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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Johanan b. Zakkai

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The most important tanna in the last decade of the Second Temple, and, after the destruction of Jerusalem, the founder and first president of the academy at Jabneh. According to the theory formulated in the Mishnah (Ab. 2:8), that traditions were handed down through an unbroken chain of scholars, Johanan, in receiving the teachings of Hillel and Shammai, formed the last link in that chain. But it is rather as a pupil of Hillel than of Shammai that he is known (Suk. 28a). Before his death Hillel is said to have prophetically designated Johanan, his youngest pupil, as "the father of wisdom" and "the father of coming generations" (Yer. Ned. v., end, 39b). Like that of Hillel, Johanan's life was divided into periods of forty years each. In the first of these he followed a mercantile pursuit in the second he studied and in the third he taught (R. H. 30b). Another version has it (Sifre, Deuteronomy 357 ) that in the last forty years of his life he was a leader of Israel. If the last statement be accepted as approximately correct, and it is assumed that Johanan lived at the latest one decade after the destruction of Jerusalem, his public activity as the recognized leader of the pharisaic scribes must have begun between the years 30,40 of the common era.

Activity Before Destruction of Temple.
Some data have been preserved concerning Johanan's public activity in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple. Together with Simon b. Gamaliel I. he sent orders to the different districts of Palestine concerning the delivery of the tithe (statement of his pupil Joshua b. Neḥ unya in the Mekilta of Simeon b. Yoḥ ai Midr. ha-Gadol to Deuteronomy 26:13 ). He refuted the objections of the Sadducees to the Pharisees (Yad. 4:5), and opposed the halakah of the Sadducees (Men. 65a B. B. 115b). He prevented a Sadducean high priest from following the Sadducean regulations at the burning of the red heifer (Tosef., Parah, 3:8 comp. Parah 3:7,8). It was Johanan's activity as a teacher in Jerusalem which was especially extolled by tradition. His school was called the "great house," after the expression in 2 Kings 25:9 (Yer. Meg. 73d). It was the scene of many incidents that formed the subjects of anecdote and legend (Lam. R. 1:12 , passim Gen. R. 4: oft-repeated story concerning Johanan's most important pupil, Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, shows Johanan's bet ha-midrash (academy) as the scene of a pathetic meeting between son and father (Tan., ed. Buber, to Genesis 14:1 ). An old tradition (Pes. 26a) relates that Johanan sat in the shadow of the Temple and lectured the whole day but that of course was not the permanent place for his teaching. The statements regarding five of his pupils, his verdict concerning them, and the question he put to them as to the best road for a person to pursue through life (Ab. 2:8) are reminiscences of the period before the destruction.

Residence in Galilee.
Johanan's residence in ' Arab, a place in Galilee, which was perhaps his home, belongs to this period. Two questions of a legal nature (regarding the observance of the Sabbath) which he answered while there (Shab. 16:7, 22:3) gave rise to the statement that he lived there for eighteen years (probably a round number) and that he was moved by the religious indifference of the inhabitants to exclaim: "O Galilee, Galilee, thou hatest the Torah hence wilt thou fall into the hands of robbers!" Another prophetical exclamation of a similar nature is ascribed to Johanan. The gates of the Temple had ominously opened of themselves, whereupon he apostrophized the sanctuary: "O Temple, Temple, why dost thou frighten thyself? I know of thee that thou shalt be destroyed Zechariah the son of Iddo [Zechariah 11:1 ] has already prophesied concerning thee: ' Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars' " (Yoma 39b comp. Ab. R. N., Recension B, vii., ed. Schechter, p. 21).

