Preserving Our Spiritual Essence


naphtali hoffBy Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

Nearly two thousand years ago, a conversation took place that would alter the course of Jewish history. The exchange, which transpired shortly before the destruction of Bayis Sheni, involved a mighty Roman general and an elderly Jewish sage. Though it failed to end the long, painful Roman military campaign, it set the stage for Jewish survival and rebirth in exile, an endurance that has defied all historical odds.

In the years preceding its fall to Rome, Yerushalayim was a divided capital, and home to three political factions. One group was comprised of nationalistic zealots, who were bent on completely casting off the Roman yoke from the Jewish people. A second faction consisted of moderates, led by the sages, with the nasi Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel I at their head. Though they greatly resented Roman mistreatment, the moderates recognized the folly of battle against a mightier foe and espoused a pacifistic policy. The third group was the so-called “Friends of Rome”, wealthy collaborators whose primary concern was the preservation of their status quo. In this tragic period, the people would prove incapable of working collectively for their common good, to save themselves and their city. In the end, this fiction doomed them far more than did Roman might.

As the Romans prepared to attack the city, a series of battles raged within its walls. The various Jewish factions warred over control of the Inner City and Har Habayis, causing great destruction, and converting the streets into a bloody battlefield. Thousands were killed, including countless civilians.

Despite this terrible internal destruction, the zealots’ headstrong military leadership would accept nothing less than a direct clash with the mighty empire; negotiations with Rome for a peaceful resolution were to be prevented at all costs. To force the issue, huge storage houses of vital resources were burned to the ground. Many years’ worth of supplies, capable of sustaining the city throughout any protracted siege, disappeared in an instant, bringing the populace to its knees. The situation was dire.

Into this fray stepped Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, a student of the great Hillel the Elder and av bais din of the Sanhedrin. This great sage had recognized early on that Yerushalayim could not be saved so long as vicious infighting persisted within its walls. Despairing of a viable internal solution, he risked his own life to seek help from without. In feigning his own death, he managed to have himself smuggled out of the city. (Such conduct was necessary because the city guards were highly suspicious of anyone attempting to leave the city, fearful that they may attempt to come to peaceful terms with Rome. Dead corpses were, however, brought out of Yerushalayim, so as to minimize the risk of impurity within the Temple’s immediate vicinity.) Once outside, he proceeded directly to the Roman general Vespasian, who was encamped directly north of the city.

Rabban Yochanan approached the Roman camp cautiously optimistic that some form of agreement could now be worked out between the two sides.


When (Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai) reached the Romans he said, ‘Peace to you, O king, peace to you, O king.’ (Vespasian) said, ‘Your life is forfeited on two counts. One is because I am not a king and you call me king. In addition, if I am a king, why did you not come to me before now?’ He replied, ‘As for your saying that you are not a king, in truth you are a king, since if you were not a king Yerushalayim would not be delivered into your hand… As for your question, why if you are a king, did I not come to you sooner, the answer is that the zealots among us did not let me.’… At this point a messenger came to him from Rome saying, ‘Up, for the emperor is dead, and the notables of Rome have decided to make you head of the state…’ (Ibid 56b)


Overjoyed at the news, the new emperor granted Rabban Yochanan a unique opportunity to have his wishes satisfied. The sage asked for three things, all relating to Torah and the Jews’ spiritual preservation. “Give me Yavneh and its wise men, the family chain of Rabban Gamliel, and physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok”. (Ibid) Let us explore each of these appeals a bit further:

  • Yavneh and its wise men – to preserve the Torah, Rabban Yochanan asked that the Torah academy in Yavneh be spared. This would later become the seat of the relocated Sanhedrin and the primary Torah center for the next generation.
  • The family chain of Rabban Gamliel – to sustain the line of nesi’im that had begun with Hillel. It was now passed on to Rabban Gamliel II, the young son of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel I, who had perished during the siege of Yerushalayim. The nesi’im offered strong leadership for this tumultuous time, vital for the survival of a single national and religious Jewish entity.
  • Physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok – who had fasted for forty years to avert the destruction and was in ill health.

In his blind ecstasy, the newly elected Roman emperor granted all of his requests. He even provided a safe escort for the Torah sages as they relocated to Yavneh.

At first glance, one is left to wonder whether Rabban Yochanan’s requests truly addressed the needs of the people. In fact, some of his colleagues criticized him, stating that the Bais Hamikdash, perhaps even the entire city, could have been spared had the appeal only been made. Seen from the vantage point of historical hindsight, however, we can see that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, in asking for Yavneh, understood that for the sake of survival, the Jewish people would be better served with a viable Torah center even more than its own capital.


“Give me Yavneh and its wise men!” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai stood before the Roman emperor and asked of him, not the preservation of the state, because it was no longer a state of the Torah, and not the preservation of the holy Temple, because Herod’s name was associated with it – but the preservation of the oral law of the Torah, which depended on Yavneh and its sages. He knew that if there were a people of the Torah, there would be a land of the Torah, and in the future – a state of the Torah. With “Yavneh and its wise men” he saved everything. (Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler)


In a physical sense, the Romans emerged from this war as the victors, capturing Yerushalayim and destroying the Bais Hamikdash. History, however, has shown that the Jews won the greater ideological struggle, keeping themselves and their Torah alive long after the fall of the empire and its pagan values. When the Bais Hamikdash and the political entity that it represented disappeared, the spirit of Yiddishkeit, represented by Yavneh, stepped in and filled the void.

Over the past two millennia, the Jewish people have managed to survive and even thrive, despite the general absence of political, economic or religious autonomy. Compounding matters have been the unspeakable pain and torture, including persecution, expulsion, and even mass murder, that they have had to endure. Yet, they have retained their unique identity, because of “Yavneh and its wise men”. Inspired a message of Torha primacy, they have continued to forge ahead in their unique, eternal mission, undeterred by the powerful forces of history.

Nearly two thousand years ago, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai risked his life for one purpose, to preserve our most precious commodity, the Torah. His efforts have borne remarkable fruits, a steadfast nation committed to the dictates of Hashem’s eternal message. Only through this commitment, have we managed to buck the historic trends that should have terminated our existence so many years ago. May we merit to a further strengthening of this commitment, so as to restore the Shechina within our midst.


Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting ( He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at



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