Johanan ben Zakkai
The most important tanna in the last decade of the Second Temple, and, after the destruction of Jerusalem, the founder and first president of the academy at Jabneh. According to the theory formulated in the Mishnah (Ab. ii. 8), that traditions were handed down through an unbroken chain of scholars, Johanan, in receiving the teachings of Hillel and Shammai, formed the last link in that chain. But it is rather as a pupil of Hillel than of Shammai that he is known (Suk. 28a). Before his death Hillel is said to have prophetically designated Johanan, his youngest pupil, as "the father of wisdom" and "the father of coming generations" (Yer. Ned. v., end, 39b). Like that of Hillel, Johanan's life was divided into periods of forty years each. In the first of these he followed a mercantile pursuit; in the second he studied; and in the third he taught (R. H. 30b). Another version has it (Sifre, Deut. 357) that in the last forty years of his life he was a leader of Israel. If the last statement be accepted as approximately correct, and it is assumed that Johanan lived at the latest one decade after the destruction of Jerusalem, his public activity as the recognized leader of the pharisaic scribes must have begun between the years 30 and 40 of the common era.
Activity Before Destruction of Temple.
Some data have been preserved concerning Johanan's public activity in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple. Together with Simon b. Gamaliel I. he sent orders to the different districts of Palestine concerning the delivery of the tithe (statement of his pupil Joshua b. Neḥunya in the Mekilta of Simeon b. Yoḥai; Midr. ha-Gadol to Deut. xxvi. 13). He refuted the objections of the Sadducees to the Pharisees (Yad. iv. 5), and opposed the halakah of the Sadducees (Men. 65a; B. B. 115b). He prevented a Sadducean high priest from following the Sadducean regulations at the burning of the red heifer (Tosef., Parah, iii. 8; comp. Parah iii. 7, 8).
It was Johanan's activity as a teacher in Jerusalem which was especially extolled by tradition. His school was called the "great house," after the expression in II Kings xxv. 9 (Yer. Meg. 73d). It was the scene of many incidents that formed the subjects of anecdote and legend (Lam. R. i. 12, passim; Gen. R. iv.). The oft-repeated story concerning Johanan's most important pupil, Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, shows Johanan's bet ha-midrash (academy) as the scene of a pathetic meeting between son and father (Tan., ed. Buber, to Gen. xiv. 1). An old tradition (Pes. 26a) relates that Johanan sat in the shadow of the Temple and lectured the whole day; but that of course was not the permanent place for his teaching. The statements regarding five of his pupils, his verdict concerning them, and the question he put to them as to the best road for a person to pursue through life (Ab. ii. 8) are reminiscences of the period before the destruction.
Residence in Galilee.
Johanan's residence in 'Arab, a place in Galilee, which was perhaps his home, belongs to this period. Two questions of a legal nature (regarding the observance of the Sabbath) which he answered while there (Shab. xvi. 7, xxii. 3) gave rise to the statement that he lived there for eighteen years (probably a round number), and that he was moved by the religious indifference of the inhabitants to exclaim: "O Galilee, Galilee, thou hatest the Torah; hence wilt thou fall into the hands of robbers
Another prophetical exclamation of a similar nature is ascribed to Johanan. The gates of the Temple had ominously opened of themselves, whereupon he apostrophized the sanctuary: "O Temple, Temple, why dost thou frighten thyself? I know of thee that thou shalt be destroyed; Zechariah the son of Iddo
[Zech. xi. 1] has already prophesied concerning thee
: 'Open thy doors, O Lebanon [the sanctuary], that the fire may devour thy cedars'" (Yoma 39b; comp. Ab. R. N., Recension B, vii., ed. Schechter, p. 21).
After the Destruction.
Johanan's part in the last struggle of Jerusalem against Rome has been immortalized in the legends concerning the destruction of that city, which, however, have a historical kernel (Giṭ. 56b; Lam. R. i. 5; Ab. R. N. iv.). He counseled peace; and when the strife of parties in the besieged city became unbearable he had himself carried to the Roman camp in a coffin. Like Josephus, Johanan prophesied imperial honors for the general Vespasian
, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Lebanon [that is, the sanctuary] shall fall by a mighty one" (Isa.x. 34). He sought and obtained permission to settle in Jabneh (Jamnia) and to exercise his profession of teacher there. In Jabneh, surrounded by his pupils, Johanan received the terrible news that the Temple was burned to ashes
. They tore their garments
, wept, and made lamentation as for the dead (Ab. R. N. iv.). But the aged master in the catastrophe which had befallen the Jewish people kept his vigor unimpaired.
