By January 15, 2008 Read More →

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a-b: The Rabbinic Account of the Siege

Destruction and Sack of JerusalemThe Babylonian Talmud includes a long account of the siege which emphasizes the difficult conditions of the majority of the people and which claims Rabbinic opposition to the revolt. This passage also tells the story of the escape of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the transfer of the seat of Rabbinic leadership to Yavneh after the debacle.

[Bar Kamza] went and said to Caesar, “The Jews have rebelled against you.”

[Caesar] said to him, “How can I tell?”

[Bar Kamza] said to him, “Send a sacrifice to them and see whether they offer it.”

[Caesar] sent a young calf with [Bar Kamza]. While on the way, [Bar Kamza] made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say, on the white of its eye, in a place which is considered a blemish to [the Jews], but not to [the Romans].

The Rabbis considered sacrificing it for political peace, (but) Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas said, “They will say that blemished animals may be slaughtered on the altar.” They considered killing [Bar Kamza] so that he not go and inform, (but) Rabbi Zechariah said to them, “They will say that one who blemishes a consecrated animal shall be

Rabbi Yohanan said, “The discretion of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burned our Temple, and exiled us from our Land.”

He sent Vespasian Caesar against them. He came and besieged [Jerusalem] for three years. There were three rich men there…. These men had enough to feed [Jerusalem] for twenty-one years.

There were among them those rebels. The Rabbis said to them, “Let us go out and make peace with them [the Romans].” [The rebels] would not allow them.

[The rebels] said to [the Rabbis], “Let us go out and make war against them.”

The Rabbis said to them, “It will not succeed [for lack ofdivine support].”

They [the rebels] arose and burned the provisions of wheat and barley, and there was famine.

Martha the daughter of Boethus was one of the rich women of Jerusalem. She sent her servant, saying to him, “Go and bring me some fine flour.”

While he was on his way [to the market], it [the fine flour] was bought up.

He [the servant] said to her [Martha], “They have no fine flour; they have white flour.”

She said to him, “Go bring me [white flour].”

While he was on his way [to the market], it [the white flour] was bought up.

He said to her, “They have no white flour; they have dark flour.”

She said to him, “Go bring me [dark flour].”

While he was on his way [to the market], it [the dark flour] was bought up.

He said, “They have no dark flour, theyhave barley flour.”

She said to him, “Go bring me [barley flour].”

While he was on his way [to the market], it [the barley flour] was bought up. Although she had taken off her shoes, she said, “I will go out and see if I can find something to eat.” Some excrement stuck to her foot and she died.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai applied the verse to her- “The gentlest woman among you and the most delicate who has not ventured to set a foot upon the ground” (Deut. 28-56).

There are those who say that she ate a fig left by Rabbi Zadok and she became sick and died. For Rabbi Zadok sat forty years in fasting, so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. when he used to eat something, the food could be seen [passing through his throat]. When he wanted to restore himself, they would bring him a fig; he would suck
out the juice and throw the rest away.

When Martha was about to die, she took out all her gold and silver and threw it down in the marketplace. She said, “Why do I need these?”

And this is as is written, “Their silver they will throw in the streets” (Ezek.7-19).

Abba Sikara, the head of the rebels of Jerusalem, was the nephew of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] sent for him [saying,] “Come secretly to me.”

He [Abba Sikara] came [to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] who said to him, “Until when will you do this, killing everybody with famine?”

He [Abba Sikara] said to him- “What should I do? For if I say anything to them, they will kill me.” 37

He [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to him, “Devise a plan for me that I may go out; maybe there could at least be a small [chance for] salvation.”

[Abba Sikara] said to him- “Let it be known that you are deathly ill and everybody will come to ask about you. Take a stinking object and keep it by you, so that they will say that you have died. 38 Let your students bear you, and let no other man bear you so that none may sense how light you are, for they [the rebels] know that a live man is lighter
than a dead one.”

[Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] did so. Rabbi Eleazar carried him on one side and Rabbi Joshua on the other side. When they came to the city entrance, [the rebel guards] wanted to pierce the [body to ensure that he was dead].

[Abba Sikara] said to them, “[The Romans] will say that [the rebels even] pierced their [own] Rabbi!”

