Friday, December 21, 2018

Predicting the New Emperor before Exit Polls

On December 21 in the year 69 CE, the Roman Senate declared that Vespasian be elevated to serve as the Emperor of Rome. A famous Talmudical story (Gittin 56b) described how a rabbi foresaw Vespasian’s promotion from general to Emperor.

The Jewish residents of Jerusalem were suffering from a self-imposed famine and a siege by Vespasian’s legions. The militant Biryonim prevented Jews from going in and out of the city and starved their fellow Jews in an attempt to facilitate their more extremist plans to confront the Roman menace. The leader of the Biryonim, Abba Sikra, was the brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the rabbinic leader of Jerusalem’s Jews. The two leaders devised a plan to enable Rabbi Yochanan to leave the city, past the Biryoni sentries. Rabbi Yochanan feigned illness and then death, and his students asked for the bier to be taken out of the city (burials are not allowed in Jerusalem due to its sanctity).

The scheme worked. Rabbi Yochanan emerged from the casket when approaching the Roman camp and upon seeing General Vespasian, stated twice, “Peace be unto you, O King.” Vespasian responded angrily that Rabbi Yochanan deserves execution on two counts: first, he said, “I am not the king and you addressed me as such.” Second, “If I am the king, why are you only coming now, to accord me regal homage?”

Rabbi Yochanan responded, “I knew you have to be a king because the Jewish prophets foretold that the Temple, which was to imminently fall, would be destroyed by a king. As to why I have only come now,” continued, Rabbi Yochanan, “it is because the Jewish extremists would not let me out.”

The two leaders continued talking until a messenger arrived from Rome and announced, “Rise! The Emperor has died and the Senate has decided to elevate Vespasian as the new emperor.”

Before leaving for Rome, Vespasian offered to grant Rabbi Yochanan a request. Rabbi Yochanan famously requested that the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) be allowed to relocate to Yavneh unmolested, that the Roman government guarantee the survival of the family of Rabban Gamliel, the President of the Sanhedrin, and that the Roman physicians care for Rabbi Tzadok, who was in precarious health due to his fasting to avert the destruction of the Temple. Vespasian did honor these requests.


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