How Flavius Josephus and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai
Tried to Save Jerusalem and the Jews from the Zealots
A discussion with Rabbi Dr. Jacob Reiner, Assistant Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University; Director of Adult Education at Young Israel of Fort Lee; Rabbi Emeritus of Ohab Zedeck, Belle Harbor, New York
We are approaching Tisha B’Av; the day we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. We know what happened from the Talmud and the writings of Flavius Josephus. Who was Josephus?
Josephus was the primary historian of the era, there is no other one. He wrote The Great Roman Jewish Wars, about the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. He also wrote an autobiography, the Vita, and that is how we know about him.
He was born Joseph ben Mattathias, an aristocratic Kohen from his father’s side, and was descended from the Hashmonaim through his mother, so he was from both priestly and royal Jewish blood.
What faction in Jerusalem did Josephus belong to?
There were two sides trying to control Jerusalem: The Pharisees, who accepted Roman authority; the Sadducees, aristocrats who did not accept it; plus a third group, the Essenes, who we believe are the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Josephus said when he was young he wanted to try out each one before making up his mind where he belonged. He decided on the Pharisees.
He ended up with the Romans. How and Why?
The revolt against Rome started in about 65; Josephus was probably about 30 years old and already prominent in Judea. Josephus said in the Vita that he had been a brilliant student and even when he was young, people would consult him about affairs of state. He was sent to Rome to try to free two priests who had been arrested. He was successful. The Romans liked him – he was attractive and well educated. They gave him a tour of the military camps and Joseph was impressed by the overwhelming display of Rome’s power.
Josephus came back to Jerusalem to find that the Zealots, a group of pious nationalists, had proclaimed a revolution against the Roman Procurator who was brutal and corrupt. The Romans had been systematically provoking the Jews and taking away their liberty and independence. The Zealots were very vocal; they stood on street corners and tried to convince the people to revolt. An even more extreme group split off from the Zealots and were called the Sicaari, probably from the Hebrew word Sacin, or knife. They carried daggers under their cloaks and killed people; they were political assassins, intent on revolution. Josephus calls them crooks and bandits.
Josephus was very outspoken against the revolt. He went into hiding out of fear that the opposition would call him a traitor because he was friendly with Rome.
Later, the Judean government appointed him Commander of Galilee. This is perplexing because he was opposed to the war. He gives two conflicting explanations in his writings. In the Great Jewish Roman War, he says he was appointed to prepare the people for an effective revolt; the war hadn’t reached the Galilee yet. But in the Vita, he says the government in charge was moderate, and was trying to contain the revolt; he was sent to keep the Galilee out of the war. He was the right man for that job but he did not succeed.
The Romans conquered the area and surrounded the cave in Jotapata where Josephus was hiding with a group of fighters. Josephus wanted them to surrender but they refused; they preferred suicide. He suggested that they pick lots so that each person would kill the next one instead of doing it themselves (This was also done years later when the Zealots were surrounded in Masada). Josephus was the last one left but he went outside and surrendered. He asked to be taken to Vespasian and told him he was destined to be emperor. We don’t know how he came to that conclusion. After that, he stayed with the Romans as a friend of Vespasian and as his spokesman. Until the end, he tried to convince the Jews to surrender to Rome in order to save Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of Jerusalem and like Josephus, asked to be taken to Vespasian. Who was he and why did he do it?
Prior to the revolt, Rabbi ben Zakkai was a member of the Sanhedrin and gave public lectures. He represented the Pharisees and was a prominent luminary. He was very outspoken against the revolution. We know this from four Rabbinic sources in Mesechet Gittin, Midrash Eicha and Avot d’Rebbi Natan. According to these sources, as the siege of Jerusalem gained strength, Vespasian sent a message to the rebels and asked, ‘why do you want to be responsible for the destruction of the Temple and Judea? Throw down a bowl and step outside. You will have amnesty.’ The Zealots in control of the Temple refused and said, ‘No! We were victorious before (in the earlier part of the war) and we will be again.’
