When Rosh HaShana fell on Shabbat, the shofar was sounded only in Jerusalem. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai ordained that it could be sounded wherever there was a court (beit din). (Mishna Rosh HaShana 4:1)
In 70 CE, after a protracted siege, the Second Temple fell to the Romans. During the siege of Jerusalem, a leader of the Pharisees, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, obtained permission from the Romans to establish a non-political academy in the southern coastal town of Yavneh. The academy replaced the Sanhedrin as the body responsible for administering Jewish law and as the center of Jewish life over the next two generations. It produced some of the most famous rabbis in Jewish history The main preoccupation of the leadership was to keep Judaism alive without the political entity of the state and without control of Jerusalem or a Temple, and to consolidate their national life on new foundations. The belief in the return to Jerusalem, the future renewal of the Temple, and a return to independent Jewish life in the Land of Israel, coupled with a belief and yearning for the imminent coming of the Messiah, became central features in the lives of Jews everywhere.
Before its destruction, the Temple was the pivot point around which the Jewish world rotated. Every Jew aspired to complete the thrice-annual pilgrimage to the Temple. The Second Temple had stood for over half a millennium, and its existence was an integral part of Judaism. Its devastation left a vacuum in the spirit and everyday life of the people.
Judaism was facing an institutional and spiritual crisis of monumental proportions. The contemporary Jewish leaders in the period immediately following the destruction had to revise a basic concept of Judaism, as it no longer had a single physical place to which spiritual allegiance was attached. The main preoccupation of the leadership was not only to keep Judaism alive without the political entity of the state and without control of Jerusalem or the Temple, but also to consolidate their national life on new foundations. It was Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Sages of the reconstituted pseudo-Sanhedrin at Yavneh that essentially reformulated Judaism on a new basis, a more spiritual one. The central feature in the lives of Jews everywhere became the belief in the return to Jerusalem, the future renewal of the Temple, a return to independent Jewish life, and the imminent coming of the Messiah.
The Jews were now facing an institutional and spiritual crisis similar to the crisis of faith Daniel and the Jews of Babylon had faced following the exile from Judea after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Like the prophets who prophesied after the destruction of the First Temple, the Rabbis perceived the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple as God’s punishment for the sins of the people of Israel. The Rabbis emphasized that while the destruction of the Second Temple was a calamitous event, Judaism itself still continued, albeit in a revised form and with alternate institutions.
The destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem was a turning point in the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish people were bereft of the political entity of the state, and lacked both Jerusalem and the Temple. They had to consolidate their national life on new foundations and replace their institutions. These new institutions were crucial in ensuring Judaism’s survival throughout the period following the loss of the Temple, and indeed to this day. One of the institutions that was vital to Judaism after the destruction of the Temple was that of the beit din (court of law). The beit din is where the religious leaders of the Jews sat in judgment, started to reconstruct Judaism from the ashes of defeat, and formed a religious framework that has survived almost two millennia without a Temple.
Yohanan ben Zakkai’s edicts were vital. By transferring to the courts a practice that had previously been the prerogative of the Temple, he made an important statement: The holiness and legal prerogatives that had previously been associated with the Sanhedrin at the Temple were now to be transferred to wherever the leadership of the Jews had its court, its center. In addition, by establishing a central beit din in Yavneh, he maintained the Land of Israel as the center of the Jewish people and preserved ultimate authority in matters of halacha (Jewish law) there. The Diaspora communities continued for the time being to accept the hegemony of the Land of Israel. The Great Sanhedrin, which had previously met only at the Temple compound, could now exercise its powers while in session in Yavneh.
Traditionally Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is credited with being the inspiration behind the nine takkanot formulated during the formative reconstructive years immediately following the loss of the Temple. A takkana is an emergency halakhic (Jewish legal) ordinance. The rulings of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai recognized the new reality of a post-Temple Jewish world. These rulings can be divided into two categories: Those that were designed to keep the memory of the Temple alive, and those that were instituted to adjust to the lack of a Temple. Some of the most important of these takkanot are:
1) “It is permissible to blow the shofar on Shabbat wherever there is a beit din.” (Mishnah Rosh HaShana, 4:1)
2) “The lulav can be carried at Yavneh on all seven days of Sukkot including Shabbat.” (Mishnah Rosh HaShana, 4:3)
Yohanan ben Zakkai, by transferring to the Jewish courts practices that had previously been the prerogative of the Temple, made an important statement. He proclaimed that the central authority associated with the Temple was now transferred to wherever the leadership of the Jews had its center, to “(every place) wherever there is a beit din.” While today we do not blow the shofar on Shabbat or carry the lulav on Shabbat, at that time it was imperative for the survival of Judaism to establish it in a new form without a Temple. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s goal was to alleviate the sense of loss, and thus that year, when Rosh HaShana fell on Shabbat, he instructed the people to sound the shofar in Yavneh. It was nothing short of a revolution! Rabbi Benny Lau commented that,
The picture that emerges from Rabbi Yohanan’s decrees is that of a leader who refashioned the character of Judaism in the wake of the destruction. It would be impossible to imagine Jewish life today without his bold legislative enactments, which preserved the memory of the Temple while allowing Judaism to persevere in its absence.
The above article contains extracts from my latest book published by Koren, “Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 536 BCE-136 CE.”