be thrilled to discover Israeli-author Yochi Brandes' latest work. The Orchard recounts the story of Rabbi Akiva and the sages of his generation, giving the powerful voice of the narrator to his wife, Rachel. In
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this meeting of rabbinic tradition, a women's perspective, and the political intrigue of the Roman rule of Judea, readers have a front row seat at what is truly a battle to establish the course of Jewish history.

The world of the rabbis is a complex one, and readers would be well-served to have more than a passing knowledge of the main actors. The schools of Hillel and Shammai, the relationships and rivalries between the leaders of the main centers of learning, as well as the religious and secular governance structures of the time all feature in the narrative. With a story whose plot is heavily interspersed with rabbinic terminology, theology, Hebrew language, and allegory, an index including family trees and a historical time line would be of immense assistance to most casual readers. For those with the necessary a background, an index of the included texts (mostly mishnah) would have been a powerful tool for further study. As required reading for an adult-education course on rabbinic history, this book could easily be the primary source.

Reading this book in translation is intensely rewarding, as it makes much of the traditional sources accessible to a new audience. It is much to the Brandes' credit that her characters and drama of the story are so vividly drawn that she makes readers forget that they may already know the ending. Daniel Libensons' translation is a monumental effort in maintaining the seamless movement between Brandes' descriptive prose and rabbinic legends. It reads so beautifully in English that readers may find themselves wishing they could appreciate every last nuance of the Hebrew original.

In The Orchard, Yochi Brandes has once again showcased her exceptional story telling skills and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history. For those who seek a window into the world of the sages, who strive to understand how the rabbis nurtured their faith and created the framework of two millennia of Jewish practice, The Orchard is an absolute must-read.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I have difficulty enjoying a story which is so clearly an effort to popularize a sacred story. Not bad, just not able to really engage.
LibraryThing member schulajess
Without some context and understanding of Judaism, The Orchard can feel like stepping into an unfamiliar world.

It is, however, is a captivating retelling of well known stories and characters of Jewish faith and lore. The story, as told through a women, Rachel, highlights the beauty and tragedy of
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religious life. The Orchard humanizes a time, place and the people whose lives became legend.

As an agnostic, I enjoyed The Orchard as a look into how tribes of communities solidify their values and traditions, how they can change depending on their leadership. The story of the women behind powerful men if oft not told and in The Orchard, we hear her voice and understand her power.
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LibraryThing member HandelmanLibraryTINR
This spellbinding historical novel by celebrated Israeli author Yochi Brandes tells the story of the venerated yet enigmatic Rabbi Akiva, placing him in the context of his contemporaries, the Sages of Jewish tradition and of early Christianity. Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Ishmael, Rabban Gamaliel, Paul of
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Tarsus, and many others become flesh and blood in this stunning interweaving of biblical and Talmudic lore into a page-turning read.
"The Orchard mines ancient Jewish sources to tell the story of a singular period in the history of our people through the all-too-rare female point of view."
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LibraryThing member BooksCooksLooks
I am atheist but enjoy reading about the world's religions. Go figure. The synopsis for The Orchard intrigued me as I have some knowledge but not a lot about Judaism. That was my downfall with this book. I feel you need to know a bit more to truly appreciate it. I will admit to a certain confusion
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in trying to keep track of the players as I was not well versed in who was who. Yes, there are appendices but it takes away from the reading experience to have to keep looking up who is who.

It is though, a very well translated book. The prose is easy to read and the story is fascinating when not having to stop to sort things out.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
I received this book as a early reviewer in 2018. I read it now as part of reading Israeli literature. Yochi Brandes is the female author, born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. Brandes taught Bible and Judaism for many years. She is the author of novels and essays on biblical
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women-all of them best-sellers in Israel. This story is about the time period about the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem. It is historical and provides stories of Judaism and Christianity through the eyes of Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva and prophetess. The rebellion of Bar Kokhba Revolt was a real event in history and uses the sages and Torah discussion to this revolt. I found it interesting to read this book where the study and debate of Torah was more important than a person's responsibility to wife and children and more important than the relationship with the God of the Torah. It also explains how the Jewish people who believed in Jesus as Messiah were eventually excluded from the the other Hebrews and became Christians. I especially appreciated this part of the story.
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LibraryThing member baroquem
The Orchard is an immersive, rich work of historical fiction, based on more history and legend than I'd realized until I started to prepare this review. It took me some time to adjust to the writing style, and at times I got muddled trying to keep track of the various characters and their
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connections to one another. The time and the place and the subject of the story, however, are intriguing -- overlooked in literature, I'd suspect, although that's only a guess. My knowledge and reading experience are all on the Christian side of this time period; it was rewarding to take a look at what was developing in the other culture and religion of the age. Not an easy book to get through, but I enjoyed it.
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