Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai Study Archive
Abba Sikra, the head of the biryoni (rebels, bandits, looters) in Jerusalem, was the son of the sister of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.
Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai
Smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin | Predicted Vespasian’s elevation to the throne based upon his AD70 application of Isaiah 10:34 “And Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one”
“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple.. the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself (Predict thy own destruction) ? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars” (Soncino Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, vol. III Toma, p. 186)
Are All People Really Treated Equally? “Your question No. 2 concerns the story of Jabneh (‘Let’s Visit Jabneh,’ T.&T. of current month), particularly the plea of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, “Give me Jabneh and its scholars.” You asked, why did not Rabbi Jochanan plead for Jerusalem instead? Your own suggestion was that since Rabbi Jochanan knew that G‑d had decreed the destruction of Jerusalem, he did not want to act against G‑d’s wish.”
Ivan Lewis (2000)
“It seems certain that many of the scholars left Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple because they refused to participate in the revolt. They settled in Jabneh that was apparently not affected by the tumult of war. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai visited the Emperor Vespasian in his camp, he found favor in his eyes and Vespasian asked him to make a request. Rabban Yochanan did not ask that Jerusalem or the Temple be spared, but he requested that Jabneh and its scholars be saved. This clearly indicates that Jabneh was already the home of a large number of scholars.
Jabneh then became the center of Judaism-a new Jerusalem without a Temple or sacrifices. A new Sanhedrin was organized and assumed the rights of the previous Sanhedrin of Jerusalem to regulate Jewish life according to the interpretations of the Law. The scholars of Jabneh were of no less stature than those of Jerusalem. They would not have been chosen had they not been men of great religious and secular learning. They were also masters of the languages of the neighboring peoples, so as to be able to try cases between Jews and non-Jews without having to resort to outside experts and interpreters. ” (The Time of the Destruction of the Temple)
By REUVEN HAMMER
The destruction of the Temple that we commemorate on Tisha Be’av symbolizes above all the defeat of the Jews at the hand of Rome, the failure of the so-called “great revolt” that resulted in the exile of many Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish independence in the year 70 CE. It is impossible to exaggerate the depth of the crises that this brought to Jewish life. The very future existence of Judaism was at stake.
To my mind there was one man who was central to keeping Judaism alive, one true hero of the time. It was not the defenders of Masada, as tragic and brave as their stand may have been, for in the end their legacy added nothing to the continued existence of the Jewish people. They followed a Roman ideal in which suicide was seen as an honorable way to die rather than to surrender or fight to the death. We may understand their pain and mourn for them, but they were not the salvation of Judaism.
The man to whom I refer was Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai. Ben Zakkai early on saw the folly of attempting to revolt against Rome and urged the rebels to cease the fighting which he believed would only lead to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. To some, his way may have seemed traitorous, for he preferred living under Roman rule to bringing about the destruction of Jerusalem. This does not mean he thought the Romans were right. On the contrary, he considered them to be “a low people” (Ketubot 66b), but he did not allow himself to be carried away by the enthusiasm of the rebels, rather he recognized the reality of the situation. Had they listened to him, a great tragedy would have been averted and the entire course of Jewish history would have been altered.
Seeing that the rebels were not going to surrender and destruction was unavoidable, he did not simply wring his hands in despair but devised a plan for the future. “Who is a wise man? He who foresees what will happen,” said the rabbis. The stories and legends that are told about his escape from Jerusalem in a coffin are well known (see for example Gittin 56a-b).
As with so many ancient tales, we may never know exactly what happened, but the general story is clear. He escaped from Jerusalem, made contact with the Romans and was given permission to reside in Yavne together with “its Sages.” Some speculate that other Sages had been kept in detention in Yavne, others that it was simply a center for study. Whatever the case, Yavne then became a center for the preservation of Jewish tradition and the Sages were able to lead the nation when all political frameworks had been destroyed.
Ben Zakkai was responsible for a number of practical measures that were needed in order to keep Judaism alive following the destruction of the Temple. For example, he ordained that the shofar be sounded when Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbat wherever there was a rabbinical court (Rosh Hashana 4:1), something that previously had been done only in the Temple. He was demonstrating that the destruction of the Temple did not signify the end of Judaism, that authority continued to exist in the councils of the Sages. The flock of the Lord was not without a shepherd because of his wise action. The traditions of Judaism, its laws and ethics, were kept alive and revitalized through the work of the Sages.
Probably the most well known and possibly the most important of his teachings in this regard concerned the question of the cessation of sacrifices. How could that be dealt with? Judaism was centered around the Temple. The sacrificial system was considered to be the very heart of Jewish worship. Atonement itself was dependent upon the sacrifices.
The story is told (which I recently referred to in another context) that Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!” But Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, “Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim – acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire hesed – loving-kindness – and not sacrifice!’” (Hosea 6:6). Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:21.
We know that when the Temple was destroyed, Yohanan Ben Zakkai “rent his garments, took off his tefillin and sat weeping” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 2, 7:21), but he did not stop there. Instead of merely lamenting the loss, he went to the core of Judaism and taught that sacrifices were not the ultimate aim, but only the means to achieve Judaism’s goal of living according to God’s will. By this act of creative interpretation of Hosea’s verse – true midrash – he redefined Judaism so that those who had suffered defeat could live by it and Judaism would not perish. We all owe him a great debt.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
A Rationalist Moment For Rashi
The Gemara (Sukkah 28a) offers effusive praise for Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, saying that he know all areas of knowledge, including the “discussions of angels, the discussions of demons, the discussions of palm trees, the parables of launderers and the parables of foxes.”
What are these mysterious and mystical areas of knowledge? Could he actually talk to plants, animals and celestial beings?
To explain “discussions of angels, the discussions of demons, the discussions of palm trees”, Rashi writes, “I don’t know what this is.” This is highly significant because of what Rashi could have said.
In In a parallel passage (Bava Basra 134a), Rabbenu Gershom explains “the discussions of demons” as “He knew how to recite incantations and to force them to swear with God’s name.” He says the same about the “discussions of angels.” In other words, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai could force demons and angels to perform his bidding. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, explains in a similar vein in his commentary to Bava Basra.
Assuming that these commentaries are correctly attributed, we have Rashi deviating from an explanation that preceded him and was evidently sufficiently current to be repeated by his grandson. Perhaps Rashi had a rationalist streak that emerges here.
Of note is Rashi’s commentary to 1 Kings 5:13, regarding Shlomo’s wisdom:
וידבר על העצים מן הארז אשר בלבנון ועד האזוב אשר יצא בקיר וידבר על הבהמה ועל העוף ועל הרמש ועל הדגים.
And he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that (is) in Lebanon and to the hyssop that springs out of the wall, and he spoke of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of the creeping things, and of the fishes.
Rashi (link) explains that this does not mean that Shlomo spoke to trees and animals but that he understood their natures: “Which cure is derived from each tree, and that particular wood would be best for that type of building and to plant [a certain tree] in that type of earth. And also of the beasts, what is its cure and the vital elements [necessary] for its upbringing and development and its food.”