Today’s daf is one of the most well known in the entire Talmud, containing the bulk of a long narrative that describes the events leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath. This was a watershed event in the history of Judaism, abruptly ending Temple worship and paving the way for the full flowering of rabbinic Judaism. It is commemorated each year at the height of summer on Tisha B’Av.
The talmudic story of the destruction of the Temple is too complex to discuss in depth here, so I will focus on one aspect of the story: How Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the foremost leaders of his generation, saved Judaism.
By the opening of today’s daf, the Romans have been besieging Jerusalem for three years, though the people in the city have survived thanks to three wealthy citizens who opened their massive storehouses to the general population. Nonetheless, three years in, the rabbis were ready to capitulate. A group of zealots in the city, however, was determined to force an armed conflict with their much more powerful enemy. They burned the food in the city and people began to starve.
It is at this desperate moment that Rabbi Yohanan summons the head of the zealots, Abba Sikra, who happens to be his nephew. In their top secret meeting, he begs his nephew to stop starving innocent people and that’s when he finds out that although Abba Sikra is nominally the leader of the zealots, he has lost control of the group. Abba Sikra doesn’t want the Jews of Jerusalem to starve either! It is at this point that they come up with a new plan:
He (Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai) said to him (Abba Sikra): Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it is possible that through this there will be some small salvation.
(Abba Sikra) said to him: Pretend to be sick and have everyone come and ask about you. Afterward bring something putrid and place it near you, so that people will say that you have died. Then, have your students enter (to bring you out to be buried) and let no one else come in so that they do not notice that you are light, as people know that a living person is lighter than a dead one.
Because of the siege, nothing and no one can get in or out of Jerusalem — except a corpse. (In this period, burials were always held outside the city walls.) So, in order to escape, Rabbi Yohanan must fake his own death and exit in a coffin. Amazingly, this plan actually works.
Once outside the gates, Rabbi Yohanan approaches the Roman camp, where the Gemara records his remarkable conversation with the Roman general Vespasian:
When he (Rabbi Yohanan) reached there (the Roman camp) he said (to Vespasian): “Greetings to you, the king; greetings to you, the king.”
(Vespasian) said to him: “You are liable for two death penalties, one because I am not a king and yet you call me king, and furthermore, if I am a king, why didn’t you come to me until now?”
Vespasian, whom the rabbis envision as having a legal mind like theirs, isn’t so easily won over by being erroneously addressed as king. But Rabbi Yohanan appeases him by noting that while Vespasian isn’t king yet, he will be soon. On cue, moments later, a messenger arrives from Rome to report that the emperor has died and Vespasian has been appointed the new king.
Seemingly in a generous mood and believing that his replacement, Titus, is going to be even harsher on the Jews, Vespasian now makes Rabbi Yohanan an offer:
Ask something of me that I can give you.
At this point, most of us reading are probably yelling as if at a televised boxing match: “Jerusalem! Tell him to stop the war and save Jerusalem!”
Curiously, though, that’s not what happens.
He (Rabban Yohanan) said to (Vespasian): “Give me Yavne and its sages, spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”
Is this a case of Rabbi Yohanan being presented with the perfect opportunity … and choking? Or was his answer, disappointing as it might seem to us, the right one? The Gemara explains:
He (Rabbi Yohanan) maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there would not be even a small amount of salvation.
Recall that “a small salvation” is what Rabbi Yohanan originally tells Abba Sikra he is trying to achieve. Because he’s afraid of overplaying his hand and getting nothing, Rabbi Yohanan plays the long game and asks for three things that are all related: Yavneh, the city that was, in its day, the seat of Torah learning and the incubator for rabbinic excellence; clemency for the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, a significant religious and political leader for the Jewish community; and, medical care for a rabbi who had fasted for years in order to try and persuade God to save the city.
It’s helpful to know that this story was recorded hundreds of years after the events that it recounts, and it is not meant to be historically accurate. (For example, elsewhere we find another Roman emperor, Nero, converting to Judaism, amid many other obviously non-historical elements.) Nonetheless, this telling conveys truths that are significant to the rabbis, including this one: Torah learning is what can save Judaism in the absence of Jerusalem and the Temple with its sacrificial cult. Ironically, they make this claim while at the same time embracing the Torah (which envisions the sacrificial cult as central) and championing a liturgy — as we do today — that underscores the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple, with prayers for their imminent restoration. How did they (and how should we) reconcile these two elements of our tradition?
I think that the rabbis of the Talmud were realists. A restored Jerusalem is the rabbinic ideal. Creating a functioning society with Torah learning at its center wherever and whenever Jews live is the stopgap until the Messiah arrives. The genius of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s Yavneh solution is that 2,000 years later we’re still studying these words.