JOHANAN BEN ZAKKAI (first century C.E.), tanna, considered in talmudic tradition the leading sage at the end of the Second Temple period and the years immediately following the destruction of the Temple. Johanan b. Zakkai's personality and work are depicted in a blend of fact and legend, neither of which gives information concerning his family or place of origin. Compared to Moses and *Hillel before and to *Akiva after him, Johanan is said to have lived 120 years, divided into three periods: "For 40 years he was in business, 40 years he studied, and 40 years he taught" (Sif. Deut. 357; RH 31b; Sanh. 41a). In the chain of the tradition of the Oral Law it is mentioned in general terms that he received the tradition from Hillel and *Shammai (Avot 2:8). Other statements, however, refer to him only as the pupil of Hillel, although these too contain no direct evidence of any discussions between them. According to a talmudic aggadah (TJ, Ned. 5:6, 39b, TB, Suk. 28a, BB 134a; ARN1 14, ARNb 28), Johanan was the least among Hillel's many pupils, 80 according to some traditions, 160 according to others. Nevertheless, Hillel (according to TJ and ARN2) singled Johanan out on his deathbed, calling him "father of wisdom and father of the generations," and according to another tradition (TB; cf. ARN1) "it was said of him that he did not leave unstudied the Bible and Mishnah, Talmud, halakhah, and aggadah, exegetical details of the Torah and of the Scribes, inferences a minori ad majus and analogies, calendrical computations and gematriot, the speech of the ministering angels, of spirits, and of palm-trees, fullers' parables and fox fables, and any matter great and small, 'great' meaning: ma'aseh merkavah (mystical speculation); 'small' meaning: the discussions of Abbaye and Rava."

Very little is known of Johanan's activity as scholar or teacher in Jerusalem before the destruction. One talmudic aggadah states that for 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple the doors of the heikhal (front part of the Temple building) were locked at night and in the early morning were found open. Johanan b. Zakkai said to it: "Heikhal, why do you agitate us? We know that you will eventually be destroyed, as it is said [Zech. 11:1]: 'Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars'" (TJ, Yoma, 6:3, 43c; TB, Yoma 39b; and see Jos., Wars, 6:293). Another tradition (see Mid. Tan. on Deut. 26:13), tells of his relations with Rabban *Simeon b. Gamaliel, indicating that he occupied a special place among the sages and filled a role – either with or without any particular title – alongside the nasi.

Johanan and the Temple

According to tradition Johanan expounded and taught "in the shadow of the Temple" (TJ, Av. Zar. 3:13, 43b; Pes. 26a), and it may be there that he came into contact with "the sons of highpriests" mentioned in Ket. 13:2. On the other hand Johanan's dispute there with Dosa ben Hyrcanus over the words of "the sons of high priests" may reflect a later stage in the development of this halakhah which occurred after the destruction. Tannaitic sources report a number of explicit disputes between Johanan and the Sadducees. In one, Johanan clashed openly with one of them and was able to give practical expression to the Pharisaic view (Tosef., Par. 3:8; and see Mish., Par. 3:7). The Mishnah also records a controversy between Johanan and the Sadducees on whether the Holy Scriptures "render the hands unclean" (Yad. 4:6). The other accounts of his disputes with them (BB 115b; and see Men. 65a; Meg. Ta'an. 338) are legendary in character. These accounts were apparently composed when the Sadducees had ceased to exist. By his active opposition to them Johanan undoubtedly sought to curtail their influence in the Temple and in its service. He was also opposed to the special privileges which the priests had arrogated to themselves, such as exempting themselves from paying the half shekel. Johanan declared against them: "Any priest who does not pay the shekel is guilty of a sin …" (Shek. 1:4; and see Maimonides' Mishnah commentary, ad loc.). It was however clear to him that the sages were powerless to impose their views fully on the priests (Eduy. 8:3, 7). Nevertheless he may have succeeded in increasing the number of Pharisaic priests who accepted his decisions (see Tosef., Oho. 16:8; Tosef., Par. 10:2) and in influencing their ways and the order of the Temple service.

No information is extant of the regulations issued by Johanan before the destruction of the Temple. The Mishnah (Sot. 9:9) does indeed declare that he discontinued the ceremony of the ordeal of the bitter water which the woman suspected of adultery had to drink, but the passage "Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai discontinued it" was apparently not part of the original Mishnah, he having merely testified to its discontinuance on account of prevailing circumstances, as stated in the Tosefta (Sot. 14:1–2): "R. Johanan b. Zakkai said: With the increase in the number of murderers an end was put to the ceremony of breaking the heifer's neck [Deut. 21:1ff.], for the ceremony of breaking the heifer's neck applies only to a doubtful case, whereas now they murder openly. With the increase in the number of adulterers, an end was put to the ceremony of the bitter water, for the ceremony of the bitter water applies only to a doubtful case, whereas now there have already increased those who are openly guilty of it."

As a Teacher

Johanan's chief activity was directed to spreading the knowledge of the Torah (RH 18a; Yev. 105a); but while regarding its study as the aim of man's life, he warned that this did not justify claiming any credit for oneself: "If you have learnt much Torah, do not ascribe any merit to yourself, since it was for this that you were created" (Avot 2:8). Five of his pupils are mentioned by name: Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, Joshua b. Hananiah, Yose ha-Kohen, Simeon b. Nethanel, and Eleazar b. Arakh (ibid.), but frequently reference is made to his pupils without mentioning their names. He used the dialogue as his method of instruction. He asked questions of his pupils, probed their answers, and praised the correct reply (Avot 2:9). The earliest tannaitic sources describe him as teaching halakhah and aggadah, ethics and the reasons for the commandments, and mysticism as well – ma'aseh bereshit and ma'aseh merkavah (see below). His tendency to base halakhot on biblical texts is evidenced by his fear that "another generation is destined to pronounce clean a loaf that is unclean in the third degree on the ground that no text in the Torah declares it to be unclean" (Sot. 5:2). A baraita (Tosef., BK 7:3ff.) enumerates five things which R. Johanan b. Zakkai interpreted "as a kind of ḥomer," an expression that has not been satisfactorily explained. This baraita contains allegorical interpretations and homilies based on analogy, on an inference from a similarity of biblical phrases, and on a conclusion a minori ad majus. Their common feature is that they give reasons for biblical statements: "Why, of all the organs of his body, was it specifically the ear of the Hebrew servant who, although able to go free after six years' service yet chose to continue serving his master, which was pierced? [Ex. 21:2–6]. Because the ear was the organ that heard at Mt. Sinai 'for unto Me the children of Israel are servants' [Lev. 25:55] but this one elected to serve a human master. Therefore, declares the Bible, let his ear be perforated … The Bible says [Deut. 27:5]: 'And there shalt thou build … an altar of stones; thou shalt lift up no iron tool upon them.' For fashioning the stones of the altar, which symbolizes atonement, iron is not to be used, since from it the sword, symbolizing calamity, is manufactured. If this applies to the altar which makes atonement between Israel and their Father in heaven, by a conclusion a minori ad majus, students of the Torah, who are the atonement of the world, should not be touched by any one of all the harmful agents" (Tosef., BK loc. cit.).

Johanan's method of minutely studying a biblical passage, inquiring into its motivation, and finding the grounds for some detail which he then converts into a universal idea transcending the specific context of the passage, is evident also in his other expositions not designated "as a kind of ḥomer." On the verse (Ex. 21:37: "he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep," he said: "Come and see to what extent God shows consideration for the dignity of human beings. For an ox, which walks with its legs, the thief pays fivefold; for a sheep, since he carries it, he pays only fourfold" (Tosef., BK 7:10; Mekh., ed. Horowitz-Rabin, Nezikin, 12). In later sources mention is made of questions addressed to Johanan in the presence of his pupils by a Roman general who in the main posed problems raised by contradictory biblical passages (see Bek. 5a; TJ, Sanh. 1:7, 19 c–d; Num. R. 4:9). At times Johanan gave him an evasive answer, which failed to satisfy his pupils. On one occasion when "he saw his disciples looking at one another, he said to them, 'You are doubtless surprised that I should have dismissed him with a vague reply …'" (Ḥul. 27b, and see Tos., ad loc.). On another occasion his pupils said to him: "Him you have dismissed with a vague reply, but to us what answer do you give?" (TJ, Sanh. 1:3, 19b). According to another tradition, a certain non-Jew once asked Johanan about the ceremony of the red heifer which "seems like sorcery." In this story, too, it is said that Johanan's answer to the general failed to satisfy his pupils "who, when he left, said, 'Our master, him you have dismissed with a trivial reply. What answer do you give us?' He said to them, 'By your life, a corpse does not defile nor does water make levitically clean, but it is the decree of the Holy One Blessed Be He who declared, I have issued an ordinance and enacted a decree, and you are not permitted to question My decree'" (PdRK 71; Tanh., Ḥukkat, 8).

