In Which Yochanan Ben Zakai Views the Present & Ponders the Future

Jerusalem Journeys, (excerpt from Chapter 6)


Background Discussion Strategies for Survival

The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem meant the need for major change in the structure of the Jewish People. The whole organization of the Jewish world from now on would have to be radically different.

As the scholars and the would-be leaders of the Jewish world congregated at Yavneh, they had to come up with a rescue plan. It was not enough to try and create a new center. The new center had to start to formulate a new direction for the People to enable the transition to a post-Temple reality.

In the ensuing generations the Yavneh option started to emerge clearly and the basis of a new form of Judaism with new emphases and new strategies was formed. This option would become the basis of what would be called Rabbinic Judaism. To put it briefly, it was based on a number of major ideas.

1. The Torah Would Be Understood in a Very Broad Way.

In the last part of the second Temple period there had been different ways of understanding the Torah. Some saw it as the be-all and end-all of Jewish life. Whatever was in the Torah from a legal point of view was binding on all Jews. This group, principally the group called the Sadducees, saw the Torah in very literal terms. They downplayed other traditions seeing that a Jew was bound only by what was actually written in the Torah. Since the two spheres of activity which receive the most detailed treatment in the Torah are concerned either with sacrifices or purity laws, these became the central elements in this version of Judaism.

However there were other groups, specifically the group called Pharisees who saw the Torah very differently. They saw the Torah as a series of guidelines which should be interpreted in order to bring all spheres of life under the mantle of holiness prescribed by the Torah. The Torah should be pushed outwards into every aspect of life.

In this respect, the Rabbis of Yavneh were the heirs of the Pharisees.

From now on the Torah would govern all of life.

2. The Scholar, the Expert in the Torah Text Would Be the Guide to Jewish Life.

From now on the text would become the basis of Jewish life. In order to understand the way that God wanted the world to be run, there was a need to interpret the text. The scholars would be the leaders of the Jewish world.

3. Jewish Life Would Be Organized According to a Highly Detailed Legal or Halachic System.

The scholars would undertake a detailed study of the text in order to uncover the legal basis for the highly structured way of life that would now bind the Jewish People. The plain word of the Torah, they believed, revealed only part of its meaning. It was clear that the text was meant to provide a comprehensive guideline to all aspects of human activity, including all those new situations that a changing lifestyle or a developing technology were always creating. The text would be rigorously searched for hints, so that regulations for all aspects of life and all situations could be made.

4. Prayer Would Replace Sacrifice; the Synagogue Would Replace the Temple.

The main way of reaching God would be through the medium of prayer. Prayer would develop and be standardized so that Jews throughout the world would say the same things at the same times. The synagogue, up to now secondary to the Temple, would become the central institution around the Jewish world, until such time as the Temple would be rebuilt. Rituals and other aspects of Temple life would be moved out into the synagogue. However, there would be no sacrifice anywhere in the Jewish world until the rebuilding of the Temple.

All of these principles, together would become the basis of the new way that would emerge very strongly from the Rabbis of Yavneh and their successors.

Activity Survival Strategies: Values Clarification

Suitable for middle school and older groups

We suggest a values clarification exercise to open up this question.

  • This can be done, in role, as the Rabbis of Yavneh addressed by Yochanan ben Zakai, or it can be done by a madrich/a explaining the situation with no extra role-play.
  • Whoever is introducing the activity should open by explaining the great crisis of the Jewish world after the fall of the Temple.
  • The group is asked to generate a list of suggestions for a new basis of Jewish life. What should Jewish life consist of, now that the great uniting symbols of the Temple in Jerusalem within a Jewish land no longer exist? The aim is to come up with a plan to save the Jewish world.
  • The group should now be given a list of the following fifteen suggestions for Survival Strategies. They should be told that these ideas have been put forward for consideration by the sages. Their task is to hone the ideas into a practical survival plan for the Jewish People.

1. All Jews throughout the world should take a vow to come on regular pilgrimages to Eretz Israel and should be sure to view Jerusalem at least from afar.

2. Jews throughout the world should financially support the Jewish community in Eretz Israel.

3. Jews should develop rituals to remind themselves of the Temple and of Jerusalem.

4. Jews throughout the world should regularly say prayers and sing songs in remembrance of Jerusalem, the Temple and the Land of Israel.

