Tomb of Yohanan Ben Zakkai in Tiberias, Israel. (PikiWiki Israel)

Yohanan ben Zakkai

Student of Hillel contributed to the continued study of Torah and the protection of the Sanhedrin.

Yohanan Ben Zakkai was a first-century CE disciple of Hillel. Yohanan 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, Yohanan was given the title usually reserved for the Nasi (the Prince), Rabban, ‘Our Master’, in contradistinction to the simple title ‘Rabbi’.

‘Master’ Yohanan’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 Yohanan’s history. For instance, when it is said of him, Hillel, and Akiva 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 Yohanan is especially known. According to this very late legend, during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Yohanan was smuggled out of Jerusalem to meet Vespasian, then a general but greeted by Johanan as the emperor he was destined to become.

Yohanan 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 Yohanan, its legendary nature is obvious. But the legend is extremely significant in suggesting Yohanan’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.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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