Give Me Yavneh and Its Sages
Yochanan Ben Zakkai & Yavneh: The Secret Of Jewish Survival
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How can we feel connected to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple when these tragedies happened thousands of years ago? The answer may lie in understanding what still links us to those past events and how, against all odds, exile didn’t put an end to the Jewish people. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he searches for the secret to Jewish continuity in the story of the fall of Jerusalem itself, in a place far from the Temple – in the sands of Yavneh.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. You are watching Aleph Beta.
So… how did the Jewish people survive this?
Two thousand years ago, on Tisha B’av, our a nation suffered a devastating loss. The Romans destroyed our Temple. But we lost more than that, too. We lost our sovereignty. We lost our land. As if that weren’t enough, a final effort to rebel against Roman rule -- the Bar Kochba revolt – that failed too. And it failed on the very date, Tisha B’av. Beitar, its last fortress, it was destroyed and its inhabitants massacred on Tisha B’Av. The Romans killed over half a million Jews, sold many of the rest as slaves. In the aftermath of the Bar Kochba Revolt, they forbade us from even entering Jerusalem - leading to the diaspora we are still in today. Hadrian, the Roman Emperor at the time, he literally wiped the name of Israel off the map - replacing it with the Roman Province Syria Palaestina - trying to erase any memory of Judea or ancient Israel from history.
So, you know, if you were a Harvard trained anthropologist or sociologist and you were flung back in time to survey those events – and were called upon then to predict the future viability of this nation of Israel – you’d have to think that the chance of it surviving… was really close to nil. Because, you know, by any standard or measure, the loss of Judea; the sacking of Jerusalem; the subsequent crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt – widespread massacre and slavery – you know, those are civilization ending events. Nations don’t usually bounce back from things like that. If you just think about what a nation is – the bare bones definition of a nation – land is a really important part of that, sovereignty over land. If you don't have that, what do you really have? Combine that with the loss of infrastructure, the overwhelming human toll – and in the aftermath of the Roman sacking of the Temple, the Bar Kochba revolt, what really was there left of this nation?
What Does It Mean To Survive As A Nation?
But the amazing thing is that the Jewish nation did survive. And I don't mean the Jewishreligionsurvived, I mean the Jewish nation has survived.
If you go to Israel today, you know, the society that we're building there, one more time, what’s happening there? It's not like some new thing is happening now that is completely disconnected from what happened two thousand years ago. It is , in some fundamental way, the same nation that is rising. Same language. Same city names. Same shared culture and holidays. Same intellectual and religious tradition. The Mishnah that was composed then is still studied now. Israel now is in some fundamental way a continuation of Israel then. And in this way, what is happening in the Land of Israel now is actually kinda different than almost any other example you can find in world history. If any modern Iranian, for example, had a conversation with an ancient Persian – a courtier of Cyrus the Great, say – you know, would they have the slightest idea of what they are talking about? No! But we would! You know, if you could put someone from Jerusalem 2000 years ago in the same room with us, we would be able to have a conversation together.
So.. how did that continuity happen? How did we as a nation survive this catastrophic loss of everything that you would define nationhood or civilization as?
So, I want to explore this question in the context of a certain place; and the place is Yavneh
Yavneh is a little town on the coast of Israel, not far from Ashkelon. It is a thriving little Israeli community nowadays, but it first came to significance, on the grand stage of Jewish history, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It was a lifeboat of sorts. In the midst of the havoc, in the midst of the pain and turmoil of the moment, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader of the generation, takes a group of Sages to Yavneh, and re-establishes the Sanhedrin there.
Now there are two Gemaras that shed a fascinating light on the question of survival, the survival of our civilization, in the context of Yavneh. The first of these stories is the one that describes the creation of Yavneh itself, the second story describes, maybe, the most famous debate that ever took place at Yavneh. And I think when we understand what's really happening in these two stories, we'll understand a lot more about Tisha B'Av, a lot more about what Jewish nationhood really means– and I think, we will understand more about how, against all odds, the Jewish people survived until this very day.
So, 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. And the Gemara there is describing the siege the Romans laid to Jerusalem. In the story that it tells, we meet not just Rav Yohanan Ben Zakkai, but some other interesting people as well. The first of these interesting characters I want to introduce you to- they’re known as the Baryonei, or the zealots at the time. And the Baryonei were demanding fierce resistance to the Roman threat; they wanted the inhabitants of Jerusalem to fight to the very last man. So let's pick up and take a look at what the Gemara says.
