One of the most beloved legends in talmudic literature is that of the initiation of the unschooled shepherd Akiva into the world of Torah study through the encouragement of his wife who recognized his spiritual potential. A later tradition supplied her with the name “Rachel” though the Talmud maintains her anonymity. When the lady’s father, the Jerusalem aristocrat Ben Kalba Savua‘, heard of their clandestine marriage he disowned his daughter for marrying beneath her station. While Akiva was away for many years occupied with his studies, the wife was left to fend for herself in dire poverty for what amounted to twenty-four years of abandonment. Nevertheless, the happily-ever-after moment did eventually arrive when her father was finally reconciled with his son-in-law who was now a renowned scholar, and the couple were able to enjoy their life together in affluence.
In one version of this tale, the young couple’s poverty was illustrated poignantly by their having to spend the cold winter nights sleeping in a straw storage shed. As Akiva picked out pieces of straw from his wife’s hair he would muse longingly, “If I could only afford it, I would present you with a golden Jerusalem.” At this point (as often happens in legends of this sort), the prophet Elijah appeared disguised as a destitute stranger who begged them for some straw to place under his wife who was in childbirth. This made the couple appreciate that there were people even more abjectly poor than they were and who did not even have any straw.
A tradition preserved in a different rabbinic work introduced a satisfying follow-up to the legend of Rabbi Akiva and his wife: “They said that he did not die before he had slept on golden beds and fashioned a golden crown and golden sandals for his wife. His children [or: his disciples] said to him: People are making fun of us [for indulging in such conspicuous consumption]! He retorted: I don’t care what you say. After all, she suffered deprivations during my studies.”
What exactly is a “golden Jerusalem”? The Jerusalem Talmud equates it with an object called a “city of gold” that is mentioned in the Mishnah as an item of women’s jewelry that may not be worn outdoors on the Sabbath because it is not considered an article of clothing, and hence the bearer of such an object would be transgressing the prohibition against carrying in the public domain. In connection with this law, the Talmud remarks that Rabbi Akiva had a golden Jerusalem fashioned for his wife. This would be consistent with what we know about his support for Bar Kokhba who led an insurrection to oppose the Roman desecration or devastation of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Akiva’s generosity provoked the envy of the wife of the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel. When she began nagging her husband to buy her a similar trinket, she was reminded that Akiva’s wife had earned the right to her precious gift by virtue of her great act of self-sacrifice when she used to sell the tresses of her hair in order to finance her husband’s studies.
But other than its name and the fact that it was worn by wealthy ladies, none of those rabbinic texts really brings us much closer to a clear description of the “golden city” or “golden Jerusalem”.
Fortunately, achievements in Near Eastern archeology provide considerable assistance in advancing our knowledge of this topic.
The ancient city of Ugarit on the northern coast of Syria has left us a remarkable archive in a language very similar to biblical Hebrew. One surviving text consists of an inventory of the possessions belonging to the thirteenth-century B.C.E. Queen Aḥatmilku. Among her assets was an item that was identified by means of a Sumerian expression that translates as a “city of gold weighing 215 [shekels].”
As it happens, the archeological remains have provided us with many pictorial examples of the ornament or garment that is being referred to. The standard ancient iconographic representation of a city usually included a wall strengthened by turrets, battlements or towers. This became a common motif on crowns worn by queens and goddesses, whose images have been unearthed in localities ranging from the Hittite kingdom in Asia Minor to Elam and Assyria.
During the Hellenistic era, many cities chose as their supernatural protector Tyche, the Greek goddess of good fortune (known to the Romans as “Fortuna”). Tyche was often depicted wearing a similar headgear with a representation of fortified city walls— what is referred to as a “mural crown.” The crown on the head of the Tyche of Antioch was particularly famous and probably served as a model for other cities.
Indeed, we possess an example of a painting from ancient times that depicts a distinguished Jewish lady sporting a mural crown on her head. It is found in one of the biblical frescoes that decorate the walls of the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria from the third century C.E. In the panel devoted to the story of Esther, the heroine is shown seated on her throne next to Ahasuerus. All of the paintings in the synagogue incorporate motifs from their contemporary Hellenistic environment, including the fashions of clothing and furnishings. Accordingly the crown atop Esther’s head has three golden towers—it is a city of gold (perhaps even a “Jerusalem of gold”) like the ones that were worn by all self-respecting ancient noblewomen, royalty or goddesses.
There is yet another intriguing feature that has been pointed out with respect to the uses of city-of-gold crowns. In the ancient Mediterranean region a very common function of the crowns was as a way of giving public recognition to the generosity of benefactors. Indeed the passage of centuries has done nothing to diminish the dependence of civic, cultural and educational institutions on the magnanimity of wealthy donors; and the recipients sought to motivate major supporters and to express their appreciation by bestowing conspicuous honour on them. Synagogues and Jewish religious schools were of course among the institutions that relied on such support, and women played a distinguished part as benefactors—as is amply attested by surviving plaques and inscriptions.
An inscription from the Anatolian city of Phocaea stated that “The synagogue of the Jews honoured Tation, daughter of Straton son of Empedon with a golden crown and the privilege of sitting in the seat of honour.” The Greek words used to designate the golden crown here are apparently the same ones that appear in the Jerusalem Talmud as the explanation of the “city of gold” mentioned in the Mishnah (though the text became garbled in transmission and had to be reconstructed by scholars).
It has therefore been suggested that the Talmud’s story about Rabbi Akiva’s wife’s golden city might have had an additional symbolic implication: in a profound way, this steadfast lady was, after all, a paradigmatic patroness of Jewish education, sacrificing her own comfort and happiness to put her husband through school. In that capacity, her grateful husband was honouring her with the same kind of diadem that would have been awarded to a wealthy donor to an academic institution.
Although most of us would probably have preferred to see some of that generosity being invested in the lady’s own education, it does nonetheless appear appropriate that the glow of Jerusalem’s gold should be associated with the selfless promotion of Jewish learning.