Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Born 30 bce – died 90 ce
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lived a full, productive, lengthy and historic life.
In Rosh Hashana 31B it says: Has it not been taught: ‘R. Johanan b. Zaccai lived altogether a
hundred and twenty years. For forty years he was in business, forty years he studied, and
forty years he taught.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was the prominent sage of his time and the venerated
leader of his generation.
His piety and devotion are described in Succah 28A: They said concerning Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that during his whole life,
he never uttered profane talk,
nor walked four cubits without [studying the] Torah or without tefillin,
nor was any man earlier than he in the college,
nor did he sleep or doze in the college, nor did he meditate in filthy alleyways,
nor did he leave anyone in the college when he went out,
nor did anyone ever find him sitting in silence, but only sitting and learning,
and no one but himself ever opened the door to his disciples,
he never in his life said anything which he had not heard from his teacher,
It is brought down in Berachot 17A: It was related of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that
no man ever gave him greeting first, even a heathen in the street.
This attribute highlights a refinement of character. If someone is quick to greet any
person in the street, that shows that he really and truly respects every person as he is,
regardless of his deeds, ethnic origin or religion. It makes sense that Rabbi Yochanan
ben Zakkai should be the one to find a way to respect even a thief.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai has been depicted as follows: Rabban Yochanan ben
Zakkai was a mysterious figure and we don’t know much about his family. Zakkai was an
appellation and not the name of his father. His brother-in-law was the head of the Zealots
in Jerusalem and Rabban Yochanan became head of the Pharisees when the traditional
family of leaders (the descendants of Rabban Gamliel, Hillel, and King David) were
forced into hiding. Whe Rabban Gamliel was allowed to emerge from hiding Rabban
Yochanan be Zakkai worked to put Rabban Gamliel back into a leadership position and
made himself scarce so as not to infringe on Rabban Gamliel’s position.
The Talmud in Berachot 28B describes the sobering, chilling visit of his disciples during
their teacher’s final days: When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples 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! Wherefore weepest thou?
He replied: If I were being taken today before a human king who is here today and
tomorrow 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 bribe with money,
even so 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 for ever, and whom I cannot persuade with words or bribe with
money — nay more, when there are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise and the
other to Gehinnom, and I do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep?
They said to him: Master, bless us.
He said to them,: May it be God's will that the fear of heaven shall be upon you like the
fear of flesh and blood.
His disciples said to him: Is that all? He said to them:
If only [you can attain this]! You can see [how important this is], for when a man wants
to commit a transgression, he says, I hope no man will see me.
Rabban Yochanan epitomized Torah wisdom and the Talmud in Sotah 49A declares,
When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased.