70 AD

- ה א א -

Yohanan ben Zakkai Begs Vespasian to Spare Yavne

70 AD

Vespasian comes to Jerusalem and finds a city torn apart by civil strife. He therefore decides to postpone the attack – which could potentially unite all factions against him – and instead let the inner struggles “reduce” the number of defenders. Vespasian sets up camp outside the walls of Jerusalem and prepares for the eventual siege. Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the brightest Jewish scholars of the generation, understands that the city’s fate has been sealed and decides to surrender himself to the Romans. After his disciples smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin, the great rabbi approaches Vespasian and gains favor in his eyes by foretelling his coronation as Caesar. He then requests that the city of Yavne be spared, as he intends to create a cultural and religious center there following the Temple’s destruction. In fact, the academy in Yavne will later become the birthplace of Talmudic Judaism.

A year of unprecedented political instability in Rome – in which several emperors rise to the throne only to be assassinated shortly thereafter – forces Vespasian to temporarily suspend his campaign. After a third emperor is assassinated in 69 AD, Vespasian becomes Caesar and appoints his son, Titus, as commander of the campaign in Jerusalem.

Out of the havoc and hatred sweeping both Jerusalem and Rome, Vespasian and Yohanan ben Zakkai cooperate in order to secure the posterity and prosperity of their respective homelands. 

“Rabban Yohanan acted on Abba Sicara’s advice. He sent for his disciples R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and said to them, “Bestir yourselves, my children, and have me taken out of Jerusalem. Make a coffin for me, and I will lie down in it. ” Presently R. Eliezer took hold of the upper part of the coffin and R. Joshua of its lower part, and they carried it slowly along until the setting of the sun, when they reached the gates of Jerusalem. Some of the Sicarii guards asked, “Who is this?” The disciples: “A dead body. Don’t you know that dead bodies may not be kept overnight in Jerusalem?”2 Some of the Sicarii wanted to drive a dagger through the body, but Abba Sicara restrained them: “It will be said of you, ‘They pierced their master. ‘ ” Then they wanted to push the body about, but again he restrained them: “It will be said of you, ‘They pushed their master about. ‘ ” So they opened the gate for the coffin, and it left the city.” (The book of legends / Bialik & Ravnitzky, p. 190)

Like faith, certainty is knowing, without a doubt, that we are creations of God and that all we experience is good.