Note: Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, is the saddest day in the Jewish year—a fast of historical catastrophes, from the evil report of Moses’s spies in the Promised Land, to the defeat of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters. It is followed, however, by Shabbat Nachamu (The Sabbath of Comfort), and by the time of reconciliation between God and the People Israel, culminating in the High Holy Days. Following is a telling of how Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
I am Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah. I survived the siege of Jerusalem, the worst Holocaust of our time. It was my teacher and guide, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who truly saved our faith and our Torah; I was but an instrument of the plan which God laid out to preserve His people.
It was madness for our tiny nation of Judea (so the Romans called it; so are our people called “Jews” to this day) to fight for liberation from the mighty Roman Empire. It was all the plan of the Zealots, a radical, angry subgroup of our peaceful people, the Pharisees. Had they not erupted, our people would have continued to study Torah and live Jewish lives—not like the Sadducees, who aped Roman pagan ways and claimed to base all of their practices in the Holy Temple Service. And I will not dwell on the Essenes, who ran off like the cowards they are, to the shores of the Salt Sea, where nothing ever grows. They were awaiting Messiah and Armageddon, but we Pharisaic rabbis knew that no such event would take place in our day. How could Messiah arrive when the land was full of corruption, with Jews fighting Romans, and one another?
And so, the Revolt began. The trigger was the arrival of Gessius Florus as new Roman Procurator for Judea. All the procurators were corrupt, but Florus practiced greed, extortion, and corruption, besides oppressing our people. His favorite tools were massacre and savagery; he never respected our rights as citizens of the Roman Empire.
The last straw was Florus’s ordering his Roman troops to run rampant through the streets of Jerusalem, killing anyone in their way. Our people fought back: from the roofs of their houses, they threw stones and homemade darts at their oppressors. Unable to maneuver in the narrow streets, his soldiers retreated.
Florus complained to his higher-ups. I don’t know all the details, but, the Romans have decades of experience in putting down colonial revolts, usually quickly, with lots of blood—and it’s usually not Roman blood. Eventually, General Vespasian and four full Roman Legions recalled from Britannia invaded our land, planning its utter destruction as an example to the rest of the Empire. He built a circumvallation, a siege wall, around the walls of Holy Jerusalem, preventing anyone from entering or escaping. Soon, famine set in. Using their ballistae-catapults, the Romans propelled dead, diseased cattle over the city walls. Our hungry, foolish people cut off and roasted chunks of the meat. Soon after, they sickened and died.
We rabbis and our Torah students were desperate—those of us who were still alive. We organized Chevrote Tehillim, groups dedicated to reciting the 150 Psalms in the Book of Psalms—the pitiful thing was, it was not unusual for a student to die in the midst of his reading the cycle, so another boy would take up the burden. Meanwhile, our wonderful rebbe, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, did not know what to do. The Almighty was, apparently, silent to his prayers. He, I myself, and a number of senior bochrim-students laid aside our Talmud studies, fasted (There was nothing to eat, anyway) and cried out to God for three days and nights. Rabban Yochanan collapsed from the strain, and his dear wife Nitzachon bathed his temples and forehead with vinegar and water—it was all the medicine we had left. Finally, he rose from his pallet and came to me and my study partner, Rabbi Joshua. Rabban Yochanan spoke like a man in a trance, his cheekbones visible beneath his grey beard. He was like a wraith sent by God.
“We must leave this city,” he whispered to the two of us that night, while we watched the distant fires consuming the buildings of Herod’s Jerusalem and heard the crackling of buildings we had known for all of our lives. “Jerusalem is dying before our eyes.”
“But, Rabbi,” said Joshua, “the Zealots hold the city gate, and will prevent anyone from leaving. Even if we escape, the Romans will crucify us as rebels.”
“I have prayed to the LORD GOD, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” said our rabbi, “and He commands me to do this. If God wills it, we will survive.”
“I fear both the Zealots’ spears and the Roman swords, my Rabbi,” I said, trembling.
“Take courage, my sons,” said Rabban Yochanan, “for God has given me a plan. We will pass the word throughout the streets of Jerusalem that I have died of the plague. You will help me climb into a coffin and carry me to the city gates. My clever student, Rabbi Eliezer, will talk our way past the guards.”
“And then?” asked Joshua.
“Trust in the Lord,” said our teacher, and shook our hands. His were ice-cold.
We followed his instructions, carrying our teacher’s body to the gates in a rough wooden coffin. So thin had he grown from the famine, that he was light and easy to carry. We explained to the Zealots that Rabban Yochanan—surely, they must have know Rabban Yochanan!—had died, and Jewish Law called for his proper burial.
“Who is this great Rabban Yochanan?” asked the taller of the two Zealot guards. I recognized him: he was an ignorant wagon-driver, no scholar of Torah. “I do not know any of you rabbis—how can I trust that he is dead? Let me open the coffin and run him through with my spear! All must do their part in our Holy War against Rome, even lazy Torah scholars!
But the other Zealot saved us—his name was Bar Kamza; we had sat next to one another on the same bench in Hebrew School, years before. He had lived in the streets after his parents died and he lost their house to the creditors. Bar Kamza’s face was filthy, his eyes like tragic moons. But I pray that his soul reside in the highest heavens, for saving us.