After the Destruction.
Johanan's part in the last struggle of Jerusalem against Rome has been immortalized in the legends concerning the destruction of that city, which, however, have a historical kernel (Giṭ . 56b Lam. R. 1:5 Ab. R. N. 4: counseled peace and when the strife of parties in the besieged city became unbearable he had himself carried to the Roman camp in a coffin. Like Josephus, Johanan prophesied imperial honors for the general Vespasian, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Lebanon [that is, the sanctuary] shall fall by a mighty one" ( Isaiah 10:34 ). He sought and obtained permission to settle in Jabneh (Jamnia) and to exercise his profession of teacher there. In Jabneh, surrounded by his pupils, Johanan received the terrible news that the Temple was burned to ashes. They tore their garments, wept, and made lamentation as for the dead (Ab. R. N. iv.). But the aged master in the catastrophe which had befallen the Jewish people kept his vigor unimpaired. He converted the school at Jabneh into a center for Judaism in Palestine. The college, of which he was president, exercised the functions of the great law court (Sanhedrin) of Jerusalem, and by this institution of an authorized board the continuity of spiritual leadership was maintained uninterrupted. Johanan saw to it that Jabneh took the place of Jerusalem as the Jewish religious center. He ordained that certain privileges peculiar to Jerusalem and the sanctuary should be transferred to Jabneh (R. H. 4:1,3). Other regulations of his dealt with the determination of the exact time when the new month begins— a matter then very important— and with the acceptance of the testimony on which such determination is based (ib. 4:41 Baraita, R. H. 21b). His order that, as had been customary in the Temple, the trumpets should sound in Jabneh on New-Year's Day even when it fell on the Sabbath, was opposed, but unsuccessfully, by some of the members of the council (Baraita, R. H. 29b).

It is not known how long Johanan remained at the head of the bet ha-midrash and of the legal council. It may be accepted as certain that Johanan was succeeded by Gamaliel II. while the former was still living, inasmuch as he did not die in Jabneh for it is related (Eccl. R. 7:7 comp. Ab. R. N. xiv.) that his pupils went to Jabneh after his death. And furthermore, since a place, Berur Ḥ ayil, is mentioned as the seat of a legal council over which Johanan presided (Sanh. 32b Sifre, Deuteronomy 144 ), and at another time it is related that Joshua b. Hananiah visited his teacher in Berur Ḥ ayil (Tosef., Ma' aser al-Rishon, 1:1), it may be concluded that Johanan spent the last years of his life and died at this place, which was near Jabneh (concerning the name comp. Krauss's conjecture in Berliner's "Magazin," 20:119 Derenbourg, in "Monatsschrift," 37:304). His pupils were present at his death. The solemn conversation between the dying master and his disciples (Ber. 28b) begins with a question from the latter: "Light of Israel, pillar of the sanctuary, strong hammer, why dost thou weep?" These remarkable epithets characterize the work of Johanan and his importance for his period. The blessing which just before his death he pronounced upon his pupils at their desire consisted of the prayer: "May it be God's will that the fear of heaven be as strong in you as the fear of flesh and blood" (ib. ). His last words were: "Put the vessels out of the house, that they may not become unclean, and prepare a throne for Hezekiah, the King of Judah, who is coming" (ib. ). By this puzzling reference to Hezekiah, Johanan plainly meant the coming of the Messiah, of which he was thinking in his last moments. A son of Johanan died before him (Ab. R. N. xiv., end). In one à necdote (B. B. 10b) his sister's sons are mentioned. One of these nephews, Ben Baṭ iaḥ , is named as one of the Zealot leaders (Lam. R. to 1:4 Jew. Encyc. 2:673).

His Teaching.
Johanan ben Zakkai's motto was, "If thou hast learned much of the Torah, do not take credit for it for this was the purpose of thy creation" (Ab. 2:8). He found his real calling in the study of the Law. The following description of him was handed down by tradition (Suk. 28a): "He never spoke an idle word he did not go four yards without reflecting on the Torah and without the phylacteries no one ever preceded him in entering the bet ha-midrash he never slept in the bet ha-midrash, and was always the last to leave it no one ever found him engaged in anything but study." His knowledge was spoken of as though it included the whole of Jewish learning (Ab. R. N. xiv., end Suk. 28a B. B. 134a Masseket Soferim 16:8). He advises a priestly family in Jerusalem, the members of which died young, to occupy itself with the study of the Torah so as to ward off the curse of dying in the prime of life, which is laid upon the descendants of Eli (from whom they may have descended) in 1Samuel 2:23 (R. H. 18a). He, however, warned against a one-sided devotion to study, as in his verdict concerning scholars and those free of sin: "Whoever possesses both these characteristics at the same time is like an artist who has his tools in his hands" (Ab. R. N. xxii.).