He converted the school at Jabneh into a center for Judaism in Palestine. The college, of which he was president, exercised the functions of the great law court (Sanhedrin) of Jerusalem, and by this institution of an authorized board the continuity of spiritual leadership was maintained uninterrupted. Johanan saw to it that Jabneh took the place of Jerusalem as the Jewish religious center. He ordained that certain privileges peculiar to Jerusalem and the sanctuary should be transferred to Jabneh (R. H. iv. 1, 3).
Other regulations of his dealt with the determination of the exact time when the new month begins—a matter then very important—and with the acceptance of the testimony on which such determination is based (ib. iv. 41; Baraita, R. H. 21b). His order that, as had been customary in the Temple, the trumpets should sound in Jabneh on New-Year's Day even when it fell on the Sabbath, was opposed, but unsuccessfully, by some of the members of the council (Baraita, R. H. 29b).
Johanan ben Zakkai's motto was, "If thou hast learned much of the Torah, do not take credit for it; for this was the purpose of thy creation" (Ab. ii. 8). He found his real calling in the study of the Law ...
In the halakic tradition Johanan is but seldom referred to as an originator of maxims. His halakah is doubtless to be found in that of Hillel's school and in the sayings of his pupils, especially of Eliezer and Joshua. The haggadic tradition, on the other hand, connects numerous and varied sayings with his name. Mention may first be made of conversations between him and his pupils
, or between him and unbelievers who were versed in the Bible
, in which questions of textual interpretation were discussed
. At one time he asked his pupils what the words in Prov. xiv. 34 meant (Pesiḳ., ed. Buber, 12b; comp. B. B. 10b, where the accounts of two conversations have been confused). He himself interpreted them as follows: "Benevolence
[ḥesed] on the part of a nation has the atoning power of a sin-offering
" (B. B. l.c.).
A special group of Johanan's haggadic text interpretations is given the name "Ḥomer," which term is related to the designation "doreshe ḥamurot," applied to the ancient expositors of the Bible. In this group the interpretations are symbolic, seeking to penetrate into the spirit of the Bible text ...
The exhortation to those who are freed from military service to return home (Deut. xx. 5-7):—this, he said, was given in order that the cities of Israel might not become depopulated in times of war (Sifre, Deut. 192) ...
Johanan's views on piety (comp. his motto given above) correspond to his teaching that Job's piety was not based on the love of God, but on the fear of Him (Job. i. 1; Soṭah v. 5, reported by Joshua b. Hananiah). He explains the exhortation in Eccl. ix. 8 allegorically: "White garments and costly oils are not meant here," he says (Eccl. R. ix. 6), "for the Gentile peoples have these in plenty: it is rather an exhortation to fulfil the Law, to do good deeds, and to study the Scriptures."
In a tradition concerning the knowledge of esoteric doctrines ("Ma'aseh Bereshit " and "Ma'aseh Merkabah"), related by Jose b. Judah, a tanna of the second half of the second century, it is said that Joshua b. Hananiah, the pupil of Johanan, under the eye of his master occupied himself with esoteric doctrines and that Akiba learned them from him (Ḥag. 14b). According to another tradition (ib.), it was Eleazar b. 'Arak with whom Johanan studied the mystic doctrines. A remarkable saying of Johanan's has been preserved, which is in accord with his study of mystic doctrines (Ḥag. 13a; comp. Pes. 94b). In this saying man is advised to bring the infinity of God, the Creator of the world, nearer to his own conception by imagining the space of the cosmos extended to unthinkable distances.
In conclusion may be mentioned the historical meaning which Johanan, on a certain sad occurrence, gave to a verse of the Song of Solomon (Yitro, Baḥodesh, 1). In Ma'on, a town of southern Judea, Johanan saw, probably not long after the destruction of Jerusalem, a young Jewess picking out grains of barley from the ordure of an Arab's horse, in order to still her hunger. Johanan said to his pupils who were with him:
- "My whole life long I have tried to understand that sentence in the Song of Solomon [i. 8]: 'If thou know not, O thou fairest among women,' etc.
Now for the first time I catch its meaning: 'You did not wish'—so goes the word reproving Israel—'to submit to God; hence you are made subject to foreign peoples. You did not wish to pay God a half-shekel for each person; now you pay 15 shekels to the government of your enemies. You did not wish to repair the roads and streets for the holiday pilgrims; you must now repair the road-houses and watch-towers for your oppressors. And in you is fulfilled the prophecy [Deut. xviii. 47-48, R. V.]: Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things, therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies, which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things'."
Johanan felt the fall of his people more deeply than any one else, but—and in this lies his historical importance—he did more than any one else to prepare the way for Israel to rise again.
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