Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Jochanan ben Zakkai.

The Jews now belonged to no land, yet for that very reason, they, in a sense, belonged to all lands. They were cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. To follow their history after their dispersion by Rome, we shall have to turn to all the settled parts of the globe. What henceforth became the link to hold together their widely scattered members and preserve them from being absorbed by their surroundings? Their religion. Religions outlive states and spiritual bonds are stronger than temporal. But now that Judaism's centre, the Temple, was no more, now that the sacred capital, Jerusalem, the only sanctioned place for sacrificial worship, was lost—how could they maintain their continuity and what would become of their priesthood? Just here will we witness the wonderful adaptability of Judaism in the hands of this deathless race. It only awaited a genius to revive the Faith, apparently in the throes of death, and to endow it with new strength and vitality. The hero who undertook this sacred task was named Jochanan ben Zakkai.

The Academy at Jamnia.

Jochanan ben Zakkai had been a leader in the Sanhedrin, in the last days of Judea. When many were urging war he had stood for peace and he became the exponent of the Peace Party. For he saw that the madness of the Zealots in blindly plunging the country into conflict could end only in ruin. He may have felt, too, that the fulfilment of Israel's mission did not rely on national independence and that it could preach its message in a way other than in bloody conflict. So when the war was at its height, he managed to escape from Jerusalem in a coffin, since the Zealots treated all peace advocates as traitors. Welcomed by Vespasian, who saw the value of so influential a pleader for surrender, he was allowed to ask a favor. His reply showed that he was not of the Josephus, but of the Jeremiah type. He asked naught for himself, but pleaded for the privilege of establishing an Academy, where the principles of Judaism might be taught. This small request was granted, perhaps contemptuously at its apparent insignificance. Yet by that grant Judaism was enabled to continue its development—aye, to outlive the great Roman Empire at whose mercy it now stood.

Jamnia, a place near the Mediterranean and not far from Joppa, was chosen as the seat of the new academy. Here came many who, being of the conciliatory party, were left free and untouched by Rome at the close of the War. Here Jochanan ben Zakkai summoned a Sanhedrin, and by a bold stroke decided to continue the authoritative powers of that body in spite of the tradition that to be effective, it must sit in the "hewn stone hall" of the Jerusalem Temple.

Prayer replaces Sacrifice.

But he took a more daring step still. According to the Law, now that the Holy City was taken, sacrifice was no longer possible; therefore Jochanan ben Zakkai declared that it was no longer indispensable; saying, charity is a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer, which had been an accompaniment to sacrifice was now treated as an independent mode of worship. The synagogue, which had in later years existed side by side with the sacrificial Temple, now altogether replaced it. Thus does genius adapt itself to altered conditions.

The change was revolutionary and marked a new era in Judaism's development. The epoch of the Priest was over, the Altar was outlived—one of the ideals of the Prophets was attained. Again necessity was the teacher and adversity was found to "wear a precious jewel in its head." Furthermore, the creation of a centre of Jewish authority outside of Jerusalem freed Judaism from bondage to a particular locality. Its complete fulfilment was now confined neither to a city nor a nation. The whole earth could become its legitimate home. This also had its moral value. To the simple-minded it made clearer the idea that God was manifest everywhere; that verily "the heaven was His throne and the earth His footstool." It gave tangible application to the text, "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come unto thee and bless thee."

So the survival of Judaism after the destruction of the sacrificial Temple, after the loss of the sacred capital and the Holy Land, and after the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world, made it more manifest that it was indeed a perennial and a universal Faith. Perhaps then even in this sad tragedy we may discern the hand of Providence.

It is true that some pious souls took a disconsolate view of the outlook and, renouncing the world's joys, gave themselves up to ascetic lives of penitence. A few drifted toward the new Christian sect that was now severing all relations with Judaism, thinking it doomed. But under the guidance of Jochanan ben Zakkai, the great majority faced the future more hopefully and more bravely. The land was gone, but the religion was saved. Henceforth its rallying centre was to be—not a Temple, but a Book.

