JHOM - Shoot

This week's question and answer (see more in menu, above left)

Responsa literature (in Hebrew She'elot U'Tshuvot — SHOOT for short) refers to the vast body of legal literature which is composed of questions asked of religious leaders about disputed or unknown points of Jewish law or procedure, and the answers received. [more about response literature]

Responsa first emerged in the early Middle Ages when far-flung Jewish communities throughout the Islamic world sent their questions to the Geonim, heads of the Babylonian rabbinic academies and the undisputed spiritual authority of world Jewry. When new centers of Jewish scholarship emerged in Europe and North Africa towards the end of the tenth century, communities in these regions began to turn to local religious authorities with their questions. This tradition continues in Jewish communities even today.

We at JHOM.com can not take on the role of legal arbiter or spiritual advisors. However, to continue the tradition of She'elot U'Tshuvot and to further the goals of this magazine, we draw upon the resources available to us to provide answers to general questions regarding Jewish history, customs, and culture.

View original Hebrew text below

Who was Yohanan ben Zakkai?

Yohanan ben Zakkai or RiBaZ (1st century C.E.), was one of the leading tannaim the sages from the period of Hillel to the compilation of the Mishnah, (first and second centuries C.E) at the end of the Second Temple period and during the years following the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud refers to Ben Zakkai as the student of Hillel the Elder, although there is no direct evidence of any discussions between them. According to tradition, Hillel said of Ben Zakkai: “Father of wisdom, father for generations.”

During the years of the Great Revolt (66-73 CE) Ben Zakkai opposed the zealots and the extremists, seeking reconciliation with the Romans, a stance that was overridden. His expositions on establishing peace "between nation and nation, between government and government, between family and family" were designed to promote peace for everyone. [1]

According to the Talmudic account, he succeeded in outwitting the extremists by leaving the city in a coffin after despairing of saving the besieged city of Jerusalem (probably in 68 CE), arriving at the Roman camp with his request to save Yavne and its sages. [2]

Following the destruction, he was responsible for establishing Yavne as a religious and national center. The city is described as being situated near a stream of water; its wheat market was well known and cattle and poultry were raised in the vicinity. Yavne was given special and central status; in some respects it was now regarded as the equal of Jerusalem: there the year was intercalated and the shofar blown, and pilgrims from Asia visited the city three times a year. [3]

Ben Zakkai increased the number of sages there; between 70 and 132 CE, Yavne was "the great city, the city of scholars and rabbis"; most of the tannaim of this period taught there and Rabban Gamaliel was buried there. He raised the prestige of the Great Sanhedrin (supreme religious court of law) [4] that met in the upper story of a house or in a vineyard near a pigeon house. [There is a yeshiva today in Yavne known as Kerem B’Yavne Vineyard in Yavne.]

Ben Zakkai instituted several new ordinances some "in remembrance of the Temple," [5] others to ensure the continuation of Jewish life. Among the most important decisions made at Yavne was the definitive canonization of the Bible.

excerpted This text is an expanded version of the Musag Hashavua (Concept of the Week) column in the Hebrew newspaper Sh'aar Lamathil.

Edited by the Israeli Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture and published by Yedioth Aharonot, Sha'ar Lamathil is Israel's most established and popular easy-Hebrew newspaper. Written in simple Hebrew with big, bold letters and vowels underneath, Sha'ar Lamathil is distributed throughout Israel and around the world wherever Hebrew is read and taught.

Sha'ar Lamathil may be ordered via their website.

excerpted [1] Mekh., Ba-Hodesh, 11
[2] BT Gittin 56b
[3] Tosef., Hul. 3:10; RH 29b; Shab. 11a
[4] Tosef., Ber. 2:6
[5] RH 4:3



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend