Rabban (Rabbi) Johanan ben Zakkai was one of the great heroes in Jewish history. A descendant of the house of David, he was the leading sage at the time of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. As the Jews and Romans were struggling for control of the Holy City, he managed to escape from the capital and engage the Roman commander (and soon to be emperor) Vespasian in a conversation which would have lasting effects for the Jewish people. Though his dialogue did not end the long, painful military campaign, nor was it successful in preserving autonomous Jewish life in their homeland, it did manage to set the stage for Jewish survival and rebirth in exile, an endurance that has defied all historical odds.
Johanan opened the discussion with a declaration that the general had been appointed as Roman emperor. His statement was soon confirmed by a Roman courier. Overjoyed at the news, the new emperor granted Rabban Johanan a unique opportunity to have his wishes satisfied. The sage asked for three things, all relating to Torah and the Jews’ spiritual preservation. “Give me Jabneh and its wise men, the family chain of Rabban Gamliel, and physicians to heal Rabbi Zadok”.
Let us explore each of these appeals a bit further.
- Jabneh and its wise men – to preserve the Torah, Johanan asked that the Torah academy in Jabneh (near the Judean coast, just south of Yaffa) be spared. This would later become the seat of the relocated Sanhedrin and the primary Torah center for the next generation.
- The family chain of Rabban Gamaliel – to sustain the line of princes that had begun with Hillel. It was now passed on to Gamaliel II, the young son of Simon ben Gamliel I, who had perished during the siege of Jerusalem. The princes offered strong leadership for this tumultuous time, vital for the survival of a single national and religious Jewish entity.
- Physicians to heal Rabbi Zadok – who had fasted for forty years to avert the destruction and was in ill health.
In his blind ecstasy, the newly elected Roman emperor granted all of his requests. He even provided a safe escort for the Torah sages as they relocated to Jabneh.
While his requests were readily accepted by Vespasian, many of Johanan’s own colleagues questioned his wisdom and political acuity. Many of his contemporaries opposed moving the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem and were slow to embrace it in the new location. Yet, he persisted. Rabban Johanan understood that the most important decisions in history can also often be the more difficult and pursued his convictions despite the consequences. His peers did not fully appreciate this at that time; the benefit of hindsight has allowed us to see things differently.
Moreover, some of his colleagues fundamentally criticized his requests, questioning whether they truly addressed the needs of the people. They argued that the Temple, perhaps even the entire city, might have been spared had the appeal only been made. Seen from the vantage point of historical hindsight, however, we can see that Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, in asking for Jabneh, comprehended that for the sake of survival, the Jewish people would be better served with a viable Torah center even more than its own capital.
“Give me Jabneh and its wise men!” Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai stood before the Roman emperor and asked of him, not the preservation of the state, because it was no longer a state of the Torah, and not the preservation of the holy Temple, because Herod’s name was associated with it – but the preservation of the oral law of the Torah, which depended on Jabneh and its sages. He knew that if there were a people of the Torah, there would be a land of the Torah, and in the future – a state of the Torah. With “Jabneh and its wise men” he saved everything. (Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler)
In a physical sense, the Romans emerged from this war as the victors, capturing Jerusalem and destroying its Temple. History, however, would show that the Jews won the greater ideological struggle, keeping themselves and their Torah alive long after the fall of the Empire and its values. When the Temple and the political entity that it represented disappeared, the spirit of Judaism, represented by Jabneh, stepped in and filled the void. We have been the collective beneficiaries ever since.
May we merit witnessing the building of the third and final Temple speedily in our days.