Two Talmudic sages lived around 130 CE and disagreed on how to interpret the Bible. Rabbi Akiva won out, and Rashi, Nachmanides, and most ancient Bible commentators as well as most Midrashim follow his view. Others, such as Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides interpret the Torah as Rabbi Ishmael.


Rabbi Akiva’s belief
Rabbi Akiva felt that since the Bible is a word for word revelation from God, and since God is perfect, is able to say concisely exactly what is meant to be said, and would never place any superfluous or non-relevant materiel in the divine book, whenever an idea is repeated in the Bible or there is an unusual word or change in spelling, God must have placed it to teach a lesson. People need to spot these additions and changes, and figure out what God meant to teach by placing them in the Bible.

The Akivian methodology goes so far as to even interpret the word et, which has no meaning in biblical Hebrew and is used in the Torah as a sign of the accusative. Under the Akivian method, when it appears it is suggesting not only what is mentioned but anything that can be associated with it. For example, when Genesis 1:1 states that God created et hashamayim v’et haaretz, the heaven and the earth, it should be understood that God created the heaven and earth and all that they contain. The methodology is also used for seeing rabbinic midrash in the crowns on the biblical letters in the Torahs used in synagogue services.


Rabbi Ishmael’s opinion
Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that “the Torah [which is intended for humans] speaks in human language.” For example, just as people repeat themselves for emphasis, to gain attention, for the sake of clarity, or to make their statement more flowery or poetic, so too does the Torah. Nothing should be read into repetitions, of which there are many. If God meant to teach an additional lesson, God wouldn’t have hidden it in a repetition that doesn’t mean or even imply what people read into it; God would have made an explicit statement.


Rabbi Akiva’s methodology became the accepted way to understand the Torah
Rabbi Akiva’s students compiled the Midrashim and influenced most of the Talmudic rabbis, and later Bible and Talmud commentators such as Rashi, who based their teachings on Rabbi Akiva’s method. Most rabbinical sermons today, which are drawn from these sources, are also based on his method. Readers and listeners need to know that what they are reading or what the synagogue rabbi is sermonizing is based on what the commentator or rabbi thought (erroneously according to Rabbi Ishmael) was an unnecessary repetition or an unusual spelling.