Yohanan ben Zakkai[a] (Hebrew: ? ?, Yn?n ben Zakka?y; 1st century CE), sometimes abbreviated as Ribaz () for Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, was one of the Tannaim, an important Jewish sage in the era of the Second Temple, and a primary contributor to the core text of Rabbinical Judaism, the Mishnah. His name is often preceded by the honorific title, "Rabban." He is widely regarded as one of the most important Jewish figures of his time and his escape from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, that allowed him to continue teaching, may have been instrumental in rabbinic Judaism surviving the destruction. His tomb is located in Tiberias, within the Maimonides burial compound.
The Talmud reports that, in the mid-first century, he was particularly active in opposing the Sadducees' interpretations of Jewish law, and produced counter-arguments to the Sadducees' objection to the Pharisees. So dedicated was he to opposing the Sadducee view of Jewish law, that he prevented the Jewish high priest, who was a Sadducee, from following the Sadducee interpretation of the Red Heifer ritual.
His home, at this time, was in Arav, a village in the Galilee, where he spent eighteen years. However, although living among them, he found the attitude of Galileans to be objectionable, allegedly exclaiming that they hated the Torah and would therefore "fall into the hands of robbers." During the outbreak of hostilities, he settled in Jerusalem.
During the siege of Jerusalem in the First Jewish-Roman War, he argued in favour of peace; according to the Talmud, when he found the anger of the besieged populace to be intolerable, he arranged a secret escape from the city inside a coffin, so that he could negotiate with Vespasian (who, at this time, was still just a military commander). Yochanan correctly predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor, and that the temple would soon be destroyed; in return, Vespasian granted Yochanan three wishes: the salvation of Yavne and its sages, the descendants of Rabban Gamliel, who was of the Davidic dynasty, and a physician to treat Rabbi Tzadok, who had fasted for 40 years to stave off the destruction of Jerusalem.
Upon the destruction of Jerusalem, Yochanan converted his school at Yavne into the Jewish religious centre, insisting that certain privileges, given by Jewish law uniquely to Jerusalem, should be transferred to Yavne. His school functioned as a re-establishment of the Sanhedrin, so that Judaism could decide how to deal with the loss of the sacrificial altars of the temple in Jerusalem, and other pertinent questions. Referring to a passage in the Book of Hosea, "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice", he helped persuade the council to replace animal sacrifice with prayer, a practice that continues in today's worship services; eventually Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the council's conclusions.
In his last years he taught at Bror Hayil, a location near Yavne. His habitude was to wear his Tefillin (phylacteries) all throughout the day, both in summer and winter. However, during the hot summer months, he only wore his arm phylactery. His students were present at his deathbed, and were requested by him, in his penultimate words, according to the Talmudic record, to reduce the risk of ritual contamination conveyed by a corpse:
Put the vessels out of the house, that they may not become unclean...
...prepare a throne for Hezekiah, the King of Judah, who is coming
According to the Talmud, Yochanan ben Zakkai lived 120 years. His students returned to Yavneh upon his death, and he was buried in the city of Tiberias; eleven centuries later, Maimonides was buried nearby. In his role as leader of the Jewish Council, he was succeeded by Gamliel II.
This section contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (May 2021)
The following story is related in the Jewish classic, Avoth deRabbi Nathan (version B, chapter 4:5), concerning the war with Rome.
When Vespasian came to destroy Jerusalem, he said to them: 'You fools! Why do you seek to burn down the holy house? After all, what am I asking of you? I merely ask that you relinquish unto me each man his bow and arrow, and I will depart from you.' They answered him in return: 'Just as we went out against two [Roman armies] that came before you and killed them, so, too, will we go out against you and kill you!' (i.e. the reference is to the Roman general Cestius who was defeated by the Judeans in 66 CE, marking the beginning of the war with Rome).
When our Master, Yochanan b. Zakkai, heard these words, he called out to the men of Jerusalem and said to them: 'My sons, why would you destroy this city, or seek to burn down the holy house!? After all, what is he (i.e. Vespasian) asking of you? Look, he's not asking from you anything except that you relinquish your bows and arrows, and he'll depart from you.' They replied to him: 'Just as we went out against two [Roman armies] before him and killed them, so, too, we will go out against him and kill him.'
