Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lived during the tumultuous times when the Jewish residents of Judea rebelled against Rome, and the Romans besieged and then destroyed Jerusalem. At the time, there was a great deal of divisiveness among the Jewish people. Religiously, the Pharisees opposed the Sadducees. Politically, the Biryonim (zealots) agitated for war while the rabbis called for peace. Rabban Yochanan was the leader of the Pharisees and a staunch believer that fighting was not in the best interest of the Jewish people.
A disciple of Hillel, Rabban Yochanan was renowned, not for his particular activism, but for his intense focus on Torah study. It is reported in the Talmud that no one arrived earlier to the study house than Rabban Yochanan, “nor did he sleep or doze in the college...nor did anyone ever find him sitting in silence, but only sitting and studying.” (Sukkah 28b).
While the city of Jerusalem was under siege, no one was allowed in or out (by order of the Biryonim). Rabban Yochanan, however, was determined to try and ease the situation for the people. His nephew, the leader of the Biryonim, agreed to let him out, but the only way to do so was through subterfuge. Rabban Yochanan feigned a fatal illness and death so that he was carried out of the city in a coffin.
Once outside the city, Rabban Yochanan went to the Roman General Vespasian and hailed him as king. Vespasian nearly had him executed for his insolence, but at the exact moment that Vespasian uttered the judgment, a messenger arrived to declare Vespasian the new emperor.* Before heading off to Rome, Vespasian allowed Rabban Yochanan to make one request. Rabban Yochanan asked that the city of Yavne be protected and allowed to be a home for Jewish scholars. Thus it was that after the fall of Jerusalem, people looked to Yavne and its scholars for religious guidance.
*Josephus records a similar story about himself.
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