Yohanan ben Zakkai

Yohanan ben Zakkai (second half first century CE): rabbi, one of the founders of rabbinical Judaism.

Modern reconstruction of an ancient synagogue

After the fall of Jerusalem, in 70 CE, Judaism had to reinvent itself. There was no temple, there was no high priest. The Sadducees had vanished, the people who had written the sectarian texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls (perhaps the Essenes) had disappeared as well, the Romans had violently repressed the Sicarians and Zealots. Only two branches of the ancient, pluralistic faith would survive: those who stressed Messianism became Christians, those who stressed the study of the Law would develop into rabbinical Judaism. One key figure was Yohanan ben Zakkai, who renewed Pharisaism and gave Judaism a new future.


The importance of the crisis in 70 CE cannot be overestimated, but the Jewish religion was not exclusively about the temple in Jerusalem. There were synagogues, charismatics, and sects with their own customs, rituals, and ideas. One of those ideas was almost the opposite of the sacrificial cult, namely the answer to the question of the core of the Jewish faith. The summary attributed to the Pharisaic leader Hillel and to Jesus of Nazareth “do to others what you want them to do to you”,note certainly does not put the temple cult at the center of Judaism. Instead, it focuses on the correct way of life.

An anecdote about rabbi Yohanan shows that the Jews were aware that the center of gravity in their religion was shifting away from sacrifice in the temple. When one of Yohanan’s disciples saw the ruins of the temple, he said that the Jews were lost because they could no longer make sacrifices to restore their ritual purity or atone for sins. No one would ever enter the world that was to come. However, Yohanan reassured him: there was another way, as good as sacrifice, to come to terms with God, namely acts of charity.note

The reliability of this anecdote is difficult to determine. It was passed down to us in an early Medieval text, which suggests that it is unreliable, but this Medieval text contains material of considerable antiquity, which suggests the opposite. As a consequence, the authenticity of Yohanan’s statement is disputed, although it is certain that the idea was not uncommon in the late first century.note

To Javne

This anecdote shows that Yohanan was the subject of several legends, which may or may not be true. Another example is the story that during the siege of Jerusalem, Yohanan managed to escape, hidden in a coffin, and gained the favor of Vespasian by foretelling him that one day, he would be emperor. As a reward, the rabbi-turned-prophet received permission to establish a school in Javne.note That not Titus but his father is presented as the besieger of Jerusalem is sufficient to describe the anecdote as unhistorical.

Still, it is plausible that Yohanan founded a school or lawcourt in Javne where decisions were taken that were in some way recognized by other Jews. The Mishnah, the oldest collection of rabbinical wisdom, mentions Yohanan several times in connection with Javne, as in an anecdote about the right time to celebrate New Year.note It is certainly conceivable that the Romans assisted moderate religious leaders to establish schools.

No Roman would have been offended by the matters discussed in Javne. This certainly applies to Yohanan’s statement about Messianism:

If you want to plant a shoot and someone tells you that the Messiah is coming, plant that shoot before you welcome him. note

Again, the authenticity of these words is questionable, but they fit perfectly in the years after the destruction of the temple, when people had come to distrust the violent messianism of a Simon bar Giora. The quote may be authentic.

Seizure of Power

The rabbinical debates in Javne did not bother the Roman authorities. They were about ritual purity,note marriage contracts,note calendars,note or agriculture.note

That is not to say, however, that the people in Javne did not practice politics. The Babylonian Talmud contains an old list of decisions made by Yohanan, including the decision that priests should not wear sandals when they climbed on a platform in the synagogue to bless the people. This may look obscure but this is how the priests had once acted in the temple and Yohanan now presented the priests with a choice: either they had no duties at all (after all, the temple had been destroyed) or they were given a modest privilege in the synagogues – but on the authority of Javne.note

Something similar can be said about another seemingly insignificant issue: the blowing of a horn, the shofar, during the festivities of the New Year. This had always been done in both the temple and the synagogues, but if the first day of the year was a Saturday, the Sabbath was observed and the music was heard only in the temple. This occurred in September 71, when the Jewish New Year fell on a Saturday. Since there was no temple, there was a problem. Yohanan now decided that from now on, the shofar would be blown wherever the court was – in Javne.note So in effect, Yohanan strove for his institution, whatever status it may have had, to take over as many tasks as possible from Jerusalem.

