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Notes from the Marom Beit Midrash

Founding Myths of the Jewish Diaspora

Founding myths of the Jewish diaspora. Not just the history, but how we tell it tells us about how we regard ourselves.

Significant dates:

  • 587 BCE Babylonian/Persian exile
  • 37 BCE: Loss of sovereignty under Herod [sold out to the Romans]
  • 70 CE Destruction of the Second Temple and exile from Israel
  • 135 End of the Bar-Kochba Revolt. [Which the Romans put down bloodily, and deported thousands of Jews from Judaea as slaves.] This is a date we don't talk about, but in many ways it was more significant: it was the beginning of the time the Jews were not a majority in Israel. (Plus they got kicked out of Jerusalem.) There was no longer a Jewish homeland.

Which is the most significant depends how you define diaspora. Which date you choose has an effect on what you consider by "diaspora". Consider also the terms: here "diaspora"; in Israel, גלות [exile].

The "Hatikva"'s two-thousand-year hope refers to the Destruction of the Temple.

Attitudes to the Destruction

I no longer have the handout, so can't say where these texts came from:

I am the woman who has seen the fall of my people
Who were robbed and slaughtered before the Romans.

Our temple has been burned, the desire of our heart has been destroyed
Our children have died of starvation, our husbands taken captive.

Judah is gone into exile because of affliction,
And because of great servitude;
She dwelleth among the nations,
She findeth no rest
All her pursuers
Overtook her within the straits

Jerusalem hath grieviously sinned,
Therefore she is became as one unclean;
all that honoured her despise her,
Because they have seen her nakedness;
She herself also sigheth,
And turneth backwards.


I will tell you what the sin was. From my mouth you will hear the extent of our shame. The women of Jerusalem licked the boots of the Romans in envy. The best of our youth desired that which was Roman. For this I am in despair.

Kamza and bar Kamza destroyed Jerusalem—for the hatred and the divisiveness among brothers, "Would anyone believe that fellow Jews would burn each other's homes and the food of their brothers, [possibly I lost a bit here?]

I have seen this
I myself have witnessed this,
How the Sicarii burned the storehouses of food of the moderates.*
I too love Zion as you, but how can you be victorious against such a strong army if you spend your time fighting each other.

Have you heard about this foolish people, which kills its own brother,

Do you believe that in our time of crisis not one leader was found but many men each leading his own group.

This was our shame. That is why so many lost faith and surrendered to the Romans."

* So the people would be forced to fight the Romans, during the siege of Jerusalem. (This was after they'd already killed the moderate government, who had wanted to make back up with the Romans.


The Apocalypse of Ezra (an Apocryphal book), vision 4, chap. 10:20-22:

Be consoled by Zion's sorrow
Take comfort from Jerusalem's grief
Here thou seest—
Our Temple laid waste
Our altar destroyed
Our Sanctuary despoiled
Our services halted
Our psalms silenced
Our Sovereignty ended
Our harp laid low.
Gone is the light of our Lamp,
Our sacred places are polluted
the Holy name profaned.
Our novles are dishonoured
Our priests consumed by fire
Our Levites in bondage
Our maidens defiled
Our wives ravished.
Our Seers have been seized
Our Prophets scattered
Our youths enslaved—
Our mighty men enfeebled.

This is in the style of the Book of Lamentations.


From the Apocalypse of Baruch (written in Syriac), 9:6-16:

That man is blessed who has not been born,
Or he who, having been born, has already died.
But as for us who live—woe unto us!
For we witness the afflictions of Zion,
And see what has befallen Jerusalem...
Ye husbandmen, sow no more!
Thou earth, why yield the fruit of thy harvest?
Hold back thy sustaining crops!
And thou, o vine, why does thou keep giving wine
Seeing that there will be no more libations in Zion
Nor will first-fruits again be offered? ...
And you, o bridegrooms, enter not the bridal chamber;
Let brides not adorn themselves with garlands.
Ye wives, pray not to give birth,
For the barren shall rejoice more than you.
Why give birth in sadness
Then bury with sighs?
Desolate is Mother Zion:
Her sons are taken captive

Concerning the time of the destruction: We today don't think enough of what it means for everything that gives you identity to be destroyed.

The State of Israel played an important role in bringing the Jewish people out of depression after the Holocaust: it gave meaning to a history that had no meaning. (Even today, though, the Lubavitch can't face up to working in Poland.)

Nothing similar happpened after the destruction of the Second Temple.

There were eleven possible reactions to the destruction of the Second Temple:

  • Accept the Roman rule in Judaea.
  • Strengthen their resistance to Rome.
  • Give up being Jewish through depression.
  • Go over to the competitors and become Christian.
  • Become Hellenised.
  • Trends towards mysticism.
  • Ascesticism.
  • Messianic movement.
  • Weaking of messianic movement.
  • Migration from Israel.
  • Severing of ties with Israel.

All of these things happened, and the Jewish world went into freefall.


