Friday, January 06, 2012

Yohanan Ben Zakkai and some Sephardic synagogues

RABBI YOHANAN BEN ZAKKAI serves as the launching point for a Jerusalem Post Travel piece on Sephardic synagogues in Jerusalem.
Off the Beaten Track: Yochanan Ben Zakkai

01/05/2012 14:58

Travel expert Joe Yudin discusses link between famous Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Four Sephardic Synagogues of J'lem.
Here's the supposed connection:
... in 1877, Bernhard Neumann wrote:

"The Sephardi synagogues are wrapped in an aura of antiquity and all who enter their underground rooms feel a sense of mystery and holiness. The present synagogue, Kahal Zion, was founded by the Sephardim in what was believed to have been the study hall of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, before the destruction of the Temple…Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt allowed them to renovate the building; this work was completed in 1845. It was then that an inscribed stone was discovered that proved the building to be 460 years old…"
Be that as it may, the article also retells one of the best-known and most entertaining stories about R. Yohanan:
Perhaps Yohannan ben Zakkai's greatest contribution to the Jewish people lies in the Talmudic story of the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish War was raging in the year 69 C.E. and the Jewish rebels had holed themselves up on the Temple Mount. The Romans were ravaging their way through the Land of Israel and Jerusalem was all but lost. Vespasian and his Tenth Legion would surely breakthrough to the Temple courts at any day. Yohanan ben Zakkai did what no other rabbi dared to do. In defiance of the rebels orders he knew that he must get off the Temple Mount with his disciples in order to continue the study of Torah. He played dead and his students wrapped him in a burial shroud and smuggled him out of the Temple complex, through a cemetery and straight to the camp of the Roman general Vespasian. Ben Zakkai was known to Vespasian as a man of great influence who had tried to discourage the war to no avail. He addressed Vespasian as "king" twice. As Nero was king, Vespasian believed the rabbi was just trying to butter him up, and he had Ben Zakkai locked up in the darkest of solitary confinement awaiting a death sentence. Three days later the news arrived that Nero was dead and Vespasian had indeed become king. Vespasian as a reward for his prophecy would grant the rabbi any wish. His wish was to allow the other great rabbis on the Temple Mount to join him and his disciples in Yavne, and to set up a yeshiva to keep the flame of Torah study alive, and with that he changed Judaism forever.
It's a good story, but perhaps one to be taken with a grain of salt, especially given that the contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus claims to have made exactly the same prophecy to Vespasian when Josephus was a prisoner of the Romans, with a not disssimilar result:
When Josephus heard him give those orders, he said that he had somewhat in his mind that he would willingly say to himself alone. When therefore they were all ordered to withdraw, excepting Titus and two of their friends, he said, "Thou, O Vespasian, thinkest no more than that thou hast taken Josephus himself captive; but I come to thee as a messenger of greater tidings; for had not I been sent by God to thee, I knew what was the law of the Jews in this case? (5) and how it becomes generals to die. Dost thou send me to Nero? For why? Are Nero's successors till they come to thee still alive? Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and emperor, thou, and this thy son. Bind me now still faster, and keep me for thyself, for thou, O Caesar, are not only lord over me, but over the land and the sea, and all mankind; and certainly I deserve to be kept in closer custody than I now am in, in order to be punished, if I rashly affirm any thing of God." When he had said this, Vespasian at present did not believe him, but supposed that Josephus said this as a cunning trick, in order to his own preservation; but in a little time he was convinced, and believed what he said to be true, God himself erecting his expectations, so as to think of obtaining the empire, and by other signs fore-showing his advancement. He also found Josephus to have spoken truth on other occasions; for one of those friends that were present at that secret conference said to Josephus, "I cannot but wonder how thou couldst not foretell to the people of Jotapata that they should be taken, nor couldst foretell this captivity which hath happened to thyself, unless what thou now sayest be a vain thing, in order to avoid the rage that is risen against thyself." To which Josephus replied, "I did foretell to the people of Jotapata that they would be taken on the forty-seventh day, and that I should be caught alive by the Romans." Now when Vespasian had inquired of the captives privately about these predictions, he found them to be true, and then he began to believe those that concerned himself. Yet did he not set Josephus at liberty from his hands, but bestowed on him suits of clothes, and other precious gifts; he treated him also in a very obliging manner, and continued so to do, Titus still joining his interest ill the honors that were done him. (Jewish War iii.8.9/iii.399-405, Whiston translation)
The Roman historian Suetonius also refers briefly to the same story with Josephus as the protagonist:
When he [Vespasian] consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished, however great it might be, would come to pass; and one of his highborn prisoners, Josephus by name, as he was being put in chains, declared most confidently that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then, however, be emperor. (Vespasian 5)