When Rabbi ben Zakkai heard this he also asked them why they persisted but they refused to back down. One of our sources says at this time there were granaries with enough food to feed the population for years. But the Zealots, maybe the Sicaari, headed by Rabbi ben Zakkai’s nephew burned the warehouses to push the people to revolt. That’s when Rabbi ben Zakkai realized this was no place for him.
He summoned two disciples and told them to pretend he was dead in order to carry him outside the walls in a coffin since corpses were not allowed to be left overnight in Jerusalem. When he was out he asked to be taken to Vespasian.
Vespasian had spies in the Temple and when they saw something suspicious or had information, they wrote messages and sent them by arrow over the walls to Vespasian. They learned that Rabbi ben Zakkai was an “ohaavei kayzer,” a lover of Caesar. So when he came out they knew who he was.
Rabbi ben Zakkai knew that Vespasian would be emperor from Yeshiahu who prophesied that Jerusalem would fall by the hand of a king. The next morning, a message arrived proclaiming Vespasian as emperor of Rome.
As a reward, Vespasian asked Rabbi benZakkai what he wanted. That’s when he uttered the famous line, “Ten le Yavne of chachmeah,” Give me Yavne and its sages. So he went to Yavne where he may have rebuilt the Sanhedrin and most certainly perpetuated Judaism.
There are variations in the story among the sources. One source, possibly Midrash Eicha, suggests that Rabbi Ben Zakkai asked Vespasian to stop the siege but he refused.
Gedalyahu Alon, Senior Professor of history at Hebrew University, says this story is a fantasy. If it was correct, then Vespasian would be responsible for saving Judaism and Josephus would have written a whole chapter praising Vespasian for it. Alon says it is more likely that when the siege tightened, some people were able to escape and they were placed under surveillance in one of two cities the Romans controlled, essentially prison cities, Lydda and Jamnia—or Lod and Yavne. He thinks Rabbi ben Zakkai escaped and was sent to Yavne, where he had the wisdom and stamina to make it a great place. The fact that he had opposition substantiates Alon’s claim. If he had the blessing of Vespasian, no one would oppose him.
It’s a mystery why the Talmud has no mention of Josephus, and Josephus does not mention Rabbi ben Zakkai; their positions were similar.
The siege ended with the Romans burning down the Temple. How did that change Judaism?
Rabbi ben Zakkai took practices that were designated only for Jerusalem or the BeitHaMikdash and instituted Takanot that they should still be observed. For example, if Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbos, the shofar was blown in the Beit HaMikdash. He ruled they should blow it in Yavne. Why did rabbi ben Zakkai continue these practices? “Mehaira yibaneh hamikdash,” soon the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt and we don’t want to forget what to do. Rabbi ben Zakkai gave the people hope that the geulah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt. He was not preparing for the Churban. He succeeded in this. There were constant Jewish uprisings by nationalists until the time of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. After that, the rabbis prohibited taking up arms against the Romans. Judaism transitioned from a nationalistic outlook to one focused on Limud Torah with devotion to study, develop and observe mitzvoth.
The second Temple was built by King Herod, a brutal murderer. He even put a giant eagle on the gate to symbolize Rome’s domination. Why do we mourn its destruction?
Herod was a rasha but he was a great statesman. Rome was known for its architecture and as head of Judea, and its capital city, Jerusalem, Herod wanted a magnificent palace. The Temple that had been rebuilt was not so nice; it was shabby compared to the First Temple built by Shlomo HaMelech. Since only 70 years had elapsed since it was destroyed by the Babylonians, there were people alive who remembered what it had looked like, and they wept when they saw how the Second Temple was constructed.
Herod went to Baba ben Bota, a Talmudic luminary, for advice on the reconstruction. A Midrash says that the “melechchoteh,” this sinful king, built the Temple to repent for what he did – he killed his wife and sons and anyone he thought was against him or wanted him overthrown.
The Talmud says whoever didn’t see the Beit HaMikdash never saw a beautiful building.
By Bracha Schwartz