אמרו להו רבנן, the rabbinic Sages approached the Baryonei and said to them "look, the cause is lost". ניפוק ונעביד שלמא בהדייהו, we have to save Jerusalem. Our only hope is to come to some sort of negotiated peace with the Romans. But לא שבקינהו, but the militants wouldn't allow this to happen. אמרו להו, the Baryonei countered to the Rabbis and said, ניפוק ונעביד קרבא בהדייהו, "let's go out and battle them anyway." אמרו להו רבנן so the Sages said, that's a lost cause; לא מסתייעא מילתא,"we'll never be able to succeed"; and then there was this sort of deadlock: The Baryonei’s not going to allow the Rabbis to make peace with the Romans but the Rabbis are not allowing the Baryonei go out and make war against them, And the siege continues with a stalemate.
Well, what in the end broke the stalemate? Turns out, the Baryonei broke it. קמו קלנהו להנהו אמברי דחיטי ושערי, the Baryonei got up in the middle of the night and burned down the storehouses that contained all the grain that would allow the Jewish community in Jerusalem to withstand during the siege. והוה כפנא, and hunger reigned.
Then the Gemara goes on to describe the conditions of the hunger that befell Jerusalem. How terrible it was. It tells of how, one Sage, R’ Tzadok had been fasting for 40 years, mourning, praying, somehow, for the redemption of Jerusalem. And during these famines, R’ Tzadok became so emaciated that you could see the little bit he was able to eat as it passed through his skin and bones… and it is then we meet the hero of our story: Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai.
Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai, he gets an idea to try to save something from what he sees as the impending collapse of Jerusalem. He has himself sneaked out in a coffin. He fakes death. And he’s carried by his two students, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezar. And he’s carried through the Roman garrison besieging Jerusalem. The Romans ultimately allowed the coffin to pass without harm outside the walls of the city. And once safely outside the walls, R’ Yochanan Ben Zakkai, he emerges from the coffin and approaches the Roman general laying siege to Jerusalem, Vespasian. Now, you might be familiar with Vespasian as an emperor of Rome, but at this point, he’s still just a general. But Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai, he approaches Vespasian and prophesies that he will become Emperor. Which makes Vespasian very mad, and threatens to kill him for this traitorous act against the reigning Caesar... but just then, along come some Roman troops to announce that, lo and behold, the reigning Caesar has actually died in Rome and, guess what? Who was appointed the new Emperor, but Vespasian himself.
And now Vespasian is now pretty impressed and he tells Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai: Look, make a request. I am willing to grant to it.
And if you just stop here and just ask yourself: Well, if you were R’ Yochanan Ben Zakkai, if you were in his shoes right now, what would you request?
You might have requested something like maybe the saving of Jerusalem. And the Gemara itself records that in hindsight maybe he should have. But he actually didn't request that. Maybe he didn’t think he could get it. Instead he asked for three things; and what I want you to think about as we go forward is: how do we understand these three things? Are they sort of apples, cadillacs and bricks and have nothing to do with each other? Or is there some connective tissue that somehow brings rhyme and reason and order to how these three things relate to each other?
The Destruction Of The Temple Through A New Lens
But here are the three things. אמר ליה, he says, תן לי יבנה וחכמיה – give me Yavneh and its wise men. In other words: Allow the Sages of the Jewish people to transplant themselves in this little city Yavneh, this little town on the coastline, filled with sand and dunes, no agricultural worth to be seen. Just give me Yavneh, it seems like a worthless place. Anyway, the second thing he asks for, ושושילתא דרבן גמליאל, give me the line of Rabban Gamliel, allow Rabban Gamliel's family to escape. Rashi explains that the Gamliel family could count itself back to King David. And then ואסוותא דמסיין ליה לרבי צדוק, give me a doctor to heal Rav Tzadok - that Sage who had been fasting, for the last forty years, mourning, praying, for the salvation of Jerusalem, give me a doctor to heal him. You know, these are really kind of strange requests - don’t save Jerusalem, but do this: give me Yavneh and it's Sages, the line of Rabban Gamliel, and a doctor for Rav Tzadok. Why does Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai want the next Caesar to grant him these three things?
So, in piecing together that puzzle, I want to suggest that we'll be able to understand something both about Yavneh and about the doomed city of Jerusalem that Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was leaving behind. In order to understand all that though, I want to gather one final clue, and that’s going to take us to the second story that I mentioned to you before, the story that elaborates one of the most famous debates that ever took place in Yavneh once it was established. The debate about Tanur Shel Achnai.