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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Johanan Ben Zakkai was a first-century CE disciple of Hillel. Johanan took a prominent part in the controversies between the Pharisees, of which group he was leader, and the Sadducees. He is said to have been responsible for a number of new enactments and to have abolished the ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:11-31) and the rite of the beheaded heifer (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).
Although not of the Princely House, Johanan was given the title usually reserved for the Nasi (the Prince), Rabban, ‘Our Master’, in contradistinction to the simple title ‘Rabbi’.
‘Master’ Johanan’s two outstanding disciples, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, succeeded him in the leadership of the Pharisaic party and, together with him, belong to the early teachers known as the Tannaim, who developed what later came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism.
As with other early Rabbinic figures it is difficult to disentangle fact from pious legend when trying to reconstruct Johanan’s history. For instance, when it is said of him, Hillel, and Akiba that each lived for 120 years, it is as clear as can be that this is simply a device for calling attention to the significance of the teacher for later Judaism. Each lived for the lifespan of Moses, the first great leader and lawgiver.
"Give Me Yavneh"
The same applies to the legend for which Johanan is especially known. According to this very late legend, during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Johanan was smuggled out of Jerusalem to meet Vespasian, then a general but greeted by Johanan as the emperor he was destined to become.
Johanan requested Vespasian to spare the city of Yavneh as a home for scholars and to preserve the House of the Nasi by affording protection to the young Gamaliel, later to become the Nasi, Rabban Gamaliel II.
Apart from the fact that this story is told in the language of the Babylonian Talmud compiled centuries after Johanan, its legendary nature is obvious. But the legend is extremely significant in suggesting Johanan’s importance in contributing to the continuing study of the Torah and protecting the legislative body, the Sanhedrin, and thus assuring the survival of Judaism.
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