Tosefta Sofa 15:11-15

When the Temple was destroyed, many Jews became ascetics; they would neither eat meat nor drink wine. R. Joshua got into conversation with them. Said he: "My sons, why do you not eat meat?" They replied: "Shall we eat meat, which used to be brought as a daily offering on the altar, but is now no more?" Said he: "Why do you drink no wine?" They replied: "Shall we drink wine, which used to be poured on the altar as a libation, but is now no more?" Then he said to them, "In that case, we should not eat figs or grapes either, since we used to bring them as offerings of first fruits on the festivals; nor should we eat bread, from which we used to offer the two loaves and the showbread. We should not drink water, from which we used to pour a libation on the Feast of Tabernacles." They were silent. He said to them: "Not to mourn at all is impossible, for the blow has fallen. But to mourn too much is also impossible. Therefore, this is what the Sages advise: Let a man whitewash his house, but let him leave a small space bare, in memory of Jerusalem... For it is written; 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem' [Ps. 137:5]... Furthermore, whoever mourns for Jerusalem will have the privilege of seeing her in her joy, for it is written: Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her." [Isa 66:10]

The Tosefta is struggling in a halachic sense: R. Joshua said we can continue to live. Now, how can we continue to live?

Even today, many strictly Orthodox Jews today leave a foot square of their house unpainted in a noticeable place in their hall in memory of Jerusalem.

Historical assessment.

(Taken from G. Alon, The Jew in Their Land in the Talmudic Era, p.29 [in the original Hebrew.])

After he foresaw the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan wanted to save his nation and the the Torah, and to establish a spiritual centre which would ensure the continued existence of the people of Israel after their political independence ceased to exist, Therefore, he approached Vespasian, and requested permission to revive the downtrodden Jewish people by means of a spiritual and learning centre at Yavneh. This would take the place of the Temple and the Sanhedrin, as well as to cure the nation and to unite it through Torah and Mitzvot.

Caesar's victory in destroying the Temple actually led to the Jewish people's victory by enabling them to build a spiritual and learning centre at Yavneh. Caesar, by granting R. Yochanan his modest request was unaware of the fact that he was actually ensuring the future survival of the Jewish people, which lasted well after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

In R. Yochanan ben Zakkai's Yavneh, there were not many rabbis who were survivors from the destroyed city of Jerusalem. These rabbis came to Yavneh much later. Even most of his close students did not follow R. Yochanan ben Zakkai to Yavneh. In fact, only two of these close students accompanied him, R. Joshua and R. Eliezer. One can assume that many sages never came to terms with R. Yochanan's departure from Jerusalem when under siege, and his cooperation with the Roman enemy. In fact, many of his students and other scholars were counted among those who resisted the Romans, along with the Zealots.

R. Yochanan acted as he did not because he wanted to, but because he felt they had to be done.

But what was it he actually did?

Midrash Lamentations Rabbah ch.1 / Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a-b:

Abba Sikra, the head of the Zealots in Jerusalem, was the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's sister. Ben Zakkai sent to him a letter saying, "Come to visit me privately." When he came Ben Zakkai said to him: "How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation?" Abba Sikra replied: "What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me."

Ben Zakkai then said to him, "Devise some plan for me to escape."

So Abba Sikra told Ben Zakkai, "Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to ask how you're doing. Put something that smells bad by you, so people will say that you're dead. Then let your students get under your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse."


When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he said: "Peace to you, O King."

Vespasian said to him, "Your life is in danger for two reasons, one because I am not a king and you call me king, and again, if I am king, why did you not come to me before now?" Ben Zakkai replied, "As for your saying that you are not a king, in truth you are a king, since if you are not a king, Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hand*. As for your question, why if you are a king, I did not come to you until now, the answer is that the Zealots among us did not let me"...

Vespasian then said to Ben Zakkai, "You can make a request of me then, and I will grant it." Ben Zakkai thus said, "Give me Yavneh and its scholars, and let me start a school there..."

* R. Yochanan was playing up to a folk-prophecy going around that Vespasian would become Emperor. This no doubt helped present him in a good light to Vespasian, particularly since he did indeed go on to become Emperor shortly thereafter.

* A brief linguistic aside: In the Hebrew the name Vespasian is represented as אספסינוס "Espasianos". I'd guess this is because Hebrew couldn't handle the /w/ sound in "Vespasianus" (as it was pronounced in Classical Latin)... even though Hebrew at an earlier period had possessed a /w/ sound itself. This amuses me, as it forms a mirror of what happened a few centuries later, where the Arabs, unable to handle the /v/ sound in "Vandalicia", rendered the name Al-Āndalus (the origin of the modern "Andalucia"), despite the fact the original language, Spanish, had ancestrally possessed the /w/ sound in its Latin days.

So, did he betray Jerusalem... or did he plant the seeds for the future?

Rabban Gamliel II (rabban = head of the Beth Din [court of Jewish law]) disappeared in Jerusalem at the time of the Destruction. He led the revolt against the Romans, so had to go into hiding at the time.