Traditional Tomb of Johanan ben Zakkai, near Tiberias, with the Grave of Maimonides to the Right.
(From a photograph by Dr. W. Popper.)

His Exegesis.
In the halakic tradition Johanan is but seldom referred to as an originator of maxims. His halakah is doubtless to be found in that of Hillel's school and in the sayings of his pupils, especially of Eliezer and Joshua. The haggadic tradition, on the other hand, connects numerous and varied sayings with his name. Mention may first be made of conversations between him and his pupils, or between him and unbelievers who were versed in the Bible, in which questions of textual interpretation were discussed. At one time he asked his pupils what the words in Proverbs 14:34 meant (Pesiḳ ., ed. Buber, 12b comp. B. B. 10b, where the accounts of two conversations have been confused). He himself interpreted them as follows: "Benevolence [ḥ esed] on the part of a nation has the atoning power of a sin-offering" (B. B. l.c. ). In the same sense he interpreted the words of the prophet (Hosea 6:6 ), "I desired mercy [ḥ esed], and not sacrifice," with which he comforted his pupils for the destruction of the Temple and the discontinuance of the sacrifice of atonement (Ab. R. N. iv.). He answered several questions of a polemical tendency put by a Roman commander (ἡ γ ε μ ώ ν ), who can not be identified owing to the different ways in which his name is written. These questions referred to the contradiction between the figures in Numbers 3:22,28 , 34 and the total sum in verse 39 of the same chapter (Bek. 5b), between Exodus 38:26 and 27 ( ib. ), and between Genesis 1:20 and 2:19 (Ḥ ul. 27b) also to the legal regulation in Exodus 21:29 (Yer. Sanh. 19b), and to the law concerning the red heifer (Pesiḳ . 40a). In connection with the last-mentioned question Johanan refers the Gentile to a Gentile analogy: Just as the evil spirit is driven out of a person possessed through burning certain roots and by other means, so the process of purification drives out the "unclean spirit" ( Zechariah 13:2 ). To his pupils, however, who were not satisfied with this answer, he said: "By your lives, death does not make impure, nor water clean but it [the law concerning the red heifer] is a decree of the All Holy, whose reasons we must not question" (comp. Lazarus, "Die Ethik des Judenthums," 1:189,246).

The Ḥ omer.
A special group of Johanan's haggadic text interpretations is given the name "Ḥ omer," which term is related to the designation "doreshe ḥ amurot," applied to the ancient expositors of the Bible. In this group the interpretations are symbolic, seeking to penetrate into the spirit of the Bible text.

One source (Tosef., B. Ḳ 7:3 et seq. ) puts five such explanations of Johanan together. They answer the following questions: "Why is the ear of a Hebrew slave bored who voluntarily refuses to be made free?" (Exodus 21:6 comp. Ḳ id. 22b). "Why is iron excluded from the building material of the altar?" ( Exodus 20:25 Deuteronomy 27:5 comp. Mek., Yitro, Baḥ odesh, 11). "What does the remarkable word ' asher' in Leviticus 4:22 mean?" (comp. Hor. 10b). "Why was Israel exiled specially to Babylon?" (comp. Pes. 87b). "Why were only the first tables of the testimony, and not the second, considered to be the work of God?" ( Exodus 32:16 ).

