Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is one of the most influential figures in Jewish history, as the man who bridged the gap between the Second Temple and Rabbinic, diaspora Judaism as we know it today.
Yochanan ben Zakkai lived in Jerusalem in the time of Hillel and Shammai, the 1st century BCE. He is very firmly from the Pharissaic/Rabbinic tradition. He studied Torah under Hillel; in fact, one source (Bab. Talmud, Sukkot 28a) refers to him as the least of the 80 students of Hillel.
The most well-known story about Yochanan ben Zakkai (found in BT Gittin 55b-57b)
This story starts in Jerusalem during the great siege that went on from 67-70CE. Vespasian had been sent by Rome to quell the Jewish Revolt. The Jerusalemites dug in for a long siege, with plenty of stored food and wood. They knew that a siege would be painful and costly, and that they'd probably still lose in the end. The sages of the time decided to sue for peace.
However, an anti-Roman geurilla movement sprung up. Known as the Zealots, (though the Talmud calls them bandits) they believed that they could beat the Romans in battle, and that God would help them. They destroyed the city's food stocks and essentially staged a military coup, blockading the gates of Jerusalem from the inside to prevent the inhabitants escaping. This is the state of play when Yochanan ben Zakkai enters the scene.
BT, Gittin 56b
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai went out to walk in the marketplace and saw the residents of Jerusalem boiling straw and drinking the water. He said: "Can people who boil straw and drink its water withstand the legions of Vespasian? I have no choice but to leave the city and negotiate an end to the siege."
Abba Sikra ben Batiach was the leader of the Zealots of Jerusalem and he was Yochanan ben Zakkai's nephew. Yochanan ben Zakkai sent him a message: Come to me in secret. He came. R. Yochanan said to him: "How long will you carry on like this, and starve everyone to death?" Abba Sikra said: "What can I do? If I tell them anything, they will kill me."
It seems that the Zealots were so out of control that the the leadership had lost control of them, and mob-rule had taken over. The text continues:
R. Yochanan said to him: "Devise a plan that will enable me to leave. Perhaps something can still be saved." Abba Sikra said: "Pretend that you are ill, and everyone will come to visit you. Then bring some stinking object and place it next to you and they'll say that you have died. Have your disciples carry you...."
R. Yochanan did so. Rabbi Eliezer took hold of one side and Rabbi Yehoshua took hold of the other side of the coffin. When they reached the gate of the city, the Zealots guarding the gate wanted to stab him to make sure he was dead. Abba Sikra said: "They (the Romans) will say, 'They are stabbing their great Rabbi'" They also wanted to poke him . Abba Sikra said: "The Romans will say, 'They are pushing their great Rabbi."' They opened the gates and R. Yochanan went out of the city.
s are not put in cities but outside them, because priest
s aren't allowed near graves. This was especially important in Jerusalem, the site of the Temple
, where priests needed to be pure
all the time. As such, bodies were carried beydond the city wall for burial. This was ben Zakkai's only means of escape, but it was clearly something the zealots at the gates had thought of, so they routinely checked bodies to make sure they weren't escapee
s. Only the intervention of their leader, and an appeal to their national pride
of the Zealots in the face of the Romans saved Yochanan ben Zakkai from this treatment.
They carried him until they reached Vespasian in the Roman camp. R. Yochanan said: "Peace be unto you, king! Peace be unto you, king!" Vespasian replied: "You are liable for two death penalties: One, I am not a king and you have called me king. And the other - if I am a king, why have you not come to me until now?"
Vespasian now is a General, not Emperor. He protests at ben Zakkai's use of the term 'king' as treasonable. Interestingly, there is a similar passage in Suetonius's Life of Vespasian who puts the prophecy in the mouth of "one of the captives of noble birth, Josephus".
In any case, Yochanan ben Zakkai answers Vespasian by explaining:
"With regard to your saying, 'I am not a king,' the truth is that you are a king. Were you not a king, Jerusalem would not be given into your hands...
And he then procedes to bring proofs from the Tanach that Jerusalem can only fall to a king.
In the meantime, a messenger arrived from Rome and said to Vespasian: "Arise, for Caesar has died, and the great men of Rome have decided to appoint you at the head."
He then said to R. Yochanan: "I am leaving and another person will be sent. Ask me for something which I can give you (as a reward )."
He said to Vespasian: "Give me Yavneh and her sages, the descendants of Rabban Gamliel, and a cure to heal Rabbi Tzadok."
Yochanan ben Zakkai's famous request, 'Give me Yavneh and her sages", is what makes him so important. Rather than asking a to save Jerusalem (a doomed attempt), he thought of the future and began planning a new centre.
At Yavneh, ben Zakkai assembled a group of Jewish scholars that could survive the Detruction of the Temple without forgetting it. This group, in a relatively short time, became known as the Sanhedrin and took on the powers of that body that previously sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone by the Temple. The Yavneh Sanhedrin, under Yochanan ben Zakkai's leadership, set about enacting reminders of the Temple.
They instituted that everyone should wash their hands before eating bread in memory of the priests' ablutions, that bread should be salted in memory of the daily offerings (which were salted), that candles should be lit on Shabbat eve. These were to stress the point that every household was now to be like a Temple. They also decreed that one corner of every room be left undecorated, and that a glass should be broken at weddings in memory of the sadness and incompleteness of the Jewish experience. The Sanhedrin was able to provide continuity when there would have been none, and showed that the process of Jewish law-making wasn't bound to the Temple.
Yochanan ben Zakkai's students were the next generation of Rabbis and leaders. Some of them are mentioned in the Mishna:
Mishna: Pirke avot 2:9
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples and these are they: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yosi the Priest, Shimon ben Natanel, and Elazar ben Arach.
Yochanan ben Zakkai was only the head of the academy at Yavneh from 70-74CE, after which he retired and was succeeded by Rabban Gamliel. But in that short time, he had created a way of ensuring the collective memory of the Jewish people had a preservation method that would be resilient, portable, and adaptable, that would stand the test of time for some 2,000 years.
His death is recorded in the Talmud:
BT, Berachot 28b
When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his students went in to visit him. When he saw them he began to weep. His disciples said to him "Lamp of Israel, pillar of the right hand, mighty hammer! Why are you weeping?"
He replied: If I were being taken today before a human king who is here today and tomorrow is in the grave, whose anger if he is angry with me does not last forever, who if he imprisons me does not imprison me forever and who if he puts me to death does not put me to everlasting death, and whom I can persuade with words and bribes, nevertheless I would weep.
Now that I am being taken before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who lives and endures for ever and ever, whose anger, if He is angry with me, is an everlasting anger, who if He imprisons me imprisons me forever, who if he puts me to death puts me to death forever, and whom I cannot persuade with words or bribery, and not only that but there are two paths ahead of me, one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know which way I will be led, shall I not weep?
All blockquoted sources are translations, taken from one of the websites below with some minor editing