The Jewish teacher Johanan ben Zakkai (active ca. A.D. 70) was the leading expounder of Jewish law of his time. He founded an important academy at Yavneh.
Johanan ben Zakkai was the youngest among the numerous disciples of the great Hillel and also of Hillel's opponent Shammai. It therefore appears that Johanan was born about 15 B.C. He evidently lived to a ripe old age, for he survived the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Tradition speaks of his span of life as 120 years. His brilliant mind and diligence enabled him to become conversant with every field of Jewish learning.
Johanan ben Zakkai was a member of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the assembly of 71 ordained scholars that functioned both as supreme court and as a legislature. In that body, Johanan, a Pharisee, often debated his Sadducean colleagues on issues of Jewish law. While in Jerusalem, he also presided over an important yeshiva. Johanan foresaw that the Jews could not be victorious in their desperate struggle against Rome; he was determined, however, that Judaism should not perish even if the Jewish state and the Temple were destroyed.
While Jerusalem was under siege, Johanan was unable to receive permission to leave the city. He therefore had his pupils carry him out of Jerusalem in a coffin, presumably for burial. Once outside the city, Johanan went to see Vespasian and asked the Roman general to spare the town of Yavneh on the Mediterranean coast, together with its scholars. According to a Talmudic tradition, Johanan predicted to Vespasian that he would soon be chosen emperor, and when this came true, Vespasian granted the rabbi his requests. This was a turning point in Jewish history, for in this unimportant town of Yavneh, Johanan established an academy that had immense influence.
Johanan was not formally designated as Nasi, prince or head of the Sanhedrin, probably because he was not a descendant of Hillel or of Davidic stock, as Hillel was. He nonetheless assumed the duties of this office and the title of Rabban, meaning "our master," which was commonly attached to the rank of Nasi. Yavneh replaced Jerusalem as the new seat of a reconstituted Sanhedrin, which reestablished its authority and became a means of reuniting Jewry.
With the Temple gone, a substitute was necessary for the sacrificial cult. The aged Johanan suggested that the Temple worship be replaced by benevolent deeds; under his influence, the synagogue and house of study replaced the Temple. The important principle was thus established that Judaism does not depend for its existence on land or sanctuary but rather on the preservation of the Jewish spiritual heritage—the Torah and its teachings. This principle played a vital role in the survival of Judaism in the Diaspora.
True to the ideals of his master Hillel, Rabban Johanan advocated peace among men and nations. He was scrupulously ethical in all his dealings and behavior. He taught that the best character attribute a man could possess is a good heart, which he believed included all other virtues. His lofty attitudes and doctrines made Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai the most revered teacher of his times.
Further Reading on Johanan ben Zakkai
Jacob Neusner, A Life of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai (1960), is a good general study with a bibliography. The sage and his work are discussed in "Disciples of the Wise" in Louis Ginsberg, Students, Scholars and Saints (repr. 1945). A good sketch of Johanan ben Zakkai's work at Yavneh is in chapter 7 in George Foote Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. 1 (1927). A historical account is in Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. 2, translated by Henrietta Szold (repr. 1940).