They wanted to push him [to see if he would cry out].

[Abba Sikara] said to them, “[The Romans] will say that they pushed their [own] Rabbi!” [The guards] opened the gate and they went out.

When [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] arrived [at the Roman camp], he said, “Peace unto you, King; Peace unto you, King!”

[Vespasian] said to him, “You are twice guilty of a capital crime. Once, because I am not a king and you called me king. And further, because if I am a king, why did you not come to me until now?”

[Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to [Vespasian], “That which you have said, ‘I am not a king- certainly you are a king! If you were not a king, Jerusalem would not have been given into your hands. For it is written, ‘And Lebanon by a mighty one will fall’ (Is. 10-34). ‘A mighty one’ is none other than a king, for it is written, ‘their mighty one shall be of themselves [and its ruler shall go out from its midst]’ (Jer. 30-21). And Lebanon is none other than the Temple, for it is said, ‘This good mountain and the Lebanon’ (Deut 3-25). And as to what you have said, ‘If I am a king why did you not come to me until now?’ Until now, the rebels among us would not permit it.”

[Vespasian] said to [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai], “If there is a jug of honey and a serpent is coiled upon it, do they not break the jug in order to kill the snake?” 39

[Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] was silent.Rabbi Joseph, and some say Rabbi Akiva, applied this verse to him- “He sends sages backward and confuses their minds” (Is. 44-25). [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] should have said, “We take tongs and grip the snake and kill it, and the jug we may retain for ourselves.”

Meanwhile, a messenger came to him [Vespasian] from Rome. He said to him, “Rise, because Caesar has died and the prominent men of Rome have decided to seat you at their head [as the new Caesar]….” 40

[Vespasian] said to him, “And now that you are so smart, why did you not come to see me until now?”

[Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to him, “Did I not tell you?” [Vespasian] said to him, “I also answered you.” 41

[Vespasian] said, “I will go and send someone to take my place. But ask something of me that I may grant it to you.”

[Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to him, “Give me Yavneh 42 and its sages, the chain of Rabban Gamliel, 43 and doctors to cure Rabbi Zadok.” 44

Rabbi Joseph, and some say Rabbi Akiva, applied this verse to him- “He sends sages backward and confuses their minds” (Is. 44-25). He should have asked that [Jerusalem] be left alone this once. But [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai must have] thought, “Lest all this not be granted and then there may not be even a small [chance for] salvation….”

[Vespasian the king] sent for Titus. “He will say, ‘Where is their God, the rock upon whom they relied?’” (Deut. 32-37). 45 This is the wicked Titus who blasphemed and profaned Heaven. What did he do? He grabbed a harlot by the hand and he went into the Holy of Holies [of the Temple] and spread out a Torah scroll and performed a sinful act upon it. Then he drew a sword and pierced the curtain [of the ark]. A miracle occurred, and blood spurted out, and he thought he had killed [the Deity] himself…. [Then] what did he do? He took the curtain and made it into a sort of basket and he brought all the vessels in the Temple and put them into it, and he put them on a ship to go and celebrate a triumph in his city [Rome].

36. Trans. S. Berrin.

37. His rebel followers would kill even their leader if they suspected him of moving toward conciliation.

38. Believing the stench to come from your corpse

39. Indicating that he must destroy Jerusalem to conquer the rebels inside it.

40. Actually, upon the death of the emperor Nero in 68 C.E., Vespasian halted his campaign in Judea. Then a succession of short-term emperors attempted unsuccessfully to take control. At the advice of the Roman governors of Syria and Egypt, Vespasian was made emperor in July of 69 by the legions of Syria, Egypt, and Judea. The Senate then recognized him as emperor.

41. “I already told you what I have to say, namely that we have no choice but to destroy Jerusalem.”

42. Yavneh, on the Mediterranean coast, was already the seat of a group of sages, and Rabbi Yohanan asked that it be preserved.

43. The dynasty of the patriarchate, the line of the descendants of Hillel who, according to tradition, headed the Rabbinic Sanhedrin.

44. From the fasting he had done for the sake of Jerusalem.

45. The Rabbis understood “he will say…” to refer to Titus who was so irreverent of God.

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