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Give Me Yavneh and Its Sages
Now, yes, I know, we all feel bad that Jerusalem was destroyed two thousand years ago , we all pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; I get that. But to cry? To mourn? Do you know what it is to cry and to mourn? Do you know when you mourn in Jewish law? You mourn when your father dies; God forbid, when your mother dies; God forbid, when your child dies; God forbid, these are the most searing event that an individual can experience in their lives and you’re doing it now to something that happened to none of us! Our nation experienced it! But an nation is an abstract thing. What does it mean for me to mourn for this, to cry? And if i do so is this for real? How do I even wrap my head around it? The answer to that question I believe is wrapped up in another question - how did we as a people survive?
Two thousand years ago as a nation, we lost the temple. But even more than the temple, we lost our sovereignty, we lost our land. You know, if you think about what the nation is, the bare bones definition of a nation, you know, land is a really important part of that - sovereignty over land. If you don’t have that, what do you really have? The amazing thing is that the Jewish nation has survived; and I don’t mean the Jewish religion has survived, I mean the Jewish nation has survived.
If you go to Israel today, you know, the society we’re building one more time with sovereignty over our land, yes we don’t have a temple yet, yes, it’s not all complete yet, but the reconstruction of the Jewish nation, it’s not like some new thing is happening that is completely disconnected from what happened two thousand years ago. It’s very different than any other example in world history. If any modern Iranian had a conversation with an ancient Persian, would they have the slightest idea of what they are talking about? But we would! You know, if you could put someone from Jerusalem 2000 years ago in the same room with us, we would have an intelligent conversation; we would feel part of the same people. Our nationhood has endured somehow. It’s the same nation. And when has that ever happened in world history other than with us? How did that happen? How did we as a nation survived a catastrophic loss of everything that you would define nationhood as. These two questions - why do we cry on Tisha B’Av? And how do we as a people survive? - I think have a lot to do with each other. They don’t seem to; but I think they are really two sides of the same coin.
I want to explore these questions and explore them in the context of a certain place; the place is Yavneh. Yavneh came to significance in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It was a life boat of sorts. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai took a group of Sages to Yavneh, re-established the Sanhedrin and there were two Gemaras that shed a fascinating light on our work in the concept of Yavneh. The first is the Gemara that describes the creation of Yavneh, the second is the piece that describes perhaps the most famous debate that ever took place at Yavneh. When we understand what’s really take place in these Gemaras, we’ll understand a lot more about Tisha B’Av, a lot more about what Jewish really means and on a personal level, what it means to mourn for these losses.
Let’s jump in together and read the story of the actual saving of Yavneh . It’s part of an extended discussion in masechet Gittin daf nun-vav, amud aleph, 56A. Now the Gemara is describing the siege the Romans laid to Jerusalem. And in the story that it tells, we meet a few very interesting people aside from Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai himself who is the lead Sage at the time. And the first of these characters I want to introduce to you is known as the Baryonei, the zealots at the time, who were demanding fierce resistance of the Roman’s threat to the very last. So let’s pick up and take a little look at the Gemara.
Amru lehu Rabbanin, the Sages approached them and said to them “look, the cause is lost”. nefok venavid shalma behadaihu, we have to save Jerusalem and our only hope is to come to some sort of negotiated peace with the Romans. Lo shavkeinhu, the militants wouldn’t allow this to happen. Amru lehu, the militant groups countered to the Rabbis and said, nefok venavid krava behadaihu, “let’s go out and battle them.” Amru lehu Rabbanin and the Rabbis replied “that’s a lost cause” lo mistaiya milta,“we’ll never be able to succeed”; and there was this sort of deadlock! The Baryonim wouldn’t allow the Rabbis to make peace with the Romans but the Rabbis weren’t allowing the Baryonim go out and make war with them because that would be national suicide. So the siege continued.