Johanan is the first sage explicitly mentioned in tannaitic sources as having engaged in mysticism – standing at the head of a chain, as it were, of sages who engaged in the subject, given by Yose b. Judah of the latter half of the second century C.E. (Tosef., Ḥag. 2:2). Recent studies, however, have raised questions about the historical foundations of these traditions. They may have originated in an attempt of later tannaim to use the figure of Eleazar b. Arakh (otherwise largely ignored in tannaitic sources) as a prototype for the "sage who is able to achieve understanding though his own abilities" (Ḥag. 2:1), but nevertheless remains in need of the approval and supervision of his master in order successfully to engage in mystical speculation (Goshen-Gottstein; Wald). Similarly, the traditions concerning the "chain of mystical tradition" may have arisen out of a need to explain Akiva's unique success in the mystical ascent to the pardes (Tosef. Ḥag. 2:3–4), leading the Tosefta to connect Akiva through R. Joshua to an officially sanctioned rabbinic mystical tradition (Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai), to which the other three – all of whom were harmed in one way or another during the mystical ascent – were not privy. All the same, these traditions concerning Johanan's close connection with the origins of tannaitic mysticism are firmly rooted in the earliest sources, and they are progressively expanded and elaborated in later talmudic sources (Neusner, Development of a Legend, 247–52; Wald). Closely connected to these traditions are two statements ascribed to Johanan, the one describing the entrance to Gehinnom (Suk. 32b) and the other the size of the world (Ḥag. 13a; and see Pes. 94 a–b). Only very few of halakhot (Kelim 2:2, 17:16) report Johanan's own wording. Remnants of his teaching have apparently been preserved in tractate Sotah, too, particularly in chapters 8 and 9, in which there are many references to tannaim of the end of the Second Temple period.

Aggadot of the Destruction

Nothing is clearly known concerning Johanan's attitude to the events that took place in Jerusalem during the tempestuous years preceding the destruction of the Second Temple. There is certainly no reason to believe that he belonged to the party of the Zealots. Statements ascribed to him concerning the establishment of peace "between nation and nation, between government and government, between family and family" (Mekh., Ba-Ḥodesh, 11) were certainly intended to promote peace for everyone, even for a heathen in the street (Ber. 17a), this being borne out by his admonition: "Do not be precipitate in tearing down the high places of the non-Jews, that you shall not rebuild them with your hands, that you shall not tear down those of bricks and they will tell you to make them of stones, those of stones and they will tell you to make them of wood" (Mid. Tan. on Deut. 12:2). Johanan may have expected a peaceful issue of the conflict and the preservation of Jerusalem. According to amoraic and post-amoraic tradition, he even worked to this end, and only after becoming convinced that all hope was lost decided to leave the city. This aggadah has been preserved in four versions (ARN1 4, 22–24, ARN2, 19; Lam. R. 1:5, no. 31; Git. 56a–b), in which there are not a few substantial differences and variants. Various editorial interpolations reflecting the spirit of the narrator's outlook can be discerned in the different versions of this story, such as Johanan's prophecy to Vespasian that the latter was destined to become emperor, ascribed by Josephus to himself (Wars, 3:399ff.), as well as the motif emphasizing Johanan's wisdom in the eyes of the non-Jews. All these sources agree that he succeeded in outwitting the extremists, left the besieged city, and arrived at Vespasian's camp, probably in 68 C.E. Scholars have offered radically differing evaluations of the historical reliability of these traditions. Based on an analysis of extra-talmudic evidence, G. Alon rejected much of these traditions, while favoring certain elements – Johanan's requests to the emperor – found only in Lam. R., largely because they fit well with his historical reconstruction. Others hold that the most probable tradition concerning his requests to the emperor is that preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, according to which he asked only that the sages of the generation be saved – Jabneh with its sages, the dynasty of Rabban Gamaliel, and R. Zadok – requests that were personal and circumscribed in character. Another, totally different approach to these traditions was begun with Neusner's groundbreaking synoptic studies in his Development of a Legend (228–34), in which he argued that the version in Lam. R. is literarily dependent on the version in the Babylonian Talmud, thus negating its value as an independent source of reliable historical information. In general, Neusner's literary and synoptic approach has led to a general reevaluation of the use of talmudic aggadah in the writing of history, with the emphasis moving away from the reconstruction of actual concrete events – which are rarely the concern of the later amoraic and post-amoraic aggadah – toward the analysis of the development of talmudic legends themselves and the changing perspectives and agendas of the different later talmudic storytellers. While a recent study has tried to show that the differing versions found in ARN manuscripts preserve a number of relatively early fragmentary traditions (Kister), this in no way affects the evaluation of the historical reliability of these works as a whole.