The Tannaim.

We have already seen that the Scribes interpreted the Bible in a way to derive from it new laws to meet new needs. These deduced rules grew into a Second Law, more voluminous than the first. The patient continuance of this process to meet all religious, social and economic requirements of Israel's altered life became now the chief work of the Jamnia Academy and of other schools that sprang from it. To this work of laying bare "the whole duty of man" the scholars now devoted themselves and regarded it as sacred as divine worship. "The study of the Law," said they, "outweighs all virtues." The first order of these great expounders were called Tannaim (tanna means teacher). Very preciously did the students who sat at the feet of the sages treasure their decisions (for they were contained in no book) and handed them down from generation to generation.

The people at large now learned to look to the Jamnia Sanhedrin, for such it became, as their authority in all religious duties and also for guidance in varied perplexities. In those days there was no fixed calendar; the new month was ascertained by watching the heavens for the new moon and from the date of its appearance the Sanhedrin decided the festivals of each month for the community. The new moon was announced from place to place by messengers and fire signals on the hills. These could not reach distant places of Jewish settlement far beyond Judea, and, in some cases the signals were tampered with. So, as there was a doubt of one day as to the new moon's appearance, they introduced the custom of observing an additional day of each festival.

Halacha and Agada.

Jochanan ben Zakkai, then, revealed his greatness in boldly abrogating institutions that had lost their application with the Temple's fall, bridging the transition between epochs, just as Samuel had done in his day. His great personality strengthened the union between the dispersed Jews. Further, like his master Hillel, he combined in his character gentleness and firmness (suaviter in modo, fortiter in re) and like him, too, he also exercised an elevating influence on his pupils by his ethical teachings. He showed them how to search the Scriptures to discover its noblest lessons. This was distinct from that branch of the Bible study already referred to, enabling the student to evolve new rules and new observances. The latter was judicial, the former homiletic. These gradually came to form the two great divisions of the scholarly activities of the Rabbis, the judicial division called Halacha (legal decision), the ethical styled Agada. This latter word means narrative—for many a story, anecdote, moral maxim or bit of history would be brought in to illustrate a legal point or to relieve the tension of argument by a pleasing diversion. So Agada implied much miscellaneous material and included everything not strictly judicial.

Here are some of the maxims of Jochanan ben Zakkai:

"No iron tool was to be used on the altar, suggesting that religion's mission is peace."

"If thou hast learnt much, do not boast of it, for that wast thou created."

"Fear God as much as you fear man."

"Not more?" asked his pupils in surprise? "If you would but fear him as much!" said the dying sage.


Sacrificial Worship:—The pupil has already been made familiar with the prophetic views on sacrifice (see People of the Book, vol. iii). Here follow some opinions of the Rabbis as to its relative place in Judaism:

"The humble-minded is considered by God to have offered all the sacrifices, for it is said that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit."

"Acts of justice are more meritorious than all the sacrifices. Unless the mind is purified, the sacrifice is useless; it may be thrown to the dogs."

"He who engages in the study of the Law, requires neither burnt offering nor meal offering."

"A day in thy courts is better than a thousand," Psalm lxxiv. is thus explained: God said to David, "I prefer thy sitting and studying before me to the thousands of burnt offerings which thy son Solomon will offer on the alter."

"He who prays is considered as pious as if he had built an altar and offered sacrifices upon it."

"As the Altar wrought atonement during the time of the Temple, so after its destruction, the Table of the home."

With the abolition of sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb was indicated only in a symbolic way by a lamb bone on the Passover table.

R. Jochanan b. Zakkai asked his disciples: "Find out what is the best thing to cultivate." The first replied a generous eye; the second, a loyal friend; the third, a good neighbor; the fourth, prudence and foresight; the fifth, Eliezar, a good heart. "I consider R. Eliezar's judgment best, for in his answer all of yours are included."

Theme for discussion:—Whether the Temple's fall suspended or abolished animal sacrifice is a point of difference between Judaism's two schools today.