How Did We Survive?

Yavneh: The Secret Of Jewish Survival

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

How did the Jewish people survive?

Two thousand years ago, Roman armies destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and for the second time, the Jews lost their temple, their homeland and their sovereignty. But the fact is they could – and should – have lost much more.

No nation can exist for long with no home and no sovereignty – it would slowly fade away, until it just disappeared. And yet, somehow, the Jewish nation survived, and still endures today, countless generations later. How is such a thing possible?

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he searches for answers in the story of the fall of Jerusalem itself, in a place far from the Temple – in the sands of Yavneh.

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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 Jewish religion survived, 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 Yeshua 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.  

Tanur Shel Achnai

A Tanur Shel Achnai, an oven encircled by snakes, as it were. The story can be found in Baba Metzia 59a-b. Nun-Tes amud Aleph and Beis. And the Tanur Shel Achnai gets its name because the arguments that were marshalled by two sets of sages to defend their respective views about this oven seemed almost like snakes that were encircling the tanur, in concentric circles. Now, a fair warning here: There are a number very strange metaphors and words and ideas in this Gemara. But I want you to pay attention to them, because they’ll help us discern a kind of story behind a story here. 

So here’s what the Gemara says. There’s this debate between the sages of Yavneh about this tanur; this earthenware, cylindrical oven. And this particular ancient oven had been smashed, but it wasn’t just smashed randomly into shards… it was, for some reason, precisely cut into parallel, cylindrical slabs. Almost as if it was חתכו חוליות; the Gemara says that they appeared like vertebrae in a spine. So anyway, ונתן חול בין חוליא לחוליא, even though it was broken, someone decided to stitch it back together and repair the broken tanur by putting sand between each one of these vertebrae, so to speak. So here is our first strange kind of element in this story- this Tanur that was broken, and then reconstructed. By the way, there’s also this clever little play on words because: In English, vertebrae and sand seem to have nothing to do with each other. But in Hebrew, and Aramaic, the word for sand is actually ‘chol’, which, if you look at it, is comprised of the very first three letters of the word for vertebrae, ‘cholya’. 

Anyway, the Rabbis are debating what the status of this tanur is. Can it accept tumah contamination? Can it become tamei? Now, the laws that govern how and why a thing would be able to become tamei are kind of complex and we will talk about those laws in a few minutes. But, for the mean time, let's kind of keep it simple and just say ר"א מטהר, Rabbi Eliezer, he says that the thing is pure, and absolutely cannot become tamei even if it comes in contact with tumah contamination. וחכמים מטמאין the Sages on the other hand, they argue that the oven can actually become tamei, should it come into contact with tumah.

Now, the interesting part of the story is what happens next. As the sages and R’ Eliezer debate their positions, Rabbi Eliezer starts to marshal all of these logical arguments to support his view, and when the sages start to refute or parry each one of them, at a certain point in time, Rabbi Eliezer runs out of regular arguments and starts to do something else. He starts to marshal miracles to prove his case. And here is what the Gemara says.

אמר להם Rav Eliezer said to the chachamim, אם הלכה כמותי, "if in fact the law is like me" חרוב זה יוכיח, "let that carob tree over there prove that I'm right". And you know what happens next? נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה , " all of a sudden, that carob tree, it picks itself up and throws itself like a hundred amot in the other direction". I mean, fascinating. You would think that would be enough to sort of close the debate, you know, everyone kind of gives in and says, alright R’ Eliezer, you win. But actually, that doesn’t happen. The Sages, the opponents of R’ Eliezer, they say: אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב, "No! we don't accept proofs from carob trees. That actually means nothing to us." Okay, so Rabbi Eliezer, he wasn’t daunted. He says- fine! "אם הלכה כמותי If I'm right, אמת המים יוכיחו, let that aqueduct over there show that I'm right". All of a sudden, חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם the water in the aqueduct, it starts flowing backwards. The Sages, again, they’re not impressed. אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים, they say. "You don't bring a proof from aqueducts."