According to the legend, the destruction of the Temple, which he foresaw, stunned Johanan no less than his contemporaries, and his immediate reaction was one of profound grief: "Rabban Johanan sat and watched in the direction of the wall of Jerusalem to learn what was happening there, even as Eli sat upon his seat by the wayside watching [I Sam. 4:13]. When R. Johanan b. Zakkai saw that the Temple was destroyed and the heikhal burnt, he stood and rent his garments, took off his tefillin, and sat weeping, as did his pupils with him" (ARN2 7, 21). The cessation of the Temple service, one of the three things on which the world is based (Avot 1:2), led to a movement of excessive abstinence (Tosef., Sot. 15:11) and to a despair of the possibility of atoning for sins. Johanan took it upon himself to give guidance to the bewildered: "Once when R. Johanan b. Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem, R. Joshua was walking behind him and saw the Temple in ruins. R. Joshua said, 'Woe is us that this has been destroyed, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel.' 'No, my son, do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is like it? And what is it? It is deeds of love, as it is said [Hos. 6:6]: "For I desire kindness, and not sacrifice"'" (ARN1 4, 21).

According to the aggadah, Johanan ascribed the destruction of the Temple to Israel's failure to perform the will of God; but the aggadists were also witness to the consequences of the Jewish people having been delivered "into the hands of a low people" (Ket. 66b). This led to differing attitudes toward the charitable acts of the non-Jews. Thus, according to one tradition, Johanan said: "Just as the sin and guilt offerings make atonement for Israel, so charity and kindness make atonement for the nations of the world" (BB 10b; see Dik. Sof., ad loc.). But, according to another post-talmudic tradition, Johanan praised his pupil Eleazar b. Arakh's exposition of the verse (Prov. 14:34): "Righteousness exalteth a nation, but the kindness of the peoples is sin," saying to his pupils, "I approve the words of Eleazar b. Arakh rather than yours, for he assigns charity and kindness to Israel and sins to the nations of the world" (PdRK 21). According to this view, after the destruction of the Temple the atonement of sins was denied not to Israel but to those who had destroyed it.

Johanan at Jabneh

According to these traditions, Johanan was not content merely with such expressions of consolation, but took concrete steps toward the renewal of the nation's religious and national leadership by raising the prestige of the bet din at Jabneh. The tannaitic traditions preserve a number of decrees established by Johanan, concerning the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat, the "day of waving," the taking of the lulav outside of the Temple, the acceptance of testimony concerning the new moon (Neusner, Development of a Legend, 206–9). These decrees all reflect the need to bring accepted halakhah in line with the changed circumstances after the destruction of the Temple. However, only one of these decrees is linked explicitly to Jabneh, and then only according to one version of the tradition (RH 4:1). Johanan is mentioned once in the context of a halakhic debate at Jabneh, but he is not explicitly described as playing any official role (Shek. 1:4). On the other hand, the Mishnah (Shab. 16:7; 22:3) quotes two decisions which Johanan gave in Arav in Lower Galilee, and according to the amora Ulla, he lived there for 18 years, during which time these were the only two incidents which came before him – hence the statement ascribed to him complaining of the hatred of the Torah in Galilee (TJ, Shab. 16:7, 15d). Johanan's name is connected in a tannaitic source (Tosef, Ma'as. 2:1) to another location – the village Beror Ḥayil – and a later talmudic tradition (TB, Sanh. 32b) even describes Johanan as having had a "yeshivah" there. All this stands in sharp contrast to Rabban Gamaliel, who is regularly described as playing an official leading role in the bet din at Jabneh (RH 2:8–9; Kelim 5:4; Tosef. Demai 2:6; Tosef. RH 2:11; Tosef. Sanh. 8:1).

