The Fateful Meeting: Give Me Yavneh and It’s Sages

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19 Jul 2011
Fast of Tisha B'Av

The setting is Jerusalem, approximately in the year 70 C.E.; the city is in the grip of a terrible famine, and it is surrounded by powerful Roman legions, under the command of Vespasian.

“Abba Sikra, the head of the ‘Biryonim,’ the extremist Jewish militants, was the brother-in-law of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Ben Zakkai sent a message to Abba Sikra, ‘Come to me in secret.’ The latter came. Rabban Yochanan spoke, ‘How long are you going to continue to destroy the world by famine?’ He answered, ‘What can I do? The situation is out of my control. If I say anything opposing the ideas of my “comrades,” they will kill me.’ ”

“Rabban Yochanan told his brother-in-law to devise a plan which would be most likely to enable ben Zakkai to leave the city, to negotiate with the Romans, and bypass the tight guard of the Biryoni troops. Abba Sikra proposed that Rabban Yochanan pretend to be seriously ill, then have the word spread that he was on his death-bed and, finally, that he had died. His students would then pretend to carry his coffin for burial outside the city.”

“With his students Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua acting as pall-bearers, the coffin approached the Biryoni-manned guard-post just within the wall of Yerushalayim. The guards wanted to plunge their swords into the coffin to make sure that they were not being tricked, but the students said, ‘The Romans will say that they’re stabbing their leader!’ The guards then wanted to push the coffin hard, to see if anyone inside would cry out. Again, the students quick-wittedly told them that if they did that, the hated Romans would say, ‘The Jews are pushing the body of their leader!’ The Biryoni guard opened the gate and reluctantly let the small burial party through.”

Meeting with Vespasian

“When the Jewish party reached the Roman camp, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin and greeted the general, ‘Peace be unto you, O King! Peace be unto you, O King!’ To which Vespasian responded, ‘You have incurred the death penalty twice. First, you have called me King, and I am not the King! Second, if I am indeed the King, why have you not come out to me earlier, to how me the proper respect?!’ ”

“Ben Zakkai answered, ‘I knew you had to be a king, because our prophets have foretold that the Temple will fall only into the hands of a king. And the reason I haven’t come out to you until now is that we are plagued by violent extremists within the city, who would not let me come out!’ ”

“Vespasian responded, ‘If there were a snake curled around a barrel of honey, would you not break the barrel (that is, set fire to the walls of the city) in order to get rid of the snake?’ ”

“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was not able to respond to this. (At this point, Rabbi Yosef, and some say Rabbi Akiva, comment that sometimes ‘G-d makes the wise foolish;’ for Ben Zakkai should have responded that he had hoped to defeat the militants without having to destroy the walls of the city, and then to make peace with the Romans.)”

“At this point, an Imperial messenger arrived from Rome, and announced, ‘Arise! For the Emperor has died and the Senators have decided to make Vespasian, General of the Legions of Rome, the new Emperor!’ ”

“Vespasian, in the act of rising, had put one boot on, but was unable to get the second one on, nor was he able, at this point, to take the first one off. Rabban Yochanan, witnessing the new Emperor’s discomfiture, told him not to be concerned, because the source of the problem was that he had just received wonderful news, and the natural response of the body, under those circumstances, is to swell. The cure would be to have someone whom Vespasian disliked come before him, which would induce the opposite reaction in the body, to shrink back, so his foot would be restored to its normal size. (It is interesting to note that the presence of the Jewish leader was not having the effect of someone distasteful to the new Emperor; apparently, Vespasian had developed some grudging respect for the Jewish scholar.)”

“Vespasian said to Rabban Yochanan, ‘I will leave now, to return to Rome. But I will dispatch someone to take my place. Before I go, ben Zakkai, you may make a request, which I will grant you.’ ”

“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai responded with this historic three-fold request:

1) that the Romans guarantee the safety of the scholars of Yavneh, where the new Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) would be located

2) that the Romans guarantee the survival of the family of Rabban Gamliel, a descendant of the House of David

3) that the Romans allow their physicians to restore the health of Rabbi Tzaddok, who had fasted for forty years to pray for the safety of the City and the Temple (apparently, Rabban Yochanan felt that the presence of Rabbi Tzaddok would be necessary to guarantee the maintenance of the Jewish spirit in the face of the overwhelming catastrophe about to befall the nation)”

“(Here again, Rabbi Yosef, and some say Rabbi Akiva, comment that sometimes ‘G-d makes the wise foolish;’ for Ben Zakkai should have requested the preservation of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and that the Jewish People should be given a “second chance” to prove their loyalty to Rome.)”

“But the Talmud, in defense of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, explains his thinking; namely, that events had gone too far for such a request to be honored. In order, therefore, to preserve the Torah, for that is the ‘reason for being’ of the Jewish People, it would have to be located somewhere else, ‘temporarily,’ if that was G-d’s will.”

And that was the beginning of the 2,000 year dislocation of the Jewish People and the Torah, from their Land, although there never was a time that the Land was totally empty of its Jewish sons and daughters.