Skip to content

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai

Here is a wonderful story of redemption for Tisha B’av

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai Saves Torah

Annette Labovitz

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 how to deal with the enemy; theSicarii, 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 Maccabbee) 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 onlywant 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 isdestroyed, 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 wasthe 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. Youwill 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 towalk 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 questionfirst, 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]