Rabbinical Judaism

Rabbinical Judaism seems to have replaced Pharisaism quickly, because we don’t hear much more about the latter, but if Yohanan is the link between these two stages of Jewish thinking, it would be exaggerated to say that continuity was complete. Pharisaism had always known two complementary branches: the precise House of Shammai and the moderate House of Hillel. In the discussion between these houses, Yohanan and his students sided with the latter, which means that a significant part of the Pharisaic traditions was now discarded. The scholars of Javne also made their own choices: the Mishnaic tractate Eduyoth begins with a list of disputes in which both Shammai and Hillel had, according to the rabbis, both been wrong.

Thus, the scholars of Javne set the first steps on a road that would lead to the emergence of the rabbinate. Until then, the title of rabbi, “master”, had been used informally for all people of authority, but now the rabbinate became an official function that required teaching by recognized rabbis. The title was transferred through a ritual of laying on of hands.

Whether the rabbinical authority was already accepted by many people in these years cannot be determined, but success may have come quickly because the alternatives were rapidly discredited in a Jewish world that was still in turmoil. When Yohanan gave his verdict on the blowing of the shofar in 71, the battle for Masada still had to begin.

One alternative was the temple in Leontopolis, Egypt, which had been built by high priest Honi IV in the second century BCE. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says that it attracted so many former insurgents that the Alexandrian Jews and the governor of Egypt started to worry, and in 74 CE, the last Jewish temple was closed.note Another alternative to the rabbinic assumption of power was king Agrippa II. There may well have been other parties who wanted to fill the power vacuum. It is conceivable that a group of priests went to Arabia and tried to build a new temple in, for example, Dedan or Tayma, oases with Jewish minorities. Arab Judaism is one of our blind spots and there may very well have been other alternatives to Javne. The rabbis’ seizure of power was swift but not self-evident.

The Amidah

Among those who did not accept Javne were the followers of Jesus. The gospels of Matthew and John and the text known as Didache contain various polemics against rival groups, with the "woes of the Pharisees" as obvious example.note

The other voice in these polemics is the Amidah, the prayer of the Eighteen Benedictions that summarizes Jewish faith. It was formulated at the time of Yohanan’s successor Gamaliel II.note This classic Jewish text expresses (among many other things) the wish that there will be no hope for apostates. Two manuscripts, both from Cairo, explicitly mention the notsrim, the Christians, which fits the Christian accusation that in the synagogues, people cursed Christians.note

We do not know whether the Cairene manuscripts present us with the original text or a variant, but it seems certain that towards the end of the first century CE, the Amidah contained a prayer against apostates in general. There must have been synagogues where Christians who maintained the Law were regarded as apostates and asked to leave; there certainly were synagogues that took a different stance, for it is certain that Christians continued to participate in the synagogue service three centuries later.

The Parting of Ways

As said, we don’t know how great the authority of the rabbis initially was. Nor do we know in how many synagogues and in what words the Amidah was recited. It is certain, however, that towards the end of the first century, there was at least one group in the Jewish world that believed action should be taken against apostates and that there was at least one group of followers of Jesus who felt addressed. The Fiscus Judaicus, a Roman tax that had to be paid by Jews only, acerbated these tensions, and the fact that Simon bar Kochba, a Messianic leader who revolted against Rome in 132-136, executed adherents of the rival Messiah,note did not help either.

The Christians would find new leaders: priests, deacons, presbyters and bishops. Many Jews would accept the rabbis as leaders. They would establish the canon of the Jewish Bible, and towards the end of the second century, Yehuda ha-Nasi would collect and organize the oral traditions of the rabbis in the Mishnah, the first book of rabbinic wisdom. The roads had started to diverge.

This page was created in 2020; last modified on 12 October 2020.