Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai Saves Torah
The three-year Roman siege of Yerushalayim portended doom for Jewish nationalism. The inhabitants of the Holy City were divided; some were wearied from the hopelessness of the situation; others, although refusing to surrender, fought among themselves. Hunger and disease were rampant. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was among those leaders who determined to do something about the impending destruction of Yerushalyim.
“The Jewish people are fighting among themselves,” he reasoned. “There are so many different political parties, so many different opinions on how to deal with the enemy; the Sicarii, or Biryonim, as they sometimes call themselves, are clandestine killers. Anyone they see speaking to a Roman finds his life endangered and becomes a target for their foul play. The Zealots want to fight the mighty enemy and restore Jewish independence; they think the situation is the same as it was in the days of the Maccabbees.
[Ed. Approximately two hundred years prior to the Roman siege, the Jewish people rebelled against pagan Greek/Syrian domination and overcame them. Mattathias and his five sons (one was named Judah, and was called Maccabee) organized the rebellion. The holiday of Chanukah is celebrated to commemorate the victory over paganism and the restoration of Jewish life.]
“I and the rest of the Pharisees only want to live peacefully, so we can study and transmit Torah. The Saducees want to become allied with the Romans. And the Romans? what do they do? They enforce the siege and wait patiently while brothers destroy brothers. Woe unto us! If the Holy Temple is destroyed, it will be because my people did not want to live together in peace. It will be because we hated each other for no reason. We are one people, but we act so differently. There are four political parties, each with its own agenda. [Ed. Why was the Second Holy Temple destroyed? Because needless hatred prevailed. Talmud Bavli Yoma 9b]
“I must do something, something spectacular, something that will save the Torah way of life. The Jewish people will be able to survive without the Holy Temple, but they will not survive without Torah. Hmm … Maybe my plan will work. But, perhaps my nephew, Abba Sikra, will conceive an even better plan.”
The next morning, he called his nephew, who was the leader of the Binyonim:
“How long will you continue to kill your brothers?”
“What can I do to stop them? I am their leader, but they do what they want. If I reprimand them, they will think that I have joined with you and the Pharisees, and they will kill me too.”
“Listen, I have to escape from Yerushalayim in order to try to save the Torah way of life.” He explained his plan. “What do you think of it? Is it possible for me to succeed?”
“Let’s do it this way, uncle. I believe it will have a better chance. No one must know what we are planning except you and your two most loyal disciples, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.”
“I want you to pretend that you are gravely ill. We will announce throughout Yerushalyim that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is dying. People will come to pay their respects. You will pretend to grow weaker and weaker. Finally, you will feign death. I will find some decayed flesh, that has a terrible odor, and I will place it on your bier. You must practice lying perfectly still, not moving a muscle, not even an eyelid. Eliezer, Yehoshua, and I will carry the bier to the gates of the city. We will demand that the guards let us pass, in order to bury you outside the walls.
“What will you do once you are outside the walls?”
“Make sure that I get out of the city safely, and you will see!”
It did not take many days for Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua to announce the death of their revered teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. A great procession followed the bier until the gates of Yerushalyim, where it was halted by the Jewish guards posted inside the gates.
“Let us through,” Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Abba Sikra demanded. “The cemetery is outside the walls and we must bury our teacher with dignity.”
“We must check that you are not tricking us; that he is actually dead,” they insisted. One of the guards lifted his sword, preparing to stab the body.”
“How can you do that?” they clamored. “The Romans will say that the guards at the gates violated a body and thereby disgraced their revered master.”
“Then we will just shove the body a little,” they continued stubbornly.
“Then all the Jews inside the city will also condemn you for not having respect for the dead.”
Ashamed, they opened the gates and allowed Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Abba Sikra to walk through with the bier.
