The indomitable spirit of the Jewish people – The story of Yavne – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on August 2, 2020

Do all roads lead to Yavne?Among the most well-known Talmudic stories is the tale of R. Yohanan ben Zakkais daring escape from Jerusalem at the height of the siege by the Romans in 70 CE, found in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56a-b. According to that account, R. Yohanan had himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin so that he could negotiate with Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces and soon to be declared Emperor. He requested that the emperor give him Yavne and its sages. In doing so, R. Yohanan b. Zakkai ensured the spiritual continuity of the Jewish people despite the impending destruction of the Temple and the eternal capital. Yavne would become the center of the nascent rabbinic movement which was responsible for the reestablishment of Judaism in the post-Destruction world.Though this story is most closely associated with the fast of Tisha BeAv, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples, its enduring appeal no doubt lies in its profound optimism. It is a story of the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people. Even after suffering a devastating defeat and the loss of their spiritual center, the rabbis immediately rebuilt, ensuring the continuity of Judaism. The rabbis of Yavne would teach that through the continued study and practice of Torah, the people could maintain their relationship with God and continue their historic mission in the world, even in the absence of the Temple.But there is another, less well-known version of R. Yohahan ben Zakkais escape that lacks this message of hope. Lamentations Rabbah, a midrash compiled in the Land of Israel probably about 100 years before the editing of the Babylonian Talmud, tells a much darker tale. This version makes no mention of Yavne. After repeatedly failing to save the city from destruction, all that R. Yohanan ben Zakkai requests is that prior to his final assault, Vespasian leave the western gate [of Jerusalem] which goes out to Lod open until the third hour, so that those who wish can escape and avoid being killed. This story offers no vision for life in the post-Destruction era. It does not look forward to the ultimate triumph of the rabbis in maintaining the continuity of Jewish tradition. It focuses on the bare physical survival of remnant of the Jewish people. This story reminds us that through much of Jewish history, heroism was defined simply by the will to live until the next day. Gods promise to Israel was manifest by the simple fact that some Jews were not killed. Most of the time, we prefer to dwell on the more optimistic vision of the Babylonian Talmud. But perhaps on Tisha Beav, it is the starker focus of the midrash which is most appropriate.The writer is a senior lecturer in Bar-Ilan Universitys Berman Department of Literature of the Jewish People. This article is based on his recent piece The Road to Lydda A Survivors Story: Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkais Flight from Jerusalem According to Eicha Rabba 1:5 that appeared in Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature 31 (2020) 27-64.

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The indomitable spirit of the Jewish people - The story of Yavne - The Jerusalem Post

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