Vespasian had armored men positioned along the walls of Jerusalem, and informants within the city. Everything that they'd hear, they'd write it down upon arrows and shoot the arrows outside the wall, one of which said that Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai was among those that admired the Caesar, and that he'd make mention of this fact to the people of Jerusalem.
When Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai's repeated warnings went unheeded, he sent and called for his disciples, Rabbi Eliezer [b. Hyrcanus] and Rabbi Yehoshua [b. Hananiah]. He said to them: 'My sons, stand up and take me out of this place! Make me a coffin and I'll sleep in it.' Rabbi Eliezer held on to the front end of the coffin, and Rabbi Yehoshua held on to the back end. They carried the coffin as he laid in it until sunset, until they stopped at the gates of Jerusalem's walls. The porters at the gates enquired who it was that had died. They answered them: 'It's a dead man, as if you did not know that we're not permitted to let a corpse remain within Jerusalem overnight!' The porters replied: 'If it's a dead man, remove him.' They then removed him, and remained with him until the sun had set, which, by that time, they had reached Vespasian. They opened up the coffin and he stood up before him. He (i.e. Vespasian) enquired of him: 'Are you Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai? Ask what I shall give you.' He said to him: 'I ask for nothing, except Yavneh (Jamnia). I will go and teach therein my disciples, and I'll establish therein prayer, and I'll perform therein all of the duties prescribed in the divine Law.' He answered him: 'Go, and do all that you want to do.' Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai then said to him: 'Would you like me to tell you something?' Vespasian answered him: 'Say it.' He said to him: 'You are destined to rule over the Roman Empire!' He asked him: 'How do you know that?' He replied: 'Thus has it been passed down unto us, that the holy house will not be given into the hands of a mere commoner, but rather into the hands of a king, as it says (Isaiah 10:34): He shall cut down the forest thickets with an iron [instrument], and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one.'
They said that no more than two or three days had passed when a certain messenger came from his city, informing him that Caesar had just died, and that they have nominated him to head the Roman Empire. They brought unto him a catapult made of hardened cedar wood, and turned it toward the wall of Jerusalem. They brought unto him planks of cedar wood and put them into the catapult made of hardened cedar wood, and he would hit the wall with them until he made a breach in the wall...
When Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai heard that he (i.e Caesar's son, Titus, who was left to govern the Roman army) destroyed Jerusalem and burnt down the holy house with fire, he rent his clothes, and his disciples rent their clothes, and they were crying and shouting and pounding their chests as mourners, etc.
Jewish tradition records Yohanan ben Zakkai as being extremely dedicated to religious study, claiming that no one ever found him engaged in anything but study. He is considered to be someone who passed on the teachings of his predecessors; on the other hand, numerous homiletic and exegetical sayings are attributed to him and he is known for establishing a number of edicts in the post-destruction era:
If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the Messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the Messiah.
Some of Rabbi Yohanan's comments were of an esoteric nature. On one occasion he advises that mankind should seek to understand the infinity of God, by imagining the heavens being extended to unthinkable distances. He argued that Job's piety was not based on the love of God, but on the fear of Him.
He was challenged to resolve several biblical curiosities by a Roman commander, who was familiar with the Torah, but whose name has been lost in confusion. Among the issues were the fact that the numbers in the Book of Numbers didn't add up to their totals, and the reasoning behind the ritual of the red heifer; on this latter question the answer he gave didn't satisfy his own students, so he decreed that the ritual was one that shouldn't be questioned.
Yochanan opposed rebellion against the Roman power whom he recognized to be the fourth world power of the prophesied series of four in Daniel 7:23. In the Talmud he wrote, "Because it is written (Daniel 7:23); "It shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces." This is guilt-laden Rome, whose influence has gone out over all the world."
We suggest that the avoidance of the title "Rabbi" for pre-70 sages may have originated with the editors of the Mishnah. The editors attributed the title to some sages and not to others. The avoidance of the title for pre-70 sages may perhaps be seen as a deliberate program on the part of these editors who wanted to create the impression that the "rabbinic movement" began with R. Yochanan b. Zakkai and that the Yavnean "academy" was something new, a notion that is sometimes already implicitly or explicitly suggested by some of the traditions available to them. This notion is not diminished by the occasional claim to continuity with the past which was limited to individual teachers and institutions and served to legitimize rabbinic authority.