As soon as they reached a safe distance, out of sight of the gates of Yerushalyim, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakki jumped off the bier, bid farewell to his students, and ran toward the Roman camp. Once there he demanded that the guards escort him to General Vespasian’s tent. Stunned to find a Jew among them, they pointed to the place where Vespasian sat in war council with his lieutenants.
“Peace to you, your majesty, King of Rome,” pronounced Rabban Yochanan, as he lowered his head respectfully.
“You deserve to die twice,” ranted Vespasian. “First, you have pronounced me king,’ while I am but a general; second, if I am the king, why haven’t you come sooner to pay your respects?”
“I will answer your second question first, your majesty,” whispered Rabban Yochanan. “You see, my people are sorely divided. Some among them would surely have put me to death, had they found that I tried to contact you. As it is, my escape from Yerushalyim on a bier is nothing short of miraculous.”
At that exact moment, a messenger from Rome arrived.
“Your majesty,” the messenger called out. There was a stunned silence all around. “Nero has died. The Senate has sent me to inform you that they have proclaimed you emperor!”
Rabban Yochanan no longer had to answer the first question.
“You are so wise,” continued Vespasian. “Before I return to Rome, and leave the siege of your holy city in the hands of Titus, my son, I will grant you any request.”
“Grant me, your majesty, permission to move the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) and its scholars from the besieged city of Yerushalyim to Yavneh, a small town near the Mediterranean coast; allow the family of Rabban Gamliel, descendants of the Davidic dynasty to live; and send a doctor to cure Rabbi Zadok who has fasted so long for Yerushalyim to be saved that it is almost impossible for him to digest food.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s requests were granted. Yavneh became a major center of Torah learning, the first of such cities where Torah was the focus of Jewish life. There Jewish spiritual leaders prepared for a long and arduous exile that was to begin three years later when the Holy Temple lay in ruins. The precedent of moving the Torah center from Yerushalayim to Yavneh, and then to other cities in the Diaspora (lands outside of Eretz Israel) sustained the Jewish people in the centuries that followed.
[Ed. As the (first) Holy Temple was burning, a group of young priests went to the roof. Their leader carried the keys in his hand. He prayed: Master of the Universe! We were not worthy keepers of Your House. Therefore, please take back your keys. In the presence of the other young priests, he threw the keys heavenward. Immediately, a Heavenly Hand emerged and grasped the keys. Talmud Bavli, Taanit 29a]
RAHBAHN YOCHAHNAN BEN ZAHKIY SAVES TORAH VOCABULARY FOR JEWISH CULTURAL LITERACY
[Note: The educator will find certain vocabulary listed in the lesson plan that is not in the story. To achieve Jewish cultural literacy, the learner should be familiar with the added vocabulary. It is placed within the context of the lesson plan that is most relevant to its usage within the expansion of the story to fit the ILW. For example, Mahsahdah and Baytar, two fortresses located in the Judean desert were overrun by the Romans, three years and sixty-five years respectfully after the destruction of the second Bet Hamikdash. Learners achieving Jewish cultural literacy should be familiar with these historical events. The details follow in the lesson plan under the category of Jewish Place.]
The numbers in brackets at the conclusion of a definition are a cross-reference to indicate the location of the same vocabulary in other chapters. The repetition is intentional to save the educator having to flip through the pages to locate the explanation of a particular vocabulary.]
- BAYTAR was a mountain fortress situated southwest of Yerushalayim.
- BAYT DIN literally means the “house of law,” and the term refers to a Jewish court, generally constituted of three learned judges, which convened throughout Ehrehtz Yisrahayl when the Jewish people were independent and in the subsequent gahlut.
