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Johanan ben Zakai

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Johanan ben Zakai

Rabbinical Eras

Yohanan ben Zakkai (Hebrew: יוחנן בן זכאי‎, 30 BCE- 90 CE),[1] also known as Johanan B. Zakkai, or in short ריב״ז (Ribaz), was one of the tannaim, an important Jewish sage in the era of the Second Temple, and a primary contributor to the core text of Rabbinical Judaism, the Mishnah. He is widely regarded as one of the most important Jewish figures of his time. His tomb is located in Tiberias, within the Maimonides burial compound.


Johanan ben Zakai on the Knesset Menorah

The Talmud reports that, in the mid first century, he was particularly active in opposing the Sadducees' interpretations of Jewish law,[2][3] and produced counter-arguments to the Sadducees' objection to the Pharisees.[4] So dedicated was he to opposing the Sadducee view of Jewish law, that he prevented the Jewish high priest, who was a Sadducee, from following the Sadducee interpretation of the Red Heifer ritual.[5]

His home, at this time, was in Arav, a location in the Galilee.[6] However, although living among them, he found the secular attitude of Galileans to be objectionable, allegedly exclaiming that they hated the Torah and would therefore "fall into the hands of robbers."[6]

During the siege of Jerusalem in the Great Jewish Revolt, he argued in favour of peace; according to the Talmud, when he found the anger of the besieged populace to be intolerable, he arranged a secret escape from the city inside a coffin, so that he could negotiate with Vespasian (who, at this time, was still just a military commander).[6][7] Yochanan correctly predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor, and that the temple would soon be destroyed; in return, Vespasian granted Yochanan three wishes: the salvation of Yavne and its sages, the descendants of Rabban Gamliel, who was of the Davidic dynasty, and a physician to treat Rabbi Tzadok, who had fasted for 40 years to stave off the destruction of Jerusalem.[8]

Upon the destruction of Jerusalem, Jochanan converted his school at Yavne into the Jewish religious centre, insisting that certain privileges, given by Jewish law uniquely to Jerusalem, should be transferred to Yavne.[9] His school functioned as a re-establishment of the Sanhedrin, so that Judaism could decide how to deal with the loss of the sacrificial altars of the temple in Jerusalem, and other pertinent questions. Referring to a passage in the Book of Hosea, "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice",[10] he helped persuade the council to replace animal sacrifice with prayer,[11] a practice that continues in today's worship services; eventually Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the council's conclusions.

In his last years he taught at Bror Hayil, a location near Yavne.[12] His students were present at his deathbed, and were requested by him, in his penultimate words, according to the Talmudic record, to reduce the risk of ritual impurity due to the presence of death:

Put the vessels out of the house, that they may not become unclean[13]

More enigmatic were the Talmud's record of his last words, which seem to relate to Jewish messianism:[6]

prepare a throne for Hezekiah, the King of Judah, who is coming[13]

His students returned to Yavne upon his death, and he was buried in the city of Tiberias; eleven centuries later, Maimonides was buried nearby. In his role as leader of the Jewish Council, he was succeeded by Gamliel II.


Jewish tradition records Yochanan as being extremely dedicated to religious study, claiming that no one ever found him engaged in anything but study.[14] He is considered to be someone who passed on the teachings of his predecessors; on the other hand, numerous homiletic and exegetical sayings are attributed to him[15] and he is known for establishing a number of edicts in the post-destruction era:[16]

  1. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the shofar shall be blown in beit din when Rosh HaShana falls on Shabbat (prior to the destruction, it was only blown in Jerusalem and its environs on Shabbat)
  2. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the four species shall be taken for the entire Sukkot (prior to the destruction, it was only taken for the entire holiday in Jerusalem and on the first of the holiday elsewhere)
  3. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the chadash (new grain) shall be prohibited for the entire Day of Waving (prior to the destruction, it was prohibited only up until the time of the waving on that day)
  4. After the destruction of Jerusalem, witnesses for the new moon shall be accepted all day (prior to the destruction, witnesses were only accepted until the afternoon tamid offering)
  5. After the destruction of Jerusalem, witnesses for the new moon shall only go to the place of assembly, and not follow the prince (prior to the destruction, witnesses were only accepted at the location of the prince in Jerusalem)
  6. Kohanim (those of the priestly caste) may not go up to bless the people while wearing footwear
  7. After the destruction of Jerusalem, witnesses for the new moon may not violate the Shabbat except for the months of Nissan and Tishrei (prior to the destruction, witnesses were allowed to violate the Sabbath for all months)
  8. After the destruction of Jerusalem, converts no longer separate monies for their conversion sacrifice (prior to the destruction, part of the conversion process was to bring a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem)
  9. The identity of the ninth edict is disputed:
  10. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Second Tithe was permitted to be exchanged for money within a day's journey of Jerusalem (prior to the destruction, exchanges were only permitted for those living farther than a day's journey)
  11. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the red string associated with the chatas of Yom Kippur was sent with the ish iti (designee) to Azazel (prior to the destruction, the red string was maintained on the premises of the Temple)
  12. Some of his comments were of an esoteric nature.[15] On one occasion he advises that mankind should seek to understand the infinity of God, by imagining the heavens being extended to unthinkable distances.[17] He argued that Job's piety was not based on the love of God, but on the fear of Him.[18]

    He was challenged to resolve several biblical curiosities by a Roman commander, who was familiar with the Torah, but whose name has been lost in confusion. Among the issues were the fact that the numbers[19][20][21] in the Book of Numbers didn't add up to their totals,[22][23] and the reasoning behind the ritual of the red heifer;[24] on this latter question the answer he gave didn't satisfy his own students, so he decreed that the ritual was one that shouldn't be questioned.[25]

    He articulated the principle that you shouldn't take credit for your learning, because "this was the purpose of your creation".[26] He is also quoted as saying:

    If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.[27]
    Preceded by
    Simeon ben Gamliel
    70 - 80
    Succeeded by
    Gamliel II

    See also

    Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue Wall Painting


    1. ^ Sanhedrin 41a
    2. ^ Menahot 65a
    3. ^ Baba Batra 115b
    4. ^ Yadayim 4:5
    5. ^ Parah (Tosefta) 3:8
    6. ^ a b c d Jewish Encyclopedia, Yochanan ben Zakai
    7. ^ Bavli Gittin 56a&b
    8. ^ Bavli Gittin 56b
    9. ^ Rosh Ha Shanah 4:1-3
    10. ^ Hosea 6:6
    11. ^ Rabbi Nathan, Abot 4
    12. ^ Sanhedrin 32b
    13. ^ a b Berakot 28b
    14. ^ Sukkot 28a
    15. ^ a b Jewish Encyclopedia, "Johanan ben Zakkai"
    16. ^ Bavli Rosh HaShana 31b
    17. ^ Hagigah 13a
    18. ^ Soṭah 5:5
    19. ^ Numbers 3:22
    20. ^ Numbers 3:28
    21. ^ Numbers 3:34
    22. ^ Numbers 3:39
    23. ^ Bekorot 5b
    24. ^ Pesahim 40a
    25. ^ Pesahim 40a
    26. ^ Pirkei Abot 2:8
    27. ^ Rabbi Nathan, Abot, 31b

    External links

    • Video Lecture on Yohanan ben Zakkai by Dr. Henry Abramson
    • JOHANAN B. ZACCAI Jewish Encyclopedia
    • Rabbi Yochanan ben Zaccai Israel Guide
    • "Rabbi Yochanan ben Zaccai" Orthodox Union
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