What this said to the people is that a real leader of the Jews stands up and fights against the Romans, to the last man.

Eventually Rabban Gamliel reappeared, turned up in Yavneh, and said, effectively, to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, "Excuse me, you're sitting in my seat." R. Yochanan ben Zakkai ups and leaves, and that's the last we ever hear of him.

But he left behind all the institutions we need today to live as Jews without the Temple.

This story was written by the descendants of the rabbinical schools he founded. They don't praise him as a founder; the story above is full of ambivalence towards him.

[I, personally, am astonished that it was the leader of the Zealots who had the idea of smuggling R. Yochanan out... but of course this was written by the later rabbis. We don't know Abba Sikra really said this; quite possibly the words were put into his mouth.]

Note that they do not say that R. Yochanan went to the rabbis either...

The Regulations issued by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:1:

When the holy day of Rosh Hashanah fell on the Sabbath, they used to sound the Shofar in the Temple, but not in the country at large. After the Temple had been destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai ruled that the Shofar was to be sounded wherever there was a Beit Din.

Said Rabbi Eliezer, "That ruling of Rabban Yochanan was meant to apply only to Yavneh." The other sages said to him, "No, it was meant for Yavneh, and for any other place in which there is a Beit Din."

I.e. he is saying here, we don't need the Temple. The Beit Din fulfils the function of the Temple.

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:4:

Originally, testimony about the new moon was accepted at any time during the day. But, on one occasion, the witnesses were late in arriving, and the Levites were confused and did not known whether or not they should sing the Psalm for the evening sacrifice. It was therefore ordained that testimony should be accepted only up to the hour of the afternoon sacrifice; if a witness arrived after that time, both that day and the next day should be treated as holy days. However, after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai ordained that testimony with respect to the new moon should be received throughout that day.

Said Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha: "Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai also ruled that, wherever the Head of the Beit Din might be, witnesses do not go to him but only to the place of the Assembly."

This is why Rosh Hashana became accepted as a two day festival even before the other festivals were.

Here he's telling people there is no Temple. Some of the things you have to do replace the Temple, but in other respects Yavneh can't substitute, and you have to get people used to the reality that there is no Temple. The Nasi [prince] is not the Cohen Gadol [High Priest]. And as regards not approaching the Head of the Beit Din, the Beit Din is an institution; people come to the institution, not the person.

Mishna Rosh Hashanah 4:3:

Originally, the lulav was taken in hand on all seven days [of Succot] only in the Temple; in the country at large, however, on one day alone. After the Temple had been destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai ordained that it should be waved for seven days throughout the country, as a memorial to the Temple.

If the only message is that there is no Temple any more, the Temple will be forgotten. In a way the whole world now becomes in memory of the Temple—the whitewash and the patches all over again.

Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31b:

A person who becomes converted to Judaism at the present time must still set aside a quarter of a shekel for his offering of a pair of pigeons. Said R. Shimon ben Eleazar, "Rabban Yochanan put the matter to a vote and the practice was annulled because it could lead to wrongdoing."

Because the money is now הקדש (hekdesh, sanctified); if it is used for any other person, he becomes liable for מעילה me'ilah which is abuse of Temple funds.

By annulling this practice, R. Yochanan is saying the Temple is not going to be coming back any time soon. This is a long-term thing. From his point of view these innovations are not an opportunity but a necessity.

Founding myths of Babylonia

Following the Bar Kochba revolt, the centre of world Jewry moved from Yavne to Tsepphoria, and thence to Sura and Pumbeditha* in Babylon. [In the Second Temple period there had always been more Jews living in Babylonia than in Israel; only a minority returned from the Babylonian exile.] Babylonia regarded themselves as better than Israel, and vice versa. But the Exilarch in Babylonia had a better Davidic pedigree than the Nasi in Israel!

* (From those it later moved to Baghdad; by the mumbleth century both the great Yeshivas of Sura and Pumbeditha had relocated to Baghdad—a situation as if both Oxfnord and Cambridge had moved to London!)

Character of R. Jonathan ben Zakkai

"He never spoke an idle word; he never walked 14 yards without fourteen yards without teaching Torah... He was always the last to leave the House of Study, and no one ever found him engaged in anything but study."

—BT, Sukkot 28a

Rabbi Hillel, before he died, prophesied that R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, then his youngest student, would become "the father of wisdom and the father of coming generation."

—PT Nedarim 39b

"He sat at the Temple and lectured all day."

—BT Pesachim 26a

R. Yochanan's school was called "The Great House."

—PT Megilla 73b

When R. Yochanan ben Zakkai died, the glory of wisdom was lost.

—BT Sota 49

Once, R. Yochanan was leaving Jerusalem, followed by R. Joshua. He saw the Temple burning in flames. R. Joshua said, "My G-d, the palce at which we are atoned for our sins is burning down." R. Yochanan replied, "Don't despair. We have another type of atonement—and this is the doing of good deeds. As it says in the book of the prophet (Hosea 6:6) 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'"

Jewish learning notes index


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