Who are you? What are you doing here?

Akiva ben Yosef was an influential first century rabbi, living in Roman territory, who inspired many followers. He has a lesson to teach us that is just as pertinent today as it was 2,000 years ago, and especially applicable to retirement planning.

As legend would have it, Rabbi Akiva was travelling home to Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, lost in his thoughts about a particular passage of Scripture as he travelled. Men were no better at multi-tasking then than they are now, and he took a wrong turning as a result – a very wrong turning that led him to the front gate of a Roman fortress, where he was startled by a guard who demanded answers to two questions:

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Shaken from his meditation, Rabbi Akiva asked the Roman guard to repeat himself.


But the answer from Rabbi Akiva took the form of a question:

“How much are you paid weekly to ask those two questions?”

Now it was the guard who was shaken, but he mustered the response, “Two drachmas.”

“Very well, then,” Rabbi Akiva responded, “I’ll pay you twice that much if you would join my employ and ask me those two questions every morning.”

I don’t think we ask these questions as often as we should, particularly when we have retired. Most of us answer the question “Who are you?” by telling people what we do for a living, and retirees often continue to give the same answer in retirement, saying what they used to do. By answering this question with answers about your values, and what you would like to do, you can bring meaning to your retirement. And, of course, the answers are likely to be different in each of the three phases of retirement (“Go Go”, “Slow Go”, “No Go”).

“What are you doing (here)?” is a way of confirming whether you are doing things in accordance with who you are. Have you accidentally taken a wrong turning like the Rabbi?

Much of what you will read about retirement will start with questions about “how”. For example, how can I save £1million so I can retire, or how do I maximise my ISA? “How” is a bad place to start and doing so will often lead you to an answer to a question you didn’t need to answer! So, next time you read an article that sets out how you can take the most out of your savings tax-free, summon Rabbi Akiva’s Roman guard, and ask yourself his two questions.

Philip Wise | philip@sussexretirement.co.uk

Managing Director and Chartered Financial Planner

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