Rachel was the daughter of Ben Kalba Savua, who came from one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful families in Israel during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Akiva, a 40-year-old shepherd who worked for Ben Kalba Savua, asked Rachel to marry him. She agreed to do so if he promised to devote himself to the study of Torah after their wedding. Akiva agreed to do so, and they secretly married. Upon learning of this Ben Kalba Savua threw Rachel out of his house and disowned her, condemning her to a life of poverty while Akiva studied. The Talmud relates that after 12 years of study, Akiva returned with 12,000 students, but before entering his house he heard his wife say that she would be willing to have her husband continue to learn for another 12 years. Taking her on her word, he returned to the beit midrash for another 12 years, returning home this time with 24,000 students.
According to the Gemara, by this time Ben Kalba Savua had come to regret the decision to disown his daughter, and upon hearing that a great Rabbi had come to town he called on him to ask to annul his vow. Rabbi Akiva asked him whether he would have made the vow to disown his daughter had she married a Torah scholar. Upon informing him that he would not have done so even if his son-in-law knew a single chapter or verse, Akiva identified himself. Released from his vow, Ben Kalba Savua gave the couple half of his estate.
One question that is raised by the commentaries focuses on how Rabbi Akiva’s newfound knowledge could be a reason to annul a vow. Ordinarily an argument that is nolad – a new situation – cannot be used as a reason to undo a vow; rather, it needs to be a mistake that existed at the time that the vow was made. The Ritva argues that since the marriage was predicated on Akiva’s willingness to study, his success could not be considered nolad; furthermore it is likely that he did have some learning at the time the vow was made. The Meiri suggests that every person who is potentially a scholar – as Rabbi Akiva proved to be – cannot be considered without knowledge.