Okay, Rabbi Eliezer he’s got another trick up his sleeve. He says, אם הלכה כמותי "If I'm right, כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו let the walls of this beit midrash itself prove that I'm right." All of a sudden, הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול the walls start to fall. As the walls are falling, Rabbi Yoshua gets up and he starts screaming at the walls and he says: אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה אתם מה טיבכם, "If we, talmidei chachmim, are arguing with one another, what do you walls have to do with that!" And all of a sudden, the walls stop falling. And the Gemara then says the walls – were kind of stuck, לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע “ they didn't in the end fall all the way down because of the honour of Rabbi Yoshua, but on the other hand ,ולא זקפו but they didn't go back to an upright position מפני כבודו של ר"א because of the honour of Rabbi Eliezer.” Instead, the walls kind of stuck between these two sages, lodged themselves in this kind of awkward, slanted position. ועדיין מטין ועומדין, "until this very day, that’s the way they are- slanted". Not quite falling, not quite upright. 

Anyway, back to the argument. Rabbi Eliezer now makes one last stand. He says אם הלכה כמותי, "if the law is like me" מן השמים יוכיחו, "let the heavens themselves prove I'm right." And, as if on cue, יצאתה בת קול ואמרה, a heavenly voice rings out and says מה לכם אצל ר"א, "what do you guys want with Rabbi Eliezer?" שהלכה כמותו בכ"מ "the law is like him everywhere. Leave him alone! He's right!". And then, Rabbi Yoshua, he gets back on his feet, not to be undone, and you know what he does? He screams back to the Heavenly Voice. He says: לא בשמים היא! "The Torah is no longer in heaven!” The Torah is no longer in your domain, God! It's in our domain!

The Gemara explains:

 מאי לא בשמים היא "what do you mean lo bashamayim hi?" Rabbi Yermiah says it means: שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני "we heard a heavenly voice once before! The heavenly voice that gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai!" And once God gave us the Torah, with that heavenly voice, there’s no backsies anymore. The Torah is ours; not God's! From then on אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול "Once we heard the first heavently voice from God at Sinai, we don't listen to other subsequent heavenly voices telling us this is the way to interpret the Torah. We interpret the Torah, שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה, because, at Sinai, it was written in the Torah how we humans should settle disputes about what the Torah means. It says in the Torah: אחרי רבים להטות, "you lean after the majority". So, that's the end of the debate; the majority wins!

Which is kind of striking right? God himself as it were, He comes down on the side of Rabbi Eliezer But the Sages, they win the day. And the Gemara records a little epilogue that shows how strange it is:

אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו Rabbi Natan, one of the Sages, he finds Eliyahu haNavi, Elijah the prophet himself, walking around the grounds of Yavneh. Now, if there is anybody who has a 'birds eye view' so to speak on what's going on behind the curtains in heaven, it would have to be Elijah the prophet. So R’ Natan, he can’t resist- he asks Elijah, מאי עביד קוב"ה בההיא שעתא "what was God doing at that moment when Rabbi Yeshua got up and screamed back at the heavenly voice lo bashamayim hi. What was God's response to that? א"ל, Eliyahu responds, you know what God was doing? קא חייך, "The Almighty was laughing", ואמר "God said, נצחוני בני נצחוני בני, "my children have bested me. My children have bested me."

Such a strange story in so many ways. There’s this strange, esoteric, debate about the ritual status of this cut-apart oven, this tanur. There’s this strange series of miraculous proofs from carob trees, from aqueducts, from walls of a building. But somehow, all those little details – I don’t think they’re happenstance. They actually add up to something. They let us see a meta-story, they let us understand what was really happening in this episode. There’s a story behind a story here. Let’s try to find it.

[Musical Interlude: 5 seconds or so]. 

