While leading tours of the Colosseum, which was built from the plunder of Jerusalem at the end of the Roman-Jewish War, I’m often reminded of a story of immeasurable importance in our history.
This story tells of a meeting between a Rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, and the emperor Vespasian, the outcome of which preserved the continuation of Jewish learning in the post-Temple period and across the Diaspora.
Who was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai?
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was a prominent Jewish sage who lived in the first century CE, during the Second Temple. He is perhaps best known for his role in the events surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.
According to tradition, Rabban Yochanan was a student of the famous Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, and he went on to become a prominent scholar and leader in his own right. When Rome’s legions laid siege to Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rabban Yochanan realized that the city was doomed and that the destruction of the Temple was imminent.
In an effort to save Jewish learning and scholarship, Rabban Yochanan devised a plan to sneak out of the besieged city and negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. Disguised as a corpse, the Rabbi was smuggled out of the city and brought before Vespasian. Rabban Yochanan impressed the general with his knowledge and wisdom, and he was granted permission to establish a school in the town of Yavneh, where Jewish learning and scholarship could continue in the wake of the Temple’s destruction.
Rabban Yochanan’s efforts to preserve Jewish learning and scholarship proved to be hugely influential in the development of Judaism in the post-Temple era. The school he established in Yavneh became a center of Jewish learning and scholarship, and his teachings and interpretations of Jewish law and tradition continue to be studied and revered by Jewish scholars and practitioners to this day.
What are our sources for the Rabbi’s meeting with Vespasian?
The story of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s meeting with Vespasian is recorded in several early Jewish texts, including the Talmud and the works of the historian Josephus. These sources provide slightly different versions of the story and vary in their level of detail.
The Talmud, in particular, provides several different versions of the story, which may reflect different traditions or interpretations of the events. One version appears in the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Gittin (56a-56b), which describes how Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin and brought before Vespasian, whom he correctly predicted would become emperor. In this version, Vespasian grants Rabban Yochanan’s request to establish a school in Yavneh, and the Jewish tradition continues to thrive.
Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived in the first century CE, also records the story of Rabban Yochanan’s meeting with Vespasian in his work “The Jewish War” (book 3, chapter 8). Josephus writes that Rabban Yochanan approached Vespasian while he was encamped near Jerusalem and predicted that he would become emperor. According to Josephus, Vespasian was impressed by Rabban Yochanan’s prediction and granted him permission to establish a school in Yavneh.
The meeting between a Rabbi and emperor sounds familiar…
Readers of my blog might remember another story, preserved in the Talmud, which documents the meeting between Rabbi Yehudah and the emperor Antoninus. The Rabbi’s audience with the emperor marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two, characterized by deep philosophical and spiritual discussions and mutual learning.
But a familiar format doesn’t rule out historicity. Fergus Millar’s seminal book, The Roman Emperor in the Roman World, emphasizes the increasingly bureaucratic role of the emperor and his court, which as the years went by spent less time in the capital and more time peregrinating the provinces.
One of the emperor’s main responsibilities was the receiving of embassies and petitions from various religious and ethnic groups across the empire. (The story of Philo’s Jewish embassy to Caligula offers another example I have published on).
The frequency with which emperors encountered religious leaders from across the Roman Empire means we should not be surprised that so many are well-documented. And while there is some variation in the details of the story as recorded in our sources, the meeting of Rabbi Yochanan and Vespasian is widely accepted as historically accurate – and as such an important part of our tradition and history.