There are several brief but enticing references to the special status of the alephtav in the Babylonian Talmud.
In Hebrew, the use of the to mark the accusative case is never ambiguous because it is empty of meaning. It stands only as a mark of the grammatical relation between verb and object. Despite this ciphered silence, or perhaps because of it, many rabbis of the Talmud, especially Rabbis Simeon and Akiva, have viewed the as a sign of, an invitation to, amplification. And in Talmudic episteme, wherever there is room for amplification there is an invitation to see the sign of a divine intention for some other, secret or unwritten meaning.
Akiva's teacher was Rabbi Nahum of Gimzo, who attempted to explain every occurrence of in the Torah (see Hagigah 12b). Akiva builds on his work, suggesting that every occurrence of the is meant to indicate the presence of the Divine Hand. Here, Simeon refrains from expanding or expounding on the because in the command to have awe for G-d, any expansion would be heretical, or at least superfluous. Akiva slyly suggests that amplification is indeed possible, though it is in the form of a grace note: here, since the directly defines G-d, then it is also scholars who are to be included.
The most resonant of these discussions of the occurs in the Talmudic debate over the very first sentence of the Torah: "In the beginning, G-d created the Heaven and the Earth." The debate between Akiva and another great rabbi, his contemporary of the early second century, Rabbi Ishmael, begins when Ishmael asks Akiva, "Seeing that you have studied twenty-two years under Nahum of Gimzo, who taught that ... is always an amplification, how do you explain the in this verse?"
Akiva replies: "Had Scripture written 'In the beginning G-d created Heaven and Earth' and omitted the , we might have thought that Heaven and Earth were also deities."
"You do not know how to interpret Scripture!" Rabbi Ishmael returns insultingly. "This is the meaning: hashamayin (alephtav the sky) is meant to include the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets. And v'ha'aretz (and alephtav the earth) means to include trees and plants and the Garden of Eden."
Ishmael tries to trap Akiva into using to amplify a verse that needs no amplification. He cleverly begins by reminding him of his duty to follow the teachings of his mentor, Nahum of Gimzo, who used every to amplify the meaning of a verse. It is clear that Akiva is fond of quoting Nahum of Gimzo, since he has gone on to apotheosize the amplification of by associating it with the hidden presence of G-d. But in this instance, Akiva refuses. In fact, he takes an opposite tack. The here is not an amplification - a hidden reference to G-d's presence - but a contraction: it serves to emphasize the objectivity, the factual limitation of the sky and earth and warn us away from idolatry.
Ishmael catches Akiva out in his contradiction; he flings the contradiction back in Akiva's face.
[Even by your own rules] you do not know how to interpret the Torah! See here, even I can use your to amplify the verse: it means the sky including the stars and planets; it means the earth including the plants and Garden of Eden!
So what explains Akiva's hesitation? Why does he use the to constrict rather than expand the meaning of the very first line of the Torah?
Lurking in the background of this debate is the larger religious context of the time. Centuries of occupation, first by Persians and then by Greeks, had left Judaism on the defensive. Even the interregnum of Jewish Kings - the Hasmonean Dynasty (4th-1st centuries BCE) - required constant vigilance by Jewish leaders against Greek influences, especially among the members of the increasingly cosmopolitan royal family. Hellenism meant not only intermarriage and political and social subjugation but also the ever-recurring temptation to multiply gods.
Eventually, the Romans replaced the Greeks. They installed the wickedly inspired Herod, who was the last of the Hasmoneans. He was eager to promote Roman values and he inflicted humiliating cruelty on the Jews, including substituting religious symbols in the Temple. When Herod died, Israel fell into a chaos of competing factions. The uprising against Rome by Jewish zealots in 66 CE finally stung the Romans into action. They smashed the rebellion and destroyed the Temple. The following period in "Palestine," humiliatingly renamed by the Romans for Israel's inveterate enemies, the Philistines, saw the emergence of numerous sects and cults, including Gnosticism and the early seeds of Christianity. One of the common Gnostic principles was that divine forces worked within individual phenomena of Nature. While the Jewish tradition saw a continuity of the Divine Force (Schechina) everywhere in the universe, it insisted on the unity and singularity of G-d.
Though abstract, this Gnostic multiplication of divine entities would echo uncomfortably the many cults and idol-worshipping beliefs that challenged the Jews for fifteen hundred years, going back to the time of the Canaanites: worship of animals, trees, the sky, the sun, the moon ... Rabbi Ishmael is trying to trap Akiva into a Gnostic heresy. Akiva resists, seeing the trap, and in fact reveals the very trap by turning the interpretation of the into a reaffirmation of monotheism. Rabbi Ishmael one-ups Akiva: You could have stayed true to your principle of amplifying the and still avoided the Gnostic heresy by amplifying it in this way, see?
Rabbi Akiva later becomes one of the rabbis martyred by the Romans for supporting the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE.