Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai
Spotlight on... the Talmudic Sages
By Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet
‘[R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai] used to say:
“If you’ve learned a lot of Torah, don’t think yourself to be superior, for this is what you were created for.”’
Pirkei Avot 2:8
When asked ‘Who founded Judaism?’ we often struggle to come up with an answer. Moses? God? The truth is, Judaism as we know it, the Rabbinic Judaism that has survived until today, can be traced back to the remarkable life of one man that few of us learn much about, the first person to hold the title ‘rabbi’: Yochanan ben Zakkai.
We know practically nothing about Yochanan’s life as a young man or his family. He lived in the Galilee for some time and then Jerusalem. Yet he only really emerges onto the scene as the conditions in Jerusalem worsen. By the mid-First Century, the relationship between the Roman occupying force and the native Jewish population had deteriorated to a total standoff. The Galileans, whom Yochanan had correctly predicted would be rash and extreme, formed violent gangs to engage in guerilla resistance against the Romans. Their extreme ideology spread to all corners, both violent (Zealots, Sicarii) and peaceful (Jesus and his followers).
Meanwhile, Yochanan began to see the possible end: the Temple destroyed, the people crushed under the weight of Roman repression. When the rebellion reached its apex, between the year 66 and 70, Yochanan did something radical. While Jerusalem was under siege, the Zealots would not permit anyone to go in or out, nor any supplies to be brought in to relieve the hardship and starvation the Jewish population locked inside were facing. They even burned their own food stores to make the situation more desperate and try and win more people to their side. Yochanan, on seeing this, realised there would be few ways out so long as extreme and violent elements represented the Jewish population.
As a result, Yochanan had a few of his students secretly fake his death and sneak him out of the siege lines in a coffin, corpses being the only thing allowed out of besieged Jerusalem. Upon reaching the besieging Roman forces, Yochanan popped out of his coffin and immediately asked to speak with Vespasian, the future Emperor who was fighting here in the first major campaign of his career.
Yochanan somehow exacted a promise from Vespasian: if the Romans would allow him to take his students, leave Jerusalem, and found an Academy in the sleepy Galilean town of Yavneh, then Yochanan would not resist Roman rule and would not participate in the rebellion. Vespasian agreed, and Yochanan created the Yavneh Academy just as the Romans finally broke the siege, burned Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple that stood upon it.
From that Academy, and from Rabbi Yochanan who became its primary teacher, all Judaism since has emerged. Yochanan’s approach, of compromise, moderation and adaptation, characterise the Judaism he taught. He encouraged his pupils to give up on sacrifices and instead see prayer as serving the same role. He encouraged them to prioritise someone’s learning over their status, and abhorred elitism. He was practical and pragmatic, and his deeds were essential to setting the tone for the faith he inadvertently ‘founded’.
Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet is the rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue