"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
To have such a beautifully rendered description of the Torah’s teachings, and how the rabbis and sages
I received this book in exchange for a fair review.
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.
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
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.
"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."
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.