5. All Jews should speak to one another in Hebrew.

6. All Jews should meet on a regular basis to learn Jewish subjects.

7. Jews should develop a ritual and a prayer system that should be standardized throughout the Jewish world.

8. Jews should rigidly develop dietary laws, in order to limit social contact with non-Jewish populations.

9. Jews should dress differently to other people, in order to accentuate the differences between them and non-Jews.

10. Jews should develop a strong system of self help organizations, in order to enable them to rely on each other.

11. Jews should not invest in real estate in any country other than Eretz Yisrael, to remind themselves not to get too attached to their country of residence.

12. Jews should refer to their situation as one of exile from their land, no matter how long they live in different places, so as to make them aware that their stay in their host country is temporary.

13. Jews should be encouraged to live in Jewish communities.

14. All Jews should experience an intensive Jewish education. Education would be something that should continue throughout a person’s life.

15. The home should be developed into an important focus of ritual. Some of the ceremonies of the Temple should be paralleled symbolically, or remembered in the home.

  • In small groups they should be asked to choose the three items that they think are least practical or relevant to a survival plan.
  • They should then explain to the assembly which items they have dropped and why.
  • They are then asked to list the six most important items, and once more present the ideas to the assembly.
  • Following this, they are asked to choose their top three items which they consider absolutely fundamental to their survival plan, and explain them to the assembly.
  • There should now be an attempt to arrive at a broad group consensus over the major three or four items of the rescue plan. It should be stressed that it is vital to try for as broad consensus as possible for the final plan.
  • The results of the exercise should not be compared with the actions of the post-destruction generations’ leadership.

Notes for the educator:

  Generally it can be said that ideas #3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 15 and indirectly at least 13, were important aspects of the system already from Rabbinic times.

It should moreover be explained to the group that many of these items did, in time, become part of the Jewish survival plan. They were not all implemented at once, and some only evolved in the course of many centuries.

The only ones that never really developed at all were ideas #1, 5 and 11, although there were plenty of individuals who at different times supported numbers #1 and 5. Number #11 tended to develop in many areas for totally different reasons; either anti-Jewish laws made it difficult for Jews to own land, or Anti-semitism, plus the understanding that it might be advisable at some point to flee the country at short notice, made Jews reluctant to invest in landed property.

Number 8 was certainly a central platform, but not necessarily in order to discourage socialization, although it certainly had that effect.

Number 9 tended to develop in many places, although not out of an ideology of separation, even if some eventually saw it in those terms.


  - Finally, the question should be asked:

  • Do the group think that it was important to have a substitute central plan develop after the destruction of the physical center?
  • Is it important to have agreed central points that united the Jewish world?
  • What, if anything, unites the Jewish world today?

For younger groups we suggest a similar exercise, but with easier categories such as:

Common language (Hebrew).
Common prayers.
Common traditions.
Life in communities.
Common education program.
Development of synagogue.
Emphasis on Jewish education.
Emphasis on being Jewish in the home.
Emphasis on keeping Shabbat.
Emphasis on keeping kosher.
Emphasis on charity for Jews.

Activity Crisis Solving – Then and Now

Suitable for middle school and older groups

We suggest a discussion on the similarities between the situation of the Jewish world today and the situation after the Destruction. Clearly, there are enormous differences, but there are those who maintain that the Jews are once more experiencing crisis and that they need once again a common agenda similar to the rescue plan that the Yavneh Sanhedrin tried to implement. The group will address this question.

  • The question should be raised:
    • Is the Jewish world in crisis.
    • If so, what is the nature of the crisis?
  • Following this, the old list should be evaluated in small groups.
    • How relevant is that list today?
    • How many, if any, of those issues should be attempted to be implemented in an attempt to deal with contemporary crisis?
  • Now the groups should suggest the basis for a new survival plan. If a Sanhedrin or a similar body were formed that would be accepted as authoritative, in at least large parts of the Jewish world, can the groups suggest guidelines for a program of recommendations?
  • The various suggestions should be brought together and thrashed out to create a group program. The program can aim to address the crisis in the Jewish world as a whole, or the crisis in the home community.
  • If the group is seriously engaged in this debate, extra elements can be incorporated, such as:
  • Inviting major spokespersons from the community to the group to voice their ideas and to listen to the group's suggested program.
  • Attempting to publicize the group’s ideas within the community.
  • Organizing education evenings for parents and others within the community in which the subject of “Crisis Then and Now” could be explored, utilizing the knowledge and ideas gained during this program. Maybe such an evening could be opened with a dramatic portrayal of Yavneh and its Sages.

One resource that should be mentioned is the wonderful novel of life in the Yavneh generation, Like a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg.



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26 Apr 2007 / 8 Iyar 5767 0