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Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai

By Dr. W. Landau


[Under the general head of “Pictures from the Life and Labours of the Rabbins,” Dr. Frankel's new periodical contains several sketches, <<291>> the first of which is communicated to our readers as one of the most interesting subjects which we lay before them.]

The history of the development of Judaism affords incontestably a solacing and animating testimony of its high excellence, and permanent truth; since this history proves in the clearest manner, that with the decay of its outward and political importance, it gained, in an inverse ratio, a greater inward strength, holding dominion over the spirit of its followers, and producing an invisible though powerful union of action. Whilst experience teaches that, as a general rule, a religion prospers or falls in proportion to the outward power of its followers: the history of the Israelites teaches us, that Judaism gained in intensity, no less than in union of its confessors the more it lost its worldly power and outward glory. Just as the butterfly flies upward in a more beautiful form, after casting off the stiff cerement of its chrysalis state; as the soul rises heavenward in its purity, only after it is freed from corporeal bonds: in the same manner did Judaism unfold the more universally and fully its wealth of doctrines and truths, which refresh the mind and elevate the soul in a constantly increasing splendour, only after it had laid down the worldly tenement of political power in which it appeared to have been incorporated; and it demonstrates, even in our own day, that it has, owing to its internal truth, always come out victorious, out of every battle it has had to wage with opposing mental tendencies and unfavourable circumstances for the time being. During the period of the first temple, when the Israelites formed a political people, our religion appeared as a power fastened to a body, and one which had not yet acquired an independence and its full development. It had not yet become imprinted on the mind of the people according to its intrinsic value. The worship seemed to be incorporated and rendered visible in temple, sacrifices and priests, and because of the outward appearance the inward moving spirit was overlooked; whilst we formed a state and had institutions, which at times were more or less in agreement, nay, often in contradiction with the Mosaic law, religion appeared to the people as the foundation of their civil and political life, <<292>> and firmly bound to the soil on which they trod. The people, because they knew their religion not in its true spirit, but in its outward forms, were often misled to mingle heathenism with the Mosaic precepts, and practise the former under the forms of the latter.* Even the divine words of the prophet, which resounded at times in overwhelming invectives, and again burst on the ear in the most moving, tender accents, admonished in vain in opposition to the arrogant power of the heathenish-minded ruler, whose arbitrary will usurped the place of the Mosaic law, with which the people were unacquainted. Nevertheless the conviction, that there exists a divine revelation through Moses, was according to the plan of Providence, although not properly developed among the masses, preserved in the minds of the people in general; and it has produced its fruit at a time of greater mental maturity, aided, as it was, by our separation from other nations, by the existence of temple, priests and sacrifices, by the indefatigably instructive and warning voice of the prophets, as also by means of a few pious kings.

* Compare with Frankel's Judicial Evidence, pp. 84, 85, and note.

Quite another shape, however, did the second political life of the Jews, after the Babylonian exile assume. The more dependent and miserable the outward condition of the people was, the higher and freer, and more powerfully did they elevate themselves as a religious community. Experience had taught them that they must not seek their main support in the soil, nor in the temple, and sacrifice and priests alone, but chiefly in religious knowledge and enthusiasm; according to the words of the prophet, “Not through an army, and not through might, but through my spirit.” (Zech. iv. 6.) The chief supervisors of our religion took the greatest pains by constant teaching and multiplying the copies of Holy Writ to render the knowledge of the same the common property of all, and thereby to inspire the people with a love for their religion; and Malachi, the last prophet, was, according to the opinion of the Rabbins, also the first Rabbi (if one may be permitted to anticipate the use of this title which appears only at a much later period), who, in conjunction with Ezra, and the “Great Synagogue” (Synod), instituted by him, endeavoured to <<293>>teach the people (העמידו תלמידים הרבה), and to enact measures by which religion should deeply influence, and thoroughly impress itself on practical life (יעשו סיג לתורה). Independently of the re­vered temple, there sprung up Synagogues in all places; and whilst the whole people were represented in the temple through their delegates (אנשי משמר), they prayed in the Synagogues with those men who had the supervision of the worship (אנשי מעמד), and gave utterance to those pious feelings, the symbol of which was the sacrificial service in the temple;* whilst in the temple also holy hymns, performed in solemn choruses accompanied by instrumental music, resounded at the sacrifices. And prayer, organized and watched over by the “Great Synagogue,” was no less esteemed and cultivated, than the sacrifices through the priests. Care was also taken not to neglect the promoting of instruction in the Synagogue, through means of a public reading of the holy Scriptures, and religious discourses. Equally so did the spirit of Moses enter fully into the principles of jurisprudence and its administration newly organized by Ezra, called, by the Rabbis, the second Moses, aided by the strong arm of Nehemiah.

* Taanith, ch. iv. § 1.

Although, therefore, the Jews were fully conscious of their weak­ness and dependence, and true as is the opinion of Abarbanel that the whole period, from the destruction of the first temple to his own time (1500) must be viewed as an uninterrupted exile: they nevertheless had full cause to rejoice over the spiritual achievements, which were to them of the greatest moment. To the enthusiastic labours of those men of the “Great Synagogue” and their successors, are we indebted for the collection, preservation, and interpretation of Holy Writ; and we owe it to their energetic, practical efforts, that religion was so entirely transformed into the fluids and blood, as it were, of the life of the people. They were the men who withdrew the view of the peo­ple from a striving for worldly power, and directed it to a religious spiritual elevation. The struggle also of the Maccabees was not waged for the attainment of worldly power; but the heroes wagered their life for their religion, without which latter, the first had no value for them; and though the favour of circum<<294>>stances procured them outward power likewise, it is not to be questioned that this was more, injurious than beneficial to development of religion. For whilst the varying views concerning the ideas of religion might, perhaps, had they remained independent of politics, have travelled peaceably alongside of each other, for their mutual completion, where each was defective, limitation, and elucidation, and at length been harmoniously united: they degenerated, through the admixture of striving for political prominence, into glaring party spirit and hostile sectarian hatred, which, as usual elsewhere, terminated in the total ruin of the whole through the hands of the common enemy. In fact there is no disputing that the religious development, through means of schools, showed itself in greater vigour only in the time of Hillel; because, under the Herodiano-Roman government, neither one nor the other party, in the bosom of Judaism, could attain to any political consideration. The more, however, the Rabbis, after Hillel, saw the outward props of Judaism falling into decay, the more all political indications betokened the near approaching downfall: the more zealous became their striving to confer on religion better and firmer props, those, namely, derived from itself; so that it might not alone be able to dispense with outward power, but also have strength enough to withstand it, if needed.

This aim they reached: first, by elevating mental striving, religious enthusiasm, and a high-toned morality, as the chief elements of Judaism, and by teaching and practising them with admirable self-denial; secondly, by insisting strictly that the. authority of the chief religious teachers should be respected, by which means they hoped to guard against religious divisions, and to attain submission to the law, and a union in the same; thirdly, by demanding mutual respect and honouring of the teachers, which were also then exhibited, even when the interest of the religious union, which they valued above everything else, demanded severe measures to be taken against any Rabbi;* and <<295>>lastly, fourthly, by barring the entrance to innovations in the low, on the one side, through a firm adherence to tradition, and by procuring for the same, on the other hand, a cheerful accept­ance by the people through rational proofs, derived for it from Holy Writ upon certain categories (מדות) of exegesis† [rules of interpretation].

* This was shown, for instance, in the excommunication pronounced against Akabia, son of Mahallalel, one of the most celebrated and noblest characters of his time, wider the rule of Hillel, whose amiable and modest disposition has become proverbial; which was done only from imperious motives, which compelled the religious authorities to take this decided step, after all amicable attempts had been exhausted in vain. This name, however, remained celebrated and honoured.—(Eduyoth, v. § 6.)

† Compare with Dr. Gratz’s Essay on Hillel, in No. 4 of this periodical.

This effort is exhibited to us at a later period as a perfect system, and its blessed influence will be clear to every one who compares the subsequent religious communities of the Jews with the previous Israelitish people; this was weak and yielding to every foreign influence, although living on its own soil and ruled by kings, sprung from its own race; and even in the presence of the temple it worshipped the idols of paganism; whilst those, on the other hand, in their very dismemberment, show themselves united in all directions; and without a common country, without rulers or princes of their own, oppressed by tyrants, and persecuted by popular hatred, they prove themselves thoroughly imbued with moral strength, by a universal enthusiasm for religion and virtue, so as, to be ready to bring their life joyfully as a sacrifice, if called on; and animated by an elastic power of the spirit, they recover after every oppression, only to take a higher flight. This was the effect of the, striving of the Rabbins during the existence of the second temple, and after its destruction. But in the transition period to the last-mentioned time; lived Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the noble and wise teacher; wherefore we commence with him to exhibit the existence of the just-named principal features of the life and labours of the Rabbins.