What broke the stalemate? The Baryonim break it. Kamu kalnhu lehanhu amivri dachiti vesari, the Baryonim went out in the middle of the night and destroyed the storehouses that contained all the grains that would allow the Romans in Jerusalem to survive during the siege. Vehava kafna, and in fact, hunger reigned. So the Gemara tells of this terrible hunger.It tells the apocryphal story of Marta Bat Beitus, an aristocratic woman who lived in Jerusalem and tells the story how even she was reduced to absolute hunger in the face of the terrible ravages of this Roman siege. The Gemara concludes by retelling this kind of legend about how Marta Bat Beitus met her death. Ika damri grogrot deRav Tzadok achlah “what finally killed her was eating the dried fruit of Rav Tzadok”. What was the dried fruit if Rav Tzadok? The Gemara explains, Rav Tzadok yativ arbayin shanin betanita, for forty years prior to this siege Rav Tzadok had seen the dark clouds, the gathering storm on the horizon, he’d seen the threat to Jerusalem and he fasted over and over again over these forty years, praying to God delo lichrev Yerushalayim, “that Jerusalem not be destroyed”. So then he could barely eat anything and they brought him this piece of dried fruit , he sucked whatever little juice he could out of the dried fruit and throwed the fruit away because he couldn’t eat solids . But there was nothing to eat in Jerusalem and Marta Bat Beitus, this aristocrat, picked up the piece of discarded fruit, ate it, and died.
So so far,we’ve met four characters. We’ve got the zealots, we’ve got the Rabbis, we’ve got Marta Bat Beitus , the aristocrat and we’ve got Rav Tzadok, who was fasting this whole time and then finally we meet the fifth character sort of the one who now becomes the focus of the story - Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai.
Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai gets an idea to try to save something from the impending doom he sees befalling Jerusalem. He had himself sneaked out in a coffin as if he’s dad; carried by his two students, Rabbi Yeshua and Rabbi Eliezar through the Roman garrison besieging Jerusalem. They ultimately allowed the coffin to pass without harm outside the walls of the city. Once safely outside the walls, he emerges from the coffin and approaches the Roman general laying siege to Jerusalem, Vespasian. You may be familiar with Vespasian as an emperor. This was before Vespasian was an emperor; but Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai approaches Vespasian and prophesied that he will become Emperor. But Vespasian dismisses it but just then, along come some Roman troops to announce that the Caesar has died in Rome and he indeed has been appointed the new Emperor.
So Vespasian was rather impressed and he tells Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai , you know, look, make a request. I am will to grant to it. Well, what should he have requested? The Gemara itself recorded that in hindsight perhaps he ought to have requested the saving of Jerusalem. But he didn’t request that. Instead he asked for three things; and something I want you to think about as we go forward into the next video is how do we understand these three things? Is there any common thread that links them? Are they sort of apples, cadillacs and bricks and have nothing to do with each other? Or is there some rhyme reasons to how they fit together?
He asked for three things according to the Gemara. Amar li, he says, ten li Yavneh vechachamin gives me Yavneh and the wisemen. Allow the Sages of the Jewish people to transplant themselves in Yavneh; this little town on the coastline of Israel, filled with sand dunes. If you look up in this area, there is sand that goes up and down the coast, the agricultural it’s like a worthless place to be. Give me Yavneh. Second thing, veshush li rav Gamliel, give me the line of Rabban Gamliel,allow Rabban Gamliel’s family to escape. Rashi explains the Gamliel family could count itself back to King David . Vaasfa sadm letzayin lerav Tzadok, “give me a doctor to heal Rav Tzadok” . Such strange requests - Yavneh and it’s Sages, the line of Rabban Gamliel, a doctor for Rav Tzadok - why would Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai ask the next to Caesar for these three things?
In piecing together that puzzle, I think we’ll be able to understand something both about Yavne and about the doomed city of Jerusalem that Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was leaving behind. But in order to understand all that, we think we need to understand one more story about Yavneh; the famous debate that took place there that I referenced before. We’ll get to that in our next video.