“Tomer, this is a great rabbi!” he hissed, pointing his spear at the Tall One’s belly, and the bumpkin backed off. “Do you not know your Jewish Law, that it is forbidden to desecrate the bodies of the dead?” He then turned to us. “Take your rabbi, and bury him, with proper rite and ceremony,” he said, “and God have mercy on his soul.” He ran to yank out the heavy crossbar, and Tomer did not resist.
As soon as we ran a distance from the gates, we found a darkened spot. There, we put the coffin down gently, and helped our rabbi climb out.
“Quick, Boys!” said Rabban Yochanan, and amazed both Joshua and myself by running swiftly toward the camp of the Roman General Vespasian.
Before we entered the camp, we called out to the pickets to assure them of our peaceful intent. All the soldiers looked weary; they had not joined the Army to murder innocent civilians. They saw us and looked away.
“We have news for the General,” gasped the rabbi to a sentry, when we reached the camp. The soldier looked puzzled, but he let us through, after he and a comrade patted us down for weapons. He then directed us to Vespasian’s tent.
A detachment of the Praetorian Guard barred our way until Rabbi Yochanan bowed and explained why we must confer with the General. A sergeant-major held open the tent-flap and we entered, just my rabbi and me. The tent was large and filled with maps, empty flagons of wine and bread-crusts littered about, and Roman officers and enlisted men, all hurrying back-and-forth with dispatches. Every few minutes, another cavalryman would either gallop off, scroll in hand, or arrive, swinging off his mud-spattered horse, and pushing past us. In the midst of it all sat General Vespasian, shaven-headed, broken-nosed, looking like a boxer ready for the games in the Coliseum. He nodded alertly when an officer stepped forward with a report and ignored another whose counsel he did not desire.
A self-important Praefectus Castrorum, third-in-command of the Tenth Legion (Fretensis), Vespasian’s home legion, stepped forward, naked sword in hand, to block our way.
“Jews! What business have you here?” he spat out. He was clearly no friend of our people. I wondered if he had been one of Florus’s bullyboys, and how many of us he had murdered with that sword.
“If it please the Praefect,” answered Rabban Yohanan, and I heard the steel in his voice, “we desire an audience with the general. We—I—have news for him, urgent news.”
The Praefect was taken aback. It was as though our rabbi had put him in a trance. As we watched, he saluted Rabban Yohanan—something no Roman soldier, much less an officer, would ever do! Then, he walked to Vespasian’s command table, and pushed to the front of the officers.
“What do you mean by disturbing my council of war, Gallus?” barked Vespasian, slamming his hand on the table, “I have no time for interruptions. There’s a war to be won, and the Roman Senate will be screaming for my blood if I fail.”
“If it please your honor,” said the Praefect meekly, “the two rabbis (How did he know we were rabbis?) over there have news for you.”
“News? News?” laughed Vespasian in a deep voice, “I would be happy for any good news. Show me a secret tunnel into that infernal city!” The officers around his table laughed, as well.
“I beg your pardon, General,” said our rabbi in a voice that filled the tent, “But I must greet you with, not ‘Hail, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, General of Rome,’ but rather, ‘Hail, Caesar!’”
“Caesar? Caesar?” asked Vespasian crossly, “I am no Caesar, but merely his lackey legionary, sent to carry out this disgusting mission. Why am I commanded to murder innocent women and children? Hey? Perhaps I should behead you two gadfly rabbis….”
Suddenly, the tent-flaps were opened wide, and a young Roman herald entered, bearing a scroll with a golden cord. He was muddy from the trip, and he was on an important errand.
“Hail, Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus—Hail, Caesar!” he called out. The legionaries, officers and enlisted men, looked up, startled—but then, all quickly bent down on one knee.
“What is this?” Vespasian asked, startled once more, “Herald! Give me your charge.”
The tired young soldier-messenger bowed and passed his scroll to the general. Vespasian slid off the cord, scanned it quickly, and his eyes widened.
“It-seems-that-I-am-the-new-Caesar,” he said, slowly. He sank back onto his three-legged stool. “Vitellius is dead, that fool. Well, I never expected him to survive as long as he did—still, it was a horrible death he suffered, killed by Flavian troops and his body dumped into the Tiber River. Ha!” he barked, “So. Rabbi. Come forward!”
A tribune made as if to shove our rabbi forward, but a sharp glance from Rabban Yohanan made him change his mind.
“You were first to announce me as Caesar, long before the herald arrived,” he asked our teacher, tapping the table impatiently. “So. Are you a sorcerer, O Mighty Rabbi-Prophet?”
“I am but a servant of the Lord God Who dwells in the heavens, Great Caesar,” said our rabbi, slowly.
“Well, let’s get down to business—you people all excel at business, do you not? When you’re not committing suicide by warring against the entire Empire, I mean. What reward do you desire for being first to call me Caesar? Gold? Diamonds? A boat to escape this wretched country? Speak!” ordered Vespasian.
“If it please you, Great and Fair Ruler,” answered the rabbi, “All I wish for is the town of Yavneh, there to build a yeshiva, a Talmudical Academy. I will thereby save our faith—”
Vespasian stared at him. He picked up his General’s Winecup, looked into it as if divining the future, and set it down.
“This is a small thing,” he said, “and I expected to be asked for more, much more.” He waved his hand. “Pah! Bid Jerusalem farewell, Rabbi—your Israelite capital is doomed, and your people will either die or be scattered, forever. Go, go to build your school!”