- BAYT HAHMIKDASH, BAHTAY MIKDASH (plural) means the holy temple in Yerushalayim. There were two holy temples. The first one was built by Shlomo HahMehlehch (King Solomon) and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. The second one was built by those who returned to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl after seventy years of the Babylonian exile, and it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
- EHREHTZ YISRAHAYL is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. In God’s covenant with Avraham, the borders of Ehrehtz Yisrahayl would stretch from “the river of Egypt (Nile River) to the great river, the Euphrates. [1, 5, 6, 13, 16, 24, 28, 29]
- G’ MAHRAH is the discussion, elaboration, and amplification of the mishnah. It is, as if, in our modern times, a conference would be recorded in shorthand while being participated in by the most prominent scholars who have expertise in a given subject. Their recorded running commentary would be similar to the discussion on the pages of the g’mahrah. The term originally meant a unit of teaching upon which commentary was elucidated. Both mishnah and g’mahrah have in common the concept of studying. The scholars who interpreted the g’mahrah are called ahmorahim. [1, 5]
- GAHLUT means exile. Any country outside of Ehrehtz Yisrahayl is considered to be a land of exile. [1, 6, 8, 19, 20, 24]
- KASHRUT is the Hebrew word for the kosher laws. The word literally means fit and proper and refers to the dietary laws, i.e. what foods are permissible for a Jew to eat according to Jewish law. The kosher identity marks of domesticated animals are a cloven and split hoof and it must chew its cud. The kosher identity marks of fish are fins, gills, and scales. The kosher identity marks of fowl are that they must not be birds of prey. In addition, there is a mitzvah mandating the separation of milk and meat. [1, 2, 3, 23]
- MAHSAHDAH is a mountain fortress situated on the edge of the Judean Desert, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, southeast of Yerushalayim.
- MISHNAH is the collection of Jewish law and ethics, based upon the Torah. The root of the Hebrew word is SHNH, which means to learn, to repeat. It refers to the oral law that was transmitted from one generation of sages to the next by memory. Rabbi Ahkevah began the process of writing down these laws, for he lived during the time when Roman oppressive decrees had prohibited the study of Torah, and he feared that the Jewish people would forget the law. Until his time, the study of Torah was b’al peh, learned by memory. In the following generation, Rahbaynu Hahkahdosh, Rabbi Y’hudah HahNahse compiled and edited the mishnah in the form that we know it today. It is divided into six sections that deal with every phase of life. The six sections are: Z’rahem (seeds) and it regulates the laws of agriculture; Moayd (holy days) and it regulates the laws of Shabbat and holidays; Nahshim (women) and it regulates the laws of marriage and divorce; N’zekin (damages) and it regulates civil and penal laws; Kodshim (sacred things) and it regulates the laws of sacrifices that were brought to Yerushalayim when the bayt hahmikdash stood; Tohahrot (cleanness) and it regulates the laws of ritual uncleanness.
- MONOTHEISM means the doctrine of or belief in the existence of One God. Polytheism means the belief in many gods.
- ROMAN EMPIRE controlled the known world from approximately the first century Before the Common Era (B. C. E.) until the end of the fifth century of the Common Era (C. E.) through conquest and territorial additions. The emperors generally succeeded in imposing their culture upon the conquered. The Romans built a system of roads, developed sea routes, mail delivery, commerce and industry. Two notable Roman rulers are mentioned in this story. Vespasian laid siege to the bayt hahmikdash, was recalled to Rome as emperor, and was succeeded by his son Titus, who destroyed it.
- SAHNHEHDRIN was the Jewish Supreme Court that functioned during the period of the second bayt hahmikdash. It consisted of seventy-one members, whose function as a legislative body was to interpret biblical laws and to enact new laws; it was presided over by the president, the nahse, and the vice-president, the av bayt din. The Sahnhehdrin had jurisdiction over all religious matters. It met in Yerushalayim daily, except on Shabbat and holy days. [1, 5]
- TALMUD most commonly denotes the body of teaching which comprises the commentary and discussions of the ahmoraim, which is also interchangeable with the g’mahrah. The difference is that Talmud includes both the mishnah and the g’mahrah. There are two versions of the Talmud. One version was written in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl and it is called the Talmud Yerushalme. The other version was written in Babylonia, and it is called the Talmud Bavle. Rav Ahbah Arechah is considered the first of the Babylonian ahmoraim; while Rabbi Yochanan is considered the first of the Ehrehtz Yisrahayl ahmoraim. The Talmud was composed between the third and fifth centuries (200 – 400 C. E.) in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl and between the third and sixth centuries (200 – 500 C. E.) in Babylonia.
- TESHAH B’AV the ninth day of the month of Av is a fast day. It commemorates the destruction of both bahtay mikdash. Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy anticipated the destruction. He took steps to save Torah, because he knew that he could not save Yerushalayim. Teshah B’Av is considered a day of national Jewish mourning. In Israel, the flag flies at half mast on Teshah B’Av. [1, 4, 20]
- YAVNEH V’CHAHCHAHMEHHAH means the city of Yavneh and its scholars. The expression refers to Rahbahn Yochahnan ben Zahkiy’s plea to Vespasian to be permitted to remove the scholars from the besieged city of Yerushalayim to the coastal town of Yavneh.
This lesson focuses on the effect of Roman rule over the Jewish people, the Biblical connection to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, our ancestral homeland, and the fall of Mahsahdah and Baytar, symbols of the last remnants of Jewish independence in ancient times.
1) The Effect of Roman Rule Over the Jewish People
The ancient Roman empire ruled Ehrehtz Yisrahayl and most of the known world from about one hundred years before the beginning of the common era. It was part of their territorial conquests. Although very small, it was a coveted piece of real estate, because it connected three continents, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Romans subjugated the people that they conquered, expecting them to adhere to the Roman way of life. Most of the conquered had no problem complying, for they perceived Rome as the purveyor of western civilization. Most of the Jewish people refused to accept the pagan society, which directly conflicted with their belief in monotheism. They refused to conform to Roman rule. The Kahnahim (Zealots), the militant nationalists, agitated for revolt. The P’rushim (Pharisees), failed to support the revolt, realizing that rebellion against Rome would reap disastrous results. The Jewish people were totally divided on how to deal with the enemy and the divisiveness paved the way for destruction.
Retaliating against the rebels, the Romans imposed harsher and harsher restrictions and oppressive measures. The oppressive measures were the same ones instituted by the Greek ruler Antiochus about one hundred fifty years before the Romans appeared on the scene. He prohibited Torah study, the observance of Shabbat, the calculation of Rosh Chodesh (the new month), bret melah, the ritual of circumcision, and kashrut. At that time, the Jewish people, led by Yehudah HahMahkahbe (Judah Maccabbee) revolted against the rule of Antiochus, which resulted in the reclamation of independence and the rededicating of the bayt hahmikdash. The holiday of Chanukah commemorates that event.
The Romans added another decree to the original five. They prohibited the Jews from entering Yerushalayim, except on Teshah B’Av, our national day of Jewish mourning, after the destruction of the bayt hahmikdash. Then they rebuilt our holy city as a pagan shrine and renamed it Aeolina Capitolina.
Teshah B’Av marks the exile of the Jewish people from our land. After the first destruction, the Jewish people were exiled to Babylonia. Seventy years later, they were given permission to return to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl and rebuildthe bayt hahmikdash. After the destruction of the second bayt hahmikdash, the Jewish people were exiled once again. This exile is called the Roman exile. It is almost two thousand years, and Jews are living in gahlut communities all over the world.
2) The Biblical Connection to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl
What is our Biblical connection to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people? In explaining why the Torah begins with creation, Rashe, foremost of our biblical commentators explain that the Torah is more than a system of law:
If the Torah were only a system of law, it would have begun with the mitzvah of designating Rosh Chodesh (the New Month) Nesan, the first month of the Jewish calendar year, in preparation for the celebration of Paysach, because it is the first commandment which was commanded upon the Jewish people. However, it begins with creation “to convey the message that to God belongs the whole world, and God bequeaths the land to whomever God sees fit. God created it and God gives it to the nation to whom God intended to give it.” Therefore, the nations of the world can never say to the Jewish people that they stole Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, for it was God-given.
To further support this thesis, “the Almighty gave the Jewish people three precious gifts: the gift of Torah, the gift of Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, and the gift of ohlahm hahbah (the world to come). Throughout the book of B’rayshet (Genesis), God’s promise to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob): “L’ zarahchah ehtayn et hahahrehtz hahzot (to your children will I give this land),” is repeated very often.
[Note: See the Jewish Place section in Lesson 2 / 3 for more references to the connection of the Jewish people to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl.]
Our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov and our matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah, and Layah (Sara, Rebecca, and Leah) are buried in Chevron, Me’o’rat HahMachpaylah (Hebron). Rachel is buried in Bayt Lechem (Bethlehem). Before Yosef (Joseph) died in Egypt, he made his brothers swear, that when God would redeem the Jewish people, they would exhume his bones and re-bury them in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, the land that God swore to give as an inheritance to the descendants of, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. From various texts in Sh’mot (Exodus), we learn that Ehrehtz Yisrahayl is “ehrehtz zahvat chahlav u’d’vash“(a land flowing with milk and honey). During the years of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, God’s promise rang out true and clear. There would be an end to slavery, redemption, Revelation on Sinai (receiving the Torah), and settlement in the ancestral homeland, which flows with milk and honey.
It is also “a land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, a land of olives and dates; a land in which you will not eat bread frugally, in which you will lack for nothing; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will dig copper.”
From these Biblical sources, we see the connection of the Jewish people to Ehrehtz Yisrahayl. As a matter of fact, except for the 210 years of Egyptian slavery and the 40 years of sojourn in the desert, a total of 250 years, there has always been a Jewish presence in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl.
3) The Fall of Mahsahdah and Baytar
Two struggles to restore Jewish independence from Roman tyranny are associated with the fortresses of Mahsahdah and Baytar. Mahsahdah is located on the top of an isolated rock on the southeast edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Baytar was located southwest of Yerushalayim. On Mahsahdah, a community of approximately 1,000 men, women, and children, stubbornly refused to surrender to Roman tyranny. The leader on Mahsahdah was Ehleehzehr ben Yaher, a Kanniy (Zealot), representing the political party that wanted to fight mighty Rome in order to restore Jewish independence. They held out for almost three years following the destruction of the bayt hahmikdash; for the fortress was supplied with food and water. The Romans, determined to squash the Jewish rebels, laid siege to this inaccessible fortress in the year 72. It took, a year, or possibly two until the besiegers succeeded in making a breach in the wall. At this point, the defenders realized that the fall of the fortress was imminent, and decided to commit suicide rather than surrender. They knew the horrible fate that awaited them had they permitted Roman soldiers to capture them alive.
Approximately sixty-five years later, the Jewish people, under the leadership of Rabbi Ahkevah and Shemon Bar Kochbah attempted to overthrow Rome and rid Ehrertz Yisrahayl of the hated foreign conqueror once again. With initial success, they regained control of part of Ehrehtz Yisrahayl located south of Yerushalayim, set up an effective administration, minted coins, moved the Sahnhehdrin there from Yavneh, and removed all traces of Roman pagan idolatry from the holy city. Rome responded to this threat against their supremacy in the summer of 133. The Roman general Julius Severus was recalled from his outpost in Britain to form a counterattack against the Jewish rebels. Gradually, their superior forces regained control of Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, from the Gahlil in the north to the southern portion controlled by Bar Kochbah’s forces. The final outpost was Baytar, and it fell to Rome on Teshah B’Av in 135. Almost all the defenders died in the battle; only a few escaped to the caves in the vicinity. Resistance to Roman rule, and then rule of many other foreign conquerors, ended; approximately 2,000 years would pass before the re-establishment in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl of the modern political state of Israel.