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, of Jerusalem, lived from about 48 before, until 72 years after the vulgar era, and therefore saw with his own eyes the commotion owing to internal dissension and external oppression, which finally ended in the overthrow of our state. He survived three Presidents of the Sanhedrin, R. Simeon, son of Hillel, R. Gamaliel, the elder, and Simeon ben Gamaliel, the elder, and was the cause of the preservation of <<296>> the younger R. Gamaliel, after the downfall of the state and the destruction of the temple.* Under several of these Presidents, already, he appears not only to have occupied an important station as a teacher, but also as a decisive authority in matters of religion; since very important changes in the law proceeded from him whilst the temple yet stood, and consequently under the eyes of the Nahssi [President]. Thus, for instance, he is said, in Mishna Sotah, ix. § 9, to have abolished the biblical law of the “water of bitterness” for a woman suspected of adultery, for the alleged reason of the increase of adulterers at that time, and because that trial should only take place when the husband himself is pure. Indeed, as it appears from Eduyoth, v. § 6, Akabia ben Mahallalel, the more ancient contemporary of Hillel, wanted already to limit the use of the waters of bitterness; but how did Rabbi Yochanan obtain the power to abolish the same? We can explain it only in the following manner. After the death of Hillel, the renowned Rabbi Yochanan, the scholar of Hillel and Shamai,† was the most prominent man of his time, and probably of higher standing than the President, Simeon ben Hillel, of whom nothing is mentioned, with the exception, perhaps, of a single sentiment in Aboth, § 17.‡

* Rabbi Yochanan lived, according to Talmud Rosh Hashanah, fol. 31, and Sanhedrin, fol. 41, to the age of 120 years, and was in office as Nahssi at least two years after the destruction of the temple, according to Rosh Hoshanah, fol. 31, b., where nine decrees are enumerated, as proceeding from Rabbi Y., after the exile; and this gives us the result of 120 years, which, however, may be per­haps merely a round number, as they are also assigned to Hillel and It. Akiba. At all events it is certain that he must have attained an age of over 100 years. (Comp. Gittin, fol. 55; Aboth R. Nathan, iv.)

† See Aboth,   9, and Baba Bathra, fol. 134; Sukkah, fol. 28.

‡ We think that שמעון בנו, (ibid.) refers to Simeon ben Hillel, who spoke the sentiment, “I have always grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better for man than silence,” &c., with reference to the violent disputations between the scholars of Hillel and Shamai; the 16th Mishna should therefore follow the 17th: To refer, “Simeon, his son,” to R. Simon ben Gamaliel, the elder, as R. Lipman Heller, in his commentary to that Mishna has done, appears quite satisfactory.

Still, it was due to a feeling of gratitude for the revered Hillel, and a regard to the wishes of the Herodians, who were kindly disposed to his family, to choose his son as Nahssi; but they associated with him R. Yochanan as <<297>>Ab-Beth-Din [President of the Court], with equal power, in which capacity he then continued with R. Gamaliel.*

* The pre-eminence of R. Yochanan is also proved by the word קבל “he received the law,” in Aboth. 8. Whether R. Yochanan was of the priestly family, as Rasho maintains in Sabbath 34 a., is doubtful; since the שעשו ידי “which my hands have prepared” in Tossifta Parah, iii. and Aholoth xvii., must not necessarily be understood literally, or else It. Y. should have been cited in Mishna Parah, 8. (In mentioning this Mishna, we would remark at the same time that the אליועיני named there is not, as Rabbi L. Heller supposes, the one found in Chronicles or Nehemiah; since he could not have lived after Yochanan [John] Hyrcanus, but the same Elioeni appointed by Agrippa instead of Matthias, in the year 63 of the common era.) From Menayhoth, 21 b., we should judge, on the contrary, that R. Y. was no priest.

