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June 23: Vespasian and Yohanan ben Zakai

June 23, 2014
Sestertius_-_Vespasiano_-_Iudaea_Capta-RIC_0424The Roman General Vespasian, who ruled Rome from 69 to 79 CE and subjugated Judea during the Jewish uprising in 66, died on this date in 79. It was Vespasian who, while besieging Jerusalem, gave permission to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, who had been smuggled out of the city in a coffin, to establish a center for Jewish learning at Yavne. This became a key academy for the preservation (and transformation) of Judaism after Jerusalem was destroyed. According to the Talmud (Gittin 56a-b), at the start of their encounter, Rabbi Yohanan incorrectly but deliberately addressed Vespasian as “king” — and within minutes, a messenger arrived announcing that the emperor in Rome had died and Vespasian had been elevated to rule. Impressed by the rabbi’s apparent gift for prophecy, Vespasian granted three requests: “Give me Yavneh and its wise men,” said Yohanan, “and the family... of Rabban Gamaliel, and physicians to heal Rabbi Zadok.” The account continues: “Rabbi Joseph, or some say Rabbi Akiba, applied to [Yohanan] the verse, ‘[God] turneth wise men backward and maketh their knowledge foolish’” because Yohanan ought to have asked for clemency for all the Jews. Ben Zakai, however, “thought that so much [Vespasian] would not grant, and so even a little would not be saved.” Vespasian was the patron of Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader who became a Roman citizen and historian, and whose writings are the main historical source of information about Rome’s wars with the Jews to this day. “As for your saying you are not a king, in truth you are a king, since if you were not a king Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hand...” —Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, in Gittin 56b.