Johanan ben Zakkai

Johanan ben Zakkai

According to the Mishnah, an Oral tradition and knowledge was handed down through an unbroken chain of scholars through the ages, and Johanan was a student of both Hillel and Shammai where he formed the last link in that chain. But his life’s work would prove to historians that he be better known as a pupil of Hillel than of Shammai.

See the source imageThe Talmud reports that, in the mid first century, he was particularly active in opposing the Sadducees’ interpretations of Jewish law, and produced counter-arguments to the Sadducees’ objection to the Pharisees. 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.

Yochanan was given the title usually reserved for the Nasi (the Prince), Rabban, ‘Our Master’, in contradistinction to the simple title “Rabbi.” Rabban Yochanan’s two outstanding disciples, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, succeeded him in the leadership of the Pharisaic party and, together with him, belonged to the early teachers known as the Tannaim (Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah), who developed what later came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism.

During the siege of Jerusalem in the First Jewish–Roman War, 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). 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.

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Johanan sought and obtained permission to settle in Yavne and to exercise his profession of teacher there and to preserve the House of the Nasi by affording protection to the young Gamaliel, later to become the Nasi, Rabban Gamaliel II, protecting the legislative body, the Sanhedrin, and thus assuring the survival of Judaism. In Yavne, 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.

Upon the destruction of Jerusalem, Yochanan 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. 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 like issues of the exact time in Yavne when the new month should begin and when the trumpets should sound on Rosh HaShana (New Year). Referring to a passage in the Book of Hosea, “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice”, he helped persuade the council to replace animal sacrifice with prayer, a practice that continues in today’s worship services; eventually Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the council’s conclusions.

See the source imageAlthough it may be concluded that Johanan spent the last years of his life and died at a place near Yavne, he was buried at Tiberias, where eleven centuries later, the Maimonides was buried nearby. In his role as leader of the Jewish Council, he was succeeded by Gamliel II.

Rabban Gamaliel II was a rabbi from the second generation of tannaim. He was the first person to lead the Sanhedrin as nasi after the fall of the Second Temple in AD 70.

He seemed to have settled initially in Kefar ‘Othnai in Lower Galilee, but with the outbreak of the war with Rome, he fled to Jerusalem. From there, he moved to Yavne. In Yavne, during the siege of Jerusalem, the scribes of the school of Hillel had taken refuge by permission of Vespasian, and a new centre of Judaism arose under the leadership of the aged Johanan ben Zakkai, a school whose members inherited the authority of the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. He was appointed nasi in approximately the year AD 80.

See the source imageGamaliel’s greatest achievement was ending the opposition between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, which had survived even the destruction of the Temple. According to tradition, a voice from heaven was heard in Yavne, declaring that although the views of both schools were justifiable in principle (as “words of the living God”), in practice the views of Hillel’s school are authoritative:

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha (“Jewish Law”) is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel (Eruvin 13b).

The Sanhedrin

There were two classes of Jewish courts called Sanhedrin, the Great Sanhedrin and the Lesser Sanhedrin. A lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges was appointed to each city, but there was to be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges, which among other roles acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. In general usage, “The Sanhedrin” without qualifier normally refers to the Great Sanhedrin, which was composed of the Nasi, who functioned as head or representing president, and was a member of the court; the Av Beit Din or chief of the court, who was second to the nasi; and sixty-nine general members (Mufla).

See the source imageIn the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Temple in Jerusalem, in a building called the Hall of Hewn Stones. The Great Sanhedrin convened every day except festivals and the sabbath day (Shabbat).

After the destruction of the Second Temple the Sanhedrin moved to Yavne, but moved to Usha, which is west of Tiberius under the presidency of Gamaliel II in AD 80. In 116 it moved back to Yavne, and then again back to Usha. Finally, it moved to Tiberias in 193, under the presidency of Gamaliel III (193–230) ben Judah haNasi. Usha and Tiberius were in Galilee, which became part of the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. In this period the Sanhedrin was sometimes referred as the Galilean Patriarchate or Patriarchate of Palaestina, being the governing legal body of Galilean Jewry.

In the late AD 200s, to avoid persecution, the name “Sanhedrin” was dropped and its decisions were issued under the name of Beit HaMidrash (house of learning). The last universally binding decision of the Great Sanhedrin appeared in AD 358, when the secrets of determining the Hebrew Calendar was adopted.

However, since the Hebrew calendar was based on witnesses’ testimony, which had become far too dangerous to collect, Rabbi Hillel II recommended change to a mathematically based calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and final meeting in AD 358. This marked the last universal decision made by the Great Sanhedrin.

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Up to the middle of the fourth century, the Sanhedrin retained the prerogative of determining the Hebrew calendar and guarded the intricacies of the calculation process in an effort to subdue interference from the Babylonian community. Due to Christian persecution, Hillel II was obliged to fix the calendar in permanent form in AD 359. This institution symbolized the passing of authority from the Sanhedrin to the Babylonian Academies. The Great Sanhedrin was finally disbanded in AD 425 after continued persecution by the Eastern Roman Empire.

In October 2004 (Tishrei 5765), a group of rabbis representing varied Orthodox communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, in which it claimed to re-establish the body according to the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo. This revival has been subject to numerous debates within the different Jewish communities but a nascent Sanhedrin is now firmly established. It’s English webpage is HERE


~ by Joel Huan on July 3, 2020.

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