This story is closely connected with Teshah B’Av, our national day of Jewish mourning. It marks the destruction of both bahtay mikdash (holy temples), the first in 586 B.C. E. at the hands of the Babylonians, and the second in 70 C. E. at the hands of the Romans. According to our tradition, the origin of Teshah B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) as a day of mourning occurred while the Jewish people were sojourning in the desert after the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. The Mishnah tells us: “Five things happened to our forefathers on Teshah B’Av. The twelve spies returned to the desert after exploring Ehrehtz Yisrahayl and reported evil tidings about the holy land resulting in our forefathers being condemned to 40 years in the desert before entering the Promised Land, both bahtay mikdash (holy temples) were destroyed on this day, Baytar fell, Yerushalayim was plowed with salt.”
Historians tell us the Jews were expelled from England on Teshah B’Av in 1290, exiled from Spain on Teshah B’Av, 1492, and World War I, the forerunner of the Holocaust broke out on Teshah B’Av in 1914. Treblinka, one of the main Nazi extermination centers, began its operation of mass slaughter on Teshah B’Av. The English date was July 23, 1942.
How do we observe this day of mourning?
Teshah B’Av is a fast day, commencing from evening the previous day until after dark the next day. In the synagogue, congregants sit on low stools, imitating the behavior of mourners. During the evening service, Aychah (Lamentations, ascribed to the prophet Yermeyahu (Jeremiah) is recited, and in the morning the Kenot (religious poetry describing the tragedy of the destruction and expressing the hope for redemption) are added to the usual morning prayer service which is conducted without binding t’filin and wearing tahlit. These are donned during minchah, the afternoon prayer service. Besides not partaking in food or drink on this day, it is the custom to refrain from wearing leather shoes, from bathing, and from cohabitation. In Israel, the blue and white flag flies at half mast on this day.
Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy refused to allow civil dissent to paralyze him into inaction. The narrative and the editor’s notes in the story describe the various political parties, and the devastation the disunity wreaked upon Ehrehtz Yisrahayl in general and Yerushalayim in particular. He was a leader with foresight. Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy knew that it was impossible to win a victory over the mighty Roman army; fighting was not his way, anyway. His mission was to save the Torah and its scholars, to move the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, from the grounds of the bayt hahmikdash to a sleepy little village on the Mediterranean coast, away from the political turmoil. Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy created “portable Judaism.” He succeeded in moving the center of religious life away from the sacrificial cult, officiated by priests, to holy text and study, taught by sages, from sacred place (bayt hahmikdash) to sanctified time (celebration of holy days and life cycle events). Although worship in the bayt hahmikdash had great significance, the Jewish people could survive without its building if they carried Torah with them. In essence, he was teaching us that buildings can be replaced; only the Torah is eternal. It is only Torah that is the key to Jewish continuity.
Our sages discussed the reasons for the destruction of both bahtay mikdash. Their message is as important today as it was then, i.e., we must learn to live peacefully. Hatred without cause inevitably ends up in destruction.
“Why was the first bayt hahmikdash destroyed? Because of three evils that prevailed at that time: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. Why was the second bayt Hamikdash destroyed, seeing that in its time, the Jewish people were occupying themselves with the study of Torah, the mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. This teaches that groundless hatred is considered as serious an evil as idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined.”
Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy prepared us for a long and arduous gahlut. Gahlut is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we know that mepnay chahtahaynu, because of our sins we have been driven from our land.” This liturgical passage is recited in the musaf, the additional prayer service on Paysach, Shavuot, and Succot, and reminds us three times a year why we have been exiled to the four corners of the earth. On the other hand, the prophet inspired us with the message: “And I shall make you be a light among the nations.” The reason that we are in gahlut is so that we may become an example of morality and holiness to the nations among whom we live. On the third hand, living in relative security among the nations poses the problem of assimilation. This problem is exemplified in the American Jewish community whose major concern is Jewish continuity.
Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy epitomizes Jewish leadership. Leadership might have different connotations depending on the needs of the people. A Jewish leader must be able to inspire the people to reach for a higher level of holiness than the one in which they normally function, by showing them the path. Through a qualified leader, a righteous person, the level of the entire people can be lifted to a more holy place. Thus it was with Mosheh, Ahhahron, and Meryam, who are considered the three leaders, par excellent, of the Jewish people. They sustained the spiritual and physical needs of the people during the forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egyptian bondage.
Another type of leader was Dovid HahMehlech, King David. He was both a warrior (he slew Goliath, subdued the Philistines, and consolidated his kingdom) yet, he was known as the sweet singer of Israel, the composer of most of the T’hilim (Psalms), which constitutes a great part of our prayer book, teaching us how to pour out our hearts before God. Still another leader was Rabbi Y’hudah HahNase, the redactor of the Mishnah. Of him, it was said: “he was supremely great in both Torah and worldly affairs.”
Often, a leader was appointed by the scholars to distribute charity. This individual had to be sensitive to the suffering of those in need. He could not be arrogant, nor act according to the dictates of his heart. Rather, his actions were judged by his relationship with those less fortunate than himself. His actions had to be “for the glorification of God’s Holy Name.”
In various gahlut situations, a leader was selected by his ability to communicate between the government and the Jewish community. He served in a protective role. It is apparent, that many different types of leaders played key roles in our history.
In the precarious situation in which Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy found the Jewish people, he determined a necessary course of action and acted immediately upon it. He disregarded the danger to himself to achieve the goal of saving the Torah. He is known to have said: “If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do.” Today, we admit that Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy had 20/20 hindsight, for, throughout the experience of exile, we have survived as a people because he taught us the concept of “portable Judaism.” This means that wherever we live, we survive as a nation because of our commitment to Torah and its precepts.
Another quote attributed to Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy shows us how he inspired his students to live meritorious lives.
“He said to five disciples: Go out and discern which is the proper way to which a person should cling. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshuah said: A good friend. Rabbi Yose said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: one who considers the outcome of a deed. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy summarized their findings by telling them that having a good heart includes all of the other personality traits.”
QUESTION TO PONDER
- What is the difference between a bayt din and the bayt hahmikdash?
- Name our three patriarchs to whom God promised Ehrehtz Yisrahayl as an inheritance to their descendants.
- Why did Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy choose Yavneh?
- Locate the area of the Dead Sea on a map of Ehrehtz Yisrahayl. How would you describe the geographical features of the two fortresses, Mahsahdah and Baytar which are in that area?
- What attempts at Jewish independence occurred before the Romans finally squashed the hope of the Jewish people to be free of foreign oppression?
- How do the five mitzvot, which both the Greeks and the Romans prohibited, identify a person as a Jew?
- Why would it not be permitted to celebrate a Jewish wedding on Teshah B’Av?
- From the narrative, we see that the guards at the gate of Yerushalayim were Jews. Do you think they acted like Jews or could you suspect that they might have been Romans? Consider the political situation in those days to support your response.
- Give two examples of how the story shows hatred without cause?
- What would have happened had all the Jewish people remained permanently in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl?
- For which three things did Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy ask Vespasian? Why was it so important to ask for Yavneh V’Chahchahmehhah?
- If you were in the position of Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy, what would have been your response to the situation in Yerushalayim during the Roman siege?
- What would have happened had Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy not shown us the way to exile?
- Which personality trait best describes a “mentch (a human being)?”
FOR FURTHER READING
– Jacob Neusner, A Life of Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970)
– Jacob Neusner, First Century Judaism in Crisis: Yochanan ben Zahkiy and the Renaissance of Torah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975)
– Ahvot D’Rabbi Nahsahn, trans. Judah Goldin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955)