So let’s go back to the beginning of this story. Let’s examine what, exactly, the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages actually revolved around. They were arguing about whether this Tanur that has been destroyed and stitched together with sand, whether it can be mekabel tumah, so to speak. Whether it can accept tumah contamination. 

And what that depends around, actually, from a halachic standpoint, is whether the tanur, whether the oven that has been broken apart and stitched back together again, whether its is considered a kli, a utensil. Let me explain what I mean by that: 

Not everything in the world can become tamei, can become contaminated simply by becoming exposed to a source of impurity. For example, if a stone comes in contact with a dead body, the stone does not become tamei. But, there are other classes of things that can become tamei, that can become impure, if exposed to a source of tumah -- and one of those classes of things are man made utensils- a kli - such as a tanur, this earthenware oven.

The question at stake between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim is actually whether this shattered tanur that has been stitched together with sand – whether is actually considered a kli anymore or not. It was certainly once a utensil before it was broken apart, and, now it's been stitched back together again…. So the question is it a legitimate utensil anymore? 

Okay with that in mind, let’s now start looking back at some of those strange details in the story. Starting with the way this tanur was cut apart and put back together.

The Gemara had said that what we're talking about is a smashed oven that was cut into slices as it were, and the slices are actually called chuliyot. Chuliyot is really the word for vertebrae. Its like this oven was sliced in horizontal segments, since the oven itself is cylindrical, and each one of these ends up looking like a vertebrae in a spine. And then ונתן חול בין חוליא לחוליא, sand was put between these vertebrae to put it back together again. And it seems as if the tanur, when you look at it as a whole, was like part of a skeleton and you took it apart by separating each link at the spine and then you put it back together using sand... Why sand of all things? 

Well, that leads me to a theory I would like to suggest to you. What is sand? Its tiny little grains. I mentioned to you before that chol, sand, is actually just a little piece of another word ‘cholya’, vertebrae. Almost as if to suggest, with that linguistic connection, that, you know like, just as if a single vertebrae is part of something larger a skeleton, and here is this tanur, sliced into single vertabrae, now if you wanted to put it together, what would you put it together with? Mere ‘chol’ would stitch together those cholyot. Mere, tiny grains of some crushed substance. Almost as if you could crush those cholyot themselves together and get chol, and somehow use that fine powder… to somehow put it all back together again.

And now let’s talk about sand from one more angle. Remember, this debate took place in Yavneh. Yavneh is pretty near the ocean. I’ve been there. I actually stood on top of the little hill that archeologists suspect contains the remains of that little beit medrash in Yavneh. That place where the Sanhedrin was reconstituted. As you look around from the top of that hill, and you gaze towards the south… coming towards you, you know what you see? There’s actually sand everywhere. Yeah, there are these sand dunes stretching down all the way down from Ashkelon up toward Yavneh, kilometer after kilometer of sand dunes…  

Which actually kind of adds an ironic nuance to the name that the Sages gave to their little beit midrash in Yavneh. Do you know what they called it? They called it: kerem beyavneh, a vineyard at Yavneh. They called it the vineyard in Yavneh because of the rows of talmidei chachamim, arranged as they were, like carefully planted vines, blossoming row by row, as if in a vineyard". Its a pretty ironic name! If you look at Yavneh, ain’t no vineyards. There’s just sand everywhere. Its the most infertile place imaginable. You couldn't plant a vineyard there if you tried! There were no actual vineyards in Yavneh. But the beit medrish? The Sanhedrin? It was like it came out of nothing, it came out of sand… Out of mere sand, something beautiful flourished. A vineyard of another kind entirely…

If Yavneh is the Sand, the Tanur is the Nation of Israel

And now do you see how this theory is kind of beginning to emerge? What I want to argue is that the debate that took place in Yavneh – the place with the sand for as far as the eye can see – the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages about this oven stitched together with sand… What it actually is, is a debate about that beit midrash, about Yavneh itself, and Yavneh’s connection to this Jewish nation as a whole. Because look at it visually, this oven stitched together with sand. What does it remind you of? It mimics a spine – a human body that has somehow been… broken apart.  

So, what are the Sages talking about here?

Maybe that broken apart oven represents something. Something of great moment in Jewish history. Something that was happening right then in Jewish history. 

Because right then, as those sages were standing there debating in this newly formed Sanhedrin in Yavneh – there was an entity that had been shattered. It wasn’t just one person. It was a community of people comprising a single great organism - the organism we call the Jewish Nation. That's the utensil that has been smashed and lies in shards. The Romans- they’ve overrun the land of Israel, they’ve laid siege to the capital Jerusalem; they’ve invaded it's walls, destroyed its temple, subjugated its people, sold them as slaves. There is nothing left! The nation of Israel has been shattered. It's as if this vertebrae of this organism has been sliced apart. 

But, in the creation of Yavneh, there was an attempt to salvage something. There was an attempt to reconstruct Jewish Nationhood on other terms; to stitch it together, as it were, with sand. The sands of Yavneh. Yes. If the sliced apart oven is the nation, the sand that now holds it together… is Yavneh. And so, the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages, when you really strip it down, its actually a debate about whether this radical experiment works! Whether the Jewish nation, so constructed… is really for real. What we have with the creation of Yavneh, by R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, is actually nothing less than an attempt to refashion a broken utensil. To reconstitute Jewish nationhood on other terms. And we can therefore wonder: Does it really work? You know, is it really a utensil anymore, or is it just shards? And that's the debate between these men. 

Rabbi Eliezer said "it's not really a kli, it's not a real utensil”. The Sages said "oh yes it is!" This experiment in alternative-nation building- this is for real. The essence of the Jewish national enterprise, it still lives on, and it lives on in these very walls.

How exactly does the debate play out? Well, that’s the story of the carob tree, the aqueduct, and the leaning walls… Let’s take a look at those elements now.

The Carob Tree, the Aqueduct and the Walls

So, you’ll recall that Rabbi Eliezer – the one who disputed the Sages and asserted the tanur wasn’t a utensil – so, he marshalled these proofs for his position. Miraculous proofs involving that uprooted carob tree, the aqueducts that flowed backwards, the falling walls. Let’s talk about those things: What are they, really? 

If you think about them carefully, they are the elements of nationhood. They are what civilization, any civilization really is built out of. What, after all, are the elements of human civilization? You can argue that there are three. One is raw materials - plants, trees, minerals, iron, ore. And that, in essence, is the first proof Rabbi Eliezer brings to his position: The carob tree, one of those raw materials. But civilization is built on something else too, right? Human society might start with raw materials only; it might start with hunter gatherers just sort of living off the natural world in its most basic state. But that's not really a civilisation. A civilisation takes that... and builds off it. The first thing they build is stuff that helps them more effectively harness these raw materials: tools. They build hoes, picks and hammers. They build things like… aqueducts to channel water, maybe the most precious of natural resource, to where that water’s needed. Right? These tools take raw materials and make something more of them. And, that's kind of element two in a civilization. But, if you think about it, there is a third element in civilization, in any civilization, that rides even on top of that.

So a third and final step in the development of a civilization happens once you start using these tools together with the raw materials to start building things. You might start with things that address communal needs, you know, fire departments and insurance companies. But the apex of this ‘building stage’ is when a society builds things that don’t just address a pressing need, but when they build institutions that embody their deepest values: Court systems, libraries, academic institutions. And that's really the third element of Rabbi Eliezer's proofs. The walls of Yavneh itself. 

So, these three things: the carob tree, the aqueducts, the walls of this place of learning- of Yavneh- these things that Rabbi Eliezer marshalling his proof from… these are the stuff out of which civilisation is made. And Rabbi Eliezar, he points to these things and he says: We no longer have a kli here, even stitched back together again; it has all been shattered. 

You know by the way, of all the raw materials that Rabbi Eliezar chooses to highlight, isn't it interesting that he chooses the carob tree of all things. Because, how do you spell carob tree in Aramaic. It is: charov… Chet-resh-vav-bet. Do you know what else chet-resh-vav-bet spells? It spells 'destruction'. Charov - it's all destroyed! The carob tree, the aqueducts, all of our institutions – they are gone! There is nothing left! And to embody that message, the carob tree just kind of uproots itself and throws itself a hundred yards- just kind of destroying itself. Charov! The water in the aqueduct, it turns backwards, as if to say, it too is broken and cannot serve its function. And the walls itself, of this beit medrash – those walls are going to collapse. Because nothing is left! Everything is topsy turvy! 

But then Rabbi Yeshua steps in, and he won’t accept this answer. Rabbi Yeshua literally starts shouting at the walls … and they stop falling; they remain leaning, precariously leaning…  

Rabbi Eliezer stands on his feet and screams "if I am right, let the heavens themselves declare that I'm right!" And then a voice comes out from heaven and says "Rabbi Eliezer is right!" God himself, as it were, sides with Rabbi Eliezer. It's true, heaven says! Society does require these things. You don't have them anymore. Jewish civilization has been destroyed! 

Well, that’s heaven’s opinion – or, we might say, that’s ‘reality’ in some objective sense-- but here’s the real audacity of the story: the Sages didn't care. They would not be daunted. They attempted to move ahead with something that could only be called a kind of dream, a kind of fiction… and turn it into a reality: It was a bold new experiment in nation-building. We're going to create a lifeboat society. A civilization on other terms. We're going to stitch back together this body politic called the 'Jewish people'.... with sand - with the sands of Yavneh, with the institution of the Sanhedrin and the Torah that we reckon in our debates and that we teach to our children - that is going to be the core of our Jewish nationhood, for the foreseeable future, until the Temple is rebuilt! 

Yavneh expresses the audacious hope and conviction that Jewish nationhood is yet still alive . It has not been entirely destroyed by the Romans. It lives on in the Torah that we learn here, that we teach here. It is our portable nation. 

And now look: How do you spell Yavneh? Yud-bet-nun-hey. You know what else yud-bet-nun-hey spells? Yibaneh, "it will be built". This is our life boat, and one day yibaneh, "it will all be re-built". This is how we bide our time, in a lifeboat that allows us to navigate the seas of time… for thousands of years, if it need be… until a conventional Jewish society can be re-established.

The Laughing Deity

So who wins? The majority view of the Sages or the view of Rabbi Eliezer? 

Rabbi Eliezer he’s got the carob tree on his side; the aqueduct on his side; the walls on his side; he’s got heaven itself on his side. All of that says… this pitiful experiment in Yavneh - this skeleton of an oven stitched together with sand- it isn't real. But, the Gemara says: The Torah was given to us, human beings. God gave it to us at Sinai and now it is ours. As if to reinforce that, the Torah itself says that in disputes, we are to follow the majority of human scholars -- and the Sages, the majority in this case, they disputes Rabbi Eliezer. The majority says it is real. Yes, but what if that majority opinion is opposed by God himself? It doesn't matter. The Torah is not in heaven anymore. 

And finally, we get the ironic, big reveal… Eliyahu haNavi, Elijah the prophet, he comes and tells Rabbi Natan: "you want to know what God was doing as this all came to a head? As heaven itself, as it were, was getting overruled? God was laughing". He was saying: Nitzchuni benai, nitzchuni benai, "my children have bested me, my children have bested me".