These facts have fueled a sharp scholarly debate over the question whether Johanan ever occupied the position of nasi, and if so, whether he was universally recognized or exercised full authority (see Frankel, Brüell, Halevy, Alon, Safrai). A moderate view of events might suggest that Johanan helped to prepare the groundwork for the eventual reestablishment of the office of nasi, under Rabban Gamaliel, who was accorded the recognition due to him as the legitimate heir of that office. The date of Johanan's death is unknown, but the esteem of the generations for his image and work was expressed in the mishnaic statement (Sot. 9:15) that "when R. Johanan b. Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased."

The aggadah of the Bavli provides this moving account of his death: "When he fell ill, his disciples went to visit him. When R. Johanan b. Zakkai saw them, he began to weep. His disciples said to him: 'Light of Israel, pillar of the right hand, mighty hammer! Why do you weep?' He replied: 'If I were being taken today before a human king who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, whose anger – if he is angry with me – does not last forever, who if he imprisons me does not imprison me forever, and who if he puts me to death does not put me to everlasting death, and whom I can persuade with words and bribe with money, even so I would weep. Now that I am being taken before the supreme King of Kings, who lives and endures for ever and ever, whose anger is an everlasting anger, who if He imprisons me imprisons me forever, who if He puts me to death puts me to death forever, and whom I cannot persuade with words or bribe with money – nay more, when there are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom, and l do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep?'" It is possible that the reference to appearing before an earthly king may be connected with his appearance before Vespasian. At the moment of his death, he said to his disciples: "Remove the vessels so that they shall not become unclean, and prepare a throne for Hezekiah the king of Judah who is coming to accompany me into the next world" (Ber. 28b).


J. Neusner, A Life of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai (1962, second revised edition 1970); idem, The Development of a Legend: Studies on the Traditions Concerning Yoḥanan ben Zakkai (1970); Hyman, Toledot, 674–82; Landau, in: MGWJ, 1 (1852), 163–76; Frankel, Mishnah, 66–68; J. Spitz, Rabban Jochanan ben Sakkai (Ger., 1883); A. Schlatter, Jochanan ben Zakkai, der Zeitgenosse der Apostel, in: Beitraege zur Foerderung christlicher Theologie, 24 (1899; = Synagoge und Kirche bis zum Barkochba-Aufstand (1966), 175–236); Halevy, Dorot, 1 pt. 5 (1923), 41–71; Blau, in: MGWJ, 43 (1899), 548–61; Bacher, Tann; A. Buechler, in: Tanulmányok Blau L. (1938), 157–69 (Heb. pt.; = Studies in Jewish History (1956), 1–14 (Heb. pt.); Alon, Toledot, 1 (19593), 53–71; Alon, Meḥkarim, 1 (1957), 219–73; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1969), index; idem, in: Zion, 16 (1951), pt. 3–4, 1–7; idem, in: Behinot, 4 (1953), 62–66; Epstein, Tannaim, 40–43, 400–3; Daube, in: JTS, 11 (1960), 53–62; Halevy, in: Molad, 21 (1963), 215–8; Y. Gilat, Mishnato shel R. Eliezer b. Horkanos (1968), 317–20; I. Konovitz, Ma'arakhot Tanna'im, 3 (1968), 80–97. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Safrai, in: Z. Baras, S. Safrai, M. Stern, Y. Tsafrir (eds.), Ereẓ Israel from the Destruction of the Second Temple to the Moslem Conquest (Hebrew), vol. 1 (1982), 18–30; M. Kister, in : Tarbiz, 67 (1998), 483–529; A. Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac (2000), 233–65; S. Wald. "The Mystical Discourse of R. Eleazar ben Arach" (Hebrew), in: JSIJ (forthcoming).

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica /

Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]

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