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Yoḥanan Ben Zakkʾai


YOANAN BEN ZAKKʾAI (c. 180 ce), sage and leader of Judaism in the Land of Israel after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce. Known to us only from sources brought to closure two and more centuries after his death, beginning with the Mishnah (c. 200), two facts about his life are certain: he lived before the destruction, and survived it.

Yoanan was the principal figure in the formation, in the aftermath of the calamity, of a circle of disciples with whom he laid the foundations of the Judaism presented by the Mishnah. This work of legal-theological formation defined Judaism as it would be known from the second century onward. Yoanan himself is represented in the Mishnah principally through attributions to him of certain temporary ordinances, meant mostly to take account of the destruction of the Temple as an event in the sacred calendar of Judaism. These reforms, involving very trivial matters, signified a policy of surviving and carrying on. They meant that even without the Temple it would be possible to worship God and observe the festivals formerly focused upon the Temple. To Yoanan are attributed, also, certain interpretations of biblical stories, one of which stressed that Job had served God out of awe and reverence, not (merely) love. Finally, he is represented as having attempted to exercise authority even over the priesthood, which had formerly run the country. His rulings in matters of genealogy, on which priestly authority rested, indicate that he held that sages' mastery of Torah was paramount, priests' genealogical standing derivative. In these aspects Yoanan carried forward the position of the Pharisees of the period before the destruction. They had maintained that lay people might observe at home certain rules that were kept by the priests in the Temple, so indicating that the priests enjoyed no monopoly over access to the sacred.

In compilations of stories produced much later than the Mishnah, Yoanan's career is fleshed out. His surviving the destruction is represented as an encounter between Israel, the Jewish nation, and Rome, with a sage, Yoanan himself, negotiating on behalf of the Jews with a Roman general. In the principal version Yoanan is portrayed as having escaped from Jerusalem before it was fully invested and as having come before the Roman general Vespasian. He asked for the right to go to Yavneh, a coastal town where loyalists were held. There he would teach his disciples, establish a house of prayer, and carry out the commandments, the religious deeds of Judaism. He further informed Vespasian that the general would become emperor. (In other versions Yoanan is supposed to have asked for "the chain of Rabban Gamli'el and physicians to heal Rabbi Tsadoq.")

Yoanan's message to Israel, portrayed in other late sources, involved three elements. First, not to take too seriously the claims of messiahs: "If you have a sapling in your hand and people say to you, 'Behold, there is the Messiah,' go on with your planting, and afterward go out and receive him." Second, to obey God's will as the response to defeat: "Happy are you, O Israel! When you obey the will of God, then no nation or race can rule over you! But when you do not obey the will of God, you are handed over into the hands of every low-born people." Third, what God wants is acts of loving kindness. Yoanan held that even though sin could no longer be atoned through sacrifice in the Temple, "We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, 'For I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (Hos. 6:6).

Whether or not these tales go back to the person, or even the time, of Yoanan ben Zakkʾai, we do not know. But they are the foundation legends of the kind of Judaism that has been paramount from the second century to the present, and Yoanan, above all, is credited with the definition of that Judaism.


The most original and important scholarship on Yoanan ben Zakkʾai is in Gedalyahu Alon, Jews, Judaism and the Classical World, translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, 1977), pp. 252343. The principal tales appear in The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan, translated from the Hebrew by Judah Goldin (New Haven, 1955). This work is a compilation of rabbinical fables, loosely organized around the Mishnah tractate Avot. Two works of my own concern Yoanan: all of the sources on the man are collected and analyzed, in the rough sequence of their formation, in Development of a Legend: Studies on the Traditions concerning Yoanan ben Zakkai (Leiden, 1970) and are collected into a biography in A Life of Yoanan ben Zakkai, ca. 180 c.e. (Leiden, 1970).

New Sources

Cervelli, Innocenzo. "Dalla storiografia alla memoria: a proposito di Flavio Giuseppe e Yohanan ben Zakkai." Studi Storici 31 (1990): 919982.

Finkel, Asher. "The Departures of the Essenes, Christians and R. Yohanan ben Zakkai from Jerusalem." In "Wie gut sind deine Zelte, Jaakow" Festschrift zum 60 Geburtstag von Reinhold Mayer, edited by Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich [et al.], pp. 2940. Gerlingen, 1986.

Herscher, Uri D. "Yohanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh: Merkavah and Messiah." In Bits of Honey: Essays for Samson H. Levey, edited by Stanley F. Chyet and David H. Ellenson, pp. 2542. Atlanta, 1993.

Jacob Neusner (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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