Sure, the reality as I see it, from the vantage point of Heaven, is that civilizations, they entail raw materials, tools, and institutions. And yes, under that definition, this Jewish civilization is gone, destroyed, wiped away by the Romans, but these humans to whom I’ve entrusted my Torah, they are boldly constructing a new theory of civilization – of Jewish civilization. They’ve taken all that they have left – the Torah – and treated it as if it, itself, is their new ‘raw material’, as it were. They’ve developed tools – methods of exegesis for mining that precious resource for its eternal wisdom. And they, they are building institutions out of it, institutions that reflect Mine and their values. So yes, here in Yavneh, they’ve constructed a civilization… out of sand. They’ve taken my Torah and they are fashioning something out of it. Here is kerem beyavneh, a vineyard in Yavneh, fertile, alive with intellectual ferment. This is the nation’s lifeboat and lifeblood. 

And that's the view of the Sages and it carries the day.

Back to R’ Yochanan

I think we're now in a position to go back to our first gemara and see how the Tanur Shel Achnai story actually sheds light on the story of the Baryonei and Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai's exit from a besieged Jerusalem – and Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s three mysterious requests of the Roman commander., Vespasian. 

You remember the Baryonei – those zealots who destroyed the food stores in Jerusalem, and Rav Tzadok, the sage who fasted for days on end for the salvation of Jerusalem? You know, in a curious kind of way, as different as they were, the Baryonei and R’ Tzadok, they do have something in common: they were both seeking the same thing- the salvation of Jerusalem. And not only that: they were seeking to attain that salvation in the same kind of way- they were seeking almost to force God's hand to save Jerusalem. To force God's hand through... deprivation of food. 

Think about it: What are the Zealots doing? They are trying to force a resolution on the Jerusalem question. We don't want to wait it out. We don't want to wait and see what will happen, we want to burn our food stores to force everyone left in the city to fight this crazy, losing battle. Which means, in effect, that they are trying to force God to come in at the 11th hour and save the people. And interestingly, Rav Tzadok, at the other extreme, is kind of doing the same thing. Because even though he's not advocating fighting the Romans – what is he doing? He's like fasting; and bringing himself to the brink of death. And basically saying, look I’m also forcing your hand God. You know, what are you going to let me do? Die of starvation? Save Jerusalem!" 

So both Rav Tzadok and the Zealots are in a certain curious kind of way doing the same thing, right?

And now let's look at Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Because he, is also in a strange way, is kind of doing the same thing. And you wouldn’t have thunk it right? Because, the Zealots and Rav Tzadok, they were aiming to save political independence- the sovereignty of an independent Jewish state. And Rav Yochanan, look, he seems like he’s already given up on that. He can’t save Jerusalem he feels. With his three requests from Vespasion, he’s actually aiming for something else. Right? He want this little academy in Yavneh, and he wants Rabban Gamliel's family, and he wants a doctor for Rav Tzadok. He doesn't seem to have his eye on Jewish nationhood at all. 

Except, that’s would be how I would have seen things before looking at the story of Tanur Shel Achnai. Now, after having looked at that story together, I think we can say with confidence that Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was trying to achieve the same basic thing as everyone else in the story: the salvation of Jewish nationhood. It's just he was trying to save Jewish nationhood on entirely new terms. He was trying to create a lifeboat. He was trying to stitch back the broken skeleton of Jewish nationhood with sand.

Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai came to the conclusion that Jewish nationhood, to survive, needed to embody itself in the creative engagement of human beings with the Torah, in a new flowering of something we’ve taken to calling “Torah She’beal Peh’, the Oral Torah. Remember how, when he left the city, R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai was in a coffin? He looks like he’s dead and he’s not. Well, in a way, that’s a kind of metaphor for the whole Jewish nation now, right? It looks like its dead but its not. Think about the request that R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai was making of Vespasian - "spare Yavneh and it's Sages". R’ Yochanan knew Vespasian’s never gonna spare Jerusalem. But Yavneh? That is something that looked like its dead! Who cares about Yavneh? These sages studying on a hill of sand? 

Except what seemed like a coffin containing death, actually contained something beautiful that was truly… alive. The Oral Torah as we know it – it took off with the advent of Yavneh. The Sages of Yavneh – R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students – they ushered in a golden age of Jewish learning... that kept our nation alive. They were Tannaim in that beit medrash – and as Yavneh moved to Usha and to other places, hundreds of years after that, there were Amoraim. It was the beginning of an age of vibrant study and debate, applying the principles of the Torah to new situations and human dilemmas. It culminated in the compilation of the Mishnah, then the Talmud. Yavneh kept our nation alive because the Torah they were learning there was alive… It was vibrant, it was dynamic. Vespasian, he didn't understand how alive it was. He didn't understand the secret of lo bashamayim hi; the notion that the Torah so belonged to humans that people, sometimes, could actually force God’s hand, and God would laugh in response – My children have bested me! The ability for humans to elaborate the Torah was actually baked into the Torah itself… and now, in Yavneh, that potential was starting to unfurl.

The Three Requests of R’ Yochanan Ben Zakkai

In the end, R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai didn’t only ask Vespasian for the preservation of Yavneh and it's wise men. He also asked for two seemingly more trivial things: A doctor to heal Rav Tzadok, and to allow the family of Rabban Gamliel to survive. Why ask for those things?

Well, in Yavneh and it's wise men, he was asking, as we've talked about, for a place to continue Torah learning, for the essence of Judaism to survive. Yavneh would be Jewish nationhood for the time being , reconstituted as a castle in the sand. But in order for the lifeboat to survive, maybe it required at least a connection, some sort of link, to the conventional kind of Jewish nationhood, the kind that was disappearing, at least for the time being. One part of that connection was Rabban Gamliel's family. Rashi comments that "Rabban Gamliel - the Nasi, the head of the political branch of Jewish nationhood at the time, he could trace his lineage back to King David". And who, of course, was King David?

He was the archetype of conventional Jewish nationhood. As a king, he was the center of executive power of a sovereign nation in its own land. And now a little piece of that stays alive in Rabban Gamliel's family. You take that along with you into the lifeboat, because the lifeboat can only really survive if it's connected to the source from which it came. 

And what else do you take with you into the lifeboat? You take a doctor for Rav Tzadok. Because, R’ Tzadok, he’s got to stay alive, he’s got to go into the lifeboat too. And the reason is because Rav Tzadok, more than anyone else, was passionately consumed with the salvation of Jerusalem - no one cried Jerusalem like Rav Tzadok. And that means something. When you cry for something, it keeps you connected to it. 

So R’ Yochanan’s three odd requests? They weren’t so odd after all. They were the building blocks upon which, the Jewish nation, the nation we know today!- was able to survive the destruction of our Temple and our exile from our land. In the debates of the Sages of Yavneh – debates in which a human would sometimes disagree even with God -- the Torah would flourish, as humans built a civilization on new terms. And as this revolutionary new view of nationhood takes hold, there were still links to the past, to the way nationhood was conventionally defined. The family of R’ Gamliel – it continued the legacy of our peoplehood, with a link to our king. And R’ Tzadok? R’ Tzadok was the displaced heart of that bygone nation, continuing, forever- even until today, to cry for that which we lost. 

So, as we sit on the floor on Tisha B’Av, we too, cry – as R’ Tzadok once did – and we too, remain linked through those tears, to our nationhood of yore. We do that even as we study the debates of Yavneh’s sages – debates that have been immortalized in the Talmud and in the Mishnah. You know, if the sages who engaged in those debates, who argued over Tanur Shel Achnai -- if they could only look out, from the ruins of that beit medrash in those sands, over the centuries, towards our own age – I think that those Sages of Yavneh they’d likely be proud to see that the lifeboat they launched… hasn’t capsized. It is still sailing strong, over time. Long since the destruction of Jerusalem, and even the destruction of Yavneh – we humans have continued to debate, to develop to unfurl, the majesty of an organic, living Torah. It has sustained us and it continues to sustain us – even as, in a fledgling state of our own, we begin the task of rebuilding Jerusalem anew. 

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