Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai

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.

torah scrolls 88 (photo credit: )
torah scrolls 88
(photo credit: )
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.