Now, R. Yochanan, who, when yet a scholar, was so distinguished that his opinion was accepted by his masters in regard to the important examination of witnesses in capital trials, as is related in the Talmud Sanhedrin (fol. 41), was a faithful disciple and a worthy successor of Hillel, not alone for his great learning, but also, and this chiefly because a his genuine piety, his benevolence, amiable modesty, united as they were with energy, where the duties of his position demanded it. In regard to his learning, we are told to his praise* that he was versed in the study of the Scriptures (knowledge and understanding of the same); of the Mishna, and the reasons of its decisions (Gemara); of Halachah and Agadah† (i. e., the legal part of the Talmud, and the other views and legends concerning the great variety of religious materials it contains); the definitions derived from the Scriptures, those belonging to the method of the Sopherim (Rabbins), and the rules of interpretation of a minore ad majus קל וחומר and of the same phrase or word being used in similar laws גזרה שוה; of astronomy, of the doctrine of angels, of the language of trees, fables of washers and foxes; the first, meaning probably fables in which trees are introduced as speaking, the other, perhaps stories relative to life among the lower classes of <<298>> the people [washers], and fables in which foxes play a principal part, which frequently occur in the Talmud; of metaphysics, which then embraced the history of the creation, and the appearance of the glory in Ezekiel;‡ and it is stated that he should have carried his system of profound disputation concerning the law to such perfection, that when he was dead it was said of him, “that the brilliancy of wisdom had departed.”§

* Baba Bathra, 134. Sukkah, 28.

† This enumeration of the subjects, which gives us some clue of the extent of the scientific subjects cultivated in that line, proves that אגדה was by no means either principally or exclusively מעשה מרכבה as Senior Sachs supposes in התחיה.

‡ See Bechoroth, 5. Pesachim, 94.      § Sota, ix. § 15.

The respect he enjoyed was also so great among his contemporaries and successors, that it needed only to quote him as authority to cut short any debate,* and that he was compelled, on account of the great number of his hearers, to deliver his discourses in the open street, protected by the shade cast by the high wall of the temple;† so also was his college called “the great,” because he taught there, to a few scholars, the history of the creation and metaphysics (מעשה בראשית and מרכבה) which were called the “great subject,” (דבר גדול) as appears from the introduction to Echah Rabbethi. But Rabbi Yochanan was as pious and humble in his thoughts and conduct, as he was great in his acquirements. He had, in his teacher, Hillel, a, beautiful prototype, and in the hateful contention of the schools of Hillel and Shamai, of which it is said in Talmud Yerushalmis, Sabbath, “That day was as terrible for Israel as the day when they sinned through the golden calf,” an image fraught with terror; and he fulfilled what is demanded on Sanhedrin, fol. 88, b., in reference to that direful contest: “That he who is wise and meek, and who can confer on mankind joy and tranquillity of spirit, should become the judge of his city.” “He walked unostentatiously and piously before God, and never engaged in vain talk (שיחת חולין), never took a step without meditating on the laws of God; no one was before hint in college, no one saw him ever idle; he was always engaged in the study of the law, and the Tephillin came never from his head, and he walked humbly among men. He himself opened graciously the door for his scholars, and no one ever greeted him first, nay, not <<299>> even a non-Israelite. And his faithful scholar, Eleazer, son of Hyrcanus, learned the same from him.”‡ His motto strongly indicated this, his characteristic: “If thou hast learned much in the law, do not assume any credit for it, for to do this wast thou created.” (Aboth. ii. § 8.)

* Eduyoth, iii. Yadayim, iv. § 3. Kerithoth, 9.

† Compare with Orient, 1849, p. 719; nevertheless neither this passage nor Josephus affords any proof that R. Yochanan was ever ממונה על ההיכל Super­intendent of the temple, as the Orient supposes in several places.

‡ Talmud Bab. Sukkah, 36. Berachoth, 17; and Yerus. Berachoth, ii. 4.

Meek as he was in his own person, he was equally decisive when he found it necessary to carry through a decree which had been deemed requisite. We will give one instance. During the existence of the temple it was not permitted to blow the Shophar on the New Year, which happened on the Sabbath, except in the temple, but nowhere in the Synagogues; after the temple, however, was destroyed, R. Yochanan decreed that wherever there was a Beth-Din (a proper tribunal), the blowing should take place, that it should not be totally pretermitted. As once on a New Year’s day which fell on Sabbath, R. Yochanan called on the learned family of Bethera in Yamnia (Yabné), to blow the Shophar, they objected, saying, that they ought first to discuss the legality of the measure. But he replied, “Let us first blow, and then hold the discussion.” And when they afterwards wanted to commence the discussion he avoided it with these words: “The Shophar has already been heard in Yamnia, and it is not right to expose the deed, as it is once accomplished, to censure.” (After Rosh Hoshanah, 29 b.) In this wise manner did he avoid a controversy, and carried his measure through without offending any one. He had it in his power, as Nahssi, in which capacity he officiated several years at Yamnia after the destruction of the temple, to insist on his authority and to silence his opponents; but he united the love of peace and sweetness of temper with firmness and energy.

(To be continued.)