Besides the explanations to these questions, Johanan gave others of a similar character. He explained why a thief is punished more severely than a robber (B. Ḳ . 79b), and by explaining the Biblical numbers symbolically he answered the question: "Why does the Scripture (Exodus 22:1 ] ordain fivefold restitution for an ox and only fourfold for a sheep?" (ib. ). The forty days of rain during the Flood which destroyed sinful man (Genesis 7:12 ) corresponded, he said, to the forty days of the formation of the human embryo (Gen. R. 32: ten gerah (= a half-shekel) of the atonement money ( Exodus 30:13 ) corresponded to the Ten Commandments, for the transgression for which atonement is to be made (Pesiḳ . 19b).

Among other things Johanan explained the following:

The exhortation to those who are freed from military service to return home (Deuteronomy 20: he said, was given in order that the cities of Israel might not become depopulated in times of war (Sifre, Deuteronomy 192 ). The passage Genesis 2: does not find that the account of the creation of the animals is here repeated but that their subjection to man is described (Gen. R. xvii). The words "And the eyes of them both were opened" ( Genesis 3: means that God opened their eyes to the evil they had brought upon future generations (Gen. R. 19: vision of the future ( Genesis 15: showed Abraham the present world only, not the future one (Gen. R. xliv.).

Johanan's views on piety (comp. his motto given above) correspond to his teaching that Job's piety was not based on the love of God, but on the fear of Him (Job 1:1 Soṭ ah 5:5, reported by Joshua b. Hananiah). He explains the exhortation in Ecclesiastes 9:8 allegorically: "White garments and costly oils are not meant here," he says (Eccl. R. 9:6 ), "for the Gentile peoples have these in plenty: it is rather an exhortation to fulfil the Law, to do good deeds, and to study the Scriptures."

Esoteric Doctrines.
In a tradition concerning the knowledge of esoteric doctrines ("Ma' aseh Bereshit " and "Ma' aseh Merkabah"), related by Jose b. Judah, a tanna of the second half of the second century, it is said that Joshua b. Hananiah, the pupil of Johanan, under the eye of his master occupied himself with esoteric doctrines and that Akiba learned them from him (Ḥ ag. 14b). According to another tradition (ib. ), it was Eleazar b. ' Arak with whom Johanan studied the mystic doctrines. A remarkable saying of Johanan's has been preserved, which is in accord with his study of mystic doctrines (Ḥ ag. 13a comp. Pes. 94b). In this saying man is advised to bring the infinity of God, the Creator of the world, nearer to his own conception by imagining the space of the cosmos extended to unthinkable distances.

In conclusion may be mentioned the historical meaning which Johanan, on a certain sad occurrence, gave to a verse of the Song of Solomon (Yitro, Baḥ odesh, 1). In Ma' on, a town of southern Judea, Johanan saw, probably not long after the destruction of Jerusalem, a young Jewess picking out grains of barley from the ordure of an Arab's horse, in order to still her hunger. Johanan said to his pupils who were with him: "My whole life long I have tried to understand that sentence in the Song of Solomon [i:8]: ' If thou know not, O thou fairest among women,' etc. Now for the first time I catch its meaning: ' You did not wish' — so goes the word reproving Israel— ' to submit to God hence you are made subject to foreign peoples. You did not wish to pay God a half-shekel for each person now you pay 15 shekels to the government of your enemies. You did not wish to repair the roads and streets for the holiday pilgrims you must now repair the road-houses and watch-towers for your oppressors. And in you is fulfilled the prophecy [Deuteronomy 18:47-48 , R. V.]: Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things, therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies, which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things.' "

Johanan felt the fall of his people more deeply than any one else, but— and in this lies his historical importance— he did more than any one else to prepare the way for Israel to rise again.

Bibliography : Frankel, Mebo Grä tz, Gesch. iii. Weiss, Dor , i., Brü ll, Einleitung Derenbourg, Histoire Bacher, Ag. Pal. Tannaiten , 2d ed., 1:22-42 W. Landau, in Monatsschrift . 1:163 Joseph Spitz, R. Jochanan b. Zakkai , 1883 Schlatter, Jochanan b. Zakkai, der Zeitgenosse der Apostel , 1899.S. S. W. B.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Johanan b. Zakkai'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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