Bar Kokhba LetterExcerpted from Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism- a Parallel History of their Origins and Early Development. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1993.

Aftermath of the destruction of the Temple

The 60-year period between the first Jewish revolt against Rome (66–74 C.E.) and the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 C.E.) was one of the most remarkable and complex in Jewish history. It was a time of defeat and rebuilding, of continued confrontation and conflict alongside major efforts toward adaptation and adjustment. Some Jews refused to abandon hope for national redemption and actively engaged in planning a military-political option; others sought a religious and communalmodus vivendi with Rome and within the Jewish community generally. Major segments of the old guard had been obliterated; new directions began to emerge that would eventually dominate Jewish religious and communal life for centuries, even millennia.

Undoubtedly, Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora were traumatized by the news of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. True, a similar catastrophe had occurred with the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., but the Jews had then managed to return to Jerusalem and restore the Temple—a memory which was perhaps comforting and encouraging. Nevertheless, the Second Temple had stood for almost 600 years and had acquired enormous prestige and centrality for Jews the world over; its loss was surely a shock.

Both Jewish and Christian traditions have emphasized the extent of this tragedy, each for its own theological reasons. The destruction of the Temple in later Jewish tradition signaled the beginning of exile, which was God’s punishment for the sins of the people (“Because of our sins we have been exiled from our land”—from the traditional Musaf service for the festivals). 1 For Christians, the destruction of the Temple signified punishment the Jews deserved because of their refusal to accept Jesus and because of their alleged role in his crucifixion; it was the ultimate sign of God’s rejection of the Jews.

However, theological considerations aside, the objective reality for the Jewish people following the destruction of 70 was far more complex. Indeed, much of Jewish life lay shattered- Jerusalem was totally destroyed; only the three great towers that had once guarded Herod’s palace and remnants of the western city wall remained intact. 2 The Temple had been razed and the city’s population massacred or exiled. The high priesthood and Jerusalem’s aristocratic class, which had dominated Jewish religious and political life for much of the Second Temple period, all but disappeared. Judea had dared rebel against mighty Rome; having failed, she paid the heavy price of revolt.

Many of the Jewish sects that had played a central role in Jewish religious life during the first century disappeared- The Sadducees, centered around the Jerusalem priesthood in the days of the Temple, lost their base of political and religious authority; the Essene center at Qumran 3 was destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E.; members of the various pre-70 revolutionary movements (Sicarii, Zealots, followers of John of Gischala and Simon Giora) either were killed, taken captive, fled to North Africa or went underground. Nevertheless, it is easy to overstate the effects of the year 70. Contrary to popular opinion, the exile did not commence in that year—most Jews were already living in the Diaspora before the destruction—nor did the year 70 signal the loss of Jewish independence. In reality, Judea had been conquered 130 years earlier by Pompey in 63 B.C.E. Although much autonomyhad been granted to Herod (37–4 B.C.E.), it had already been greatly curtailed following Judea’s annexation as a Roman province in 6 C.E. Moreover, the continuum between the pre-70 and post-70 periods was maintained by the ongoing rule of Rome; culturally, economically and even socially much of Jewish life was not seriously interrupted between the pre- and post-destruction era. Indeed, large parts of the Jewish people were unaffected or only marginally affected by the revolt and its aftermath. Few Jewish communities in the Galilee were destroyed—Jotapata and Gamla were the exceptions. The Roman military march had little, if any, effect on the large Jewish settlement in Perea east of the Jordan, on the communities along the coastal plain or even on many areas in Judea itself. Thus, beyond Jerusalem and some parts of Judea, the upheavals of the First Revolt were not all that widespread, either demographically or economically.

Roman reaction in the wake of the revolt

Roman reactions to the revolt were measured. There was no attempt to annihilate the Jewish people or their Judaism. Rome did not change the name of the province, as she was to do some 60 years later, following the Bar-Kokhba revolt (it then became Syria-Palaestina). The province of Judea was not reduced in size, but continued to function intact. The Roman authorities even moved to correct certain abuses in the system of administration that may have contributed to the unrest in the pre-66 period. Recognizing that the earlier prefects-procurators drawn from the equestrian class* had shown little interest in or talent for dealing with the local inhabitants, and were often interested only in their own self-aggrandizement, Rome now determined that the governors of Judea would come from the senatorial class, on the level of an imperial legate of praetorian rank. Alongside this legate, there would also be a procurator in charge of finances. The legate was there to prevent the procurator from using his office to increase his personal wealth, as had often occurred in the past. In addition, the auxiliary troops previously drawn from the anti-Jewish pagan residents of the province were judged inadequate for policing Judea. These military units were disbanded and replaced by the Tenth Legion. As part of Vespasian’s redeployment of troops in the East, this measure was obviously calculated to serve as a deterrent to any future uprising.

Some have claimed that the legal standing of the Jews in the Roman empire suffered and that they were henceforth characterized as alien residents (peregrini dediticii). However, the evidence for this is meager. Josephus speaks about the confiscation of land and the imposition of a special tax, 4 but these statements—particularly the former—must be understood as limited in extent and application, referring principally to those who had been directly involved. We have no substantial evidence that the Romans persecuted Jerusalem Jewry generally in the wake of the revolt. 5

On the other hand, a new tax (the fiscus Judaicus) was imposed on all Jews in place of the annual contribution to the Temple. To add insult to injury, these monies were donated to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. Other than this general tax, however, no collective punishment was meted out to the Jews. The Romans also initiated a series of coins known as Judea Capta (Judea the Conquered) coins, on which a woman representing Judea is depicted in a position of subjection and humiliation, a theme clearly intended for propaganda purposes to acclaim the Roman victory and to deter any future uprising.

Rome also tried to deter any future revolutionary thoughts by supporting Josephus’ writing of his Jewish War, describing the enormity of the conflict and vindicating Rome by placing the blame squarely on irresponsible Jewish fanatics. Josephus clearly downplayed any role that Rome or her governors had played in the events leading to the revolt (compare the somewhat more balanced presentation of these same events in his Antiquities of the Jews, written some 20 years later). Despite Rome’s relatively measured reaction to Judea’s revolt, when all is said and done, the Jewish body politic had been badly hurt. Both religiously and nationally, the morale and confidence of the people had been severely damaged. Nevertheless, they were not broken, and the healing process commenced almost immediately. The early Jewish Christian community, especially those who resided in Jerusalem at the beginning of the revolt, fled to Pella, east of the Jordan, at the outbreak of hostilities.

The destruction of the Temple ended any desire or possibility for this group to see itself as an integral part of the Jewish people. 6 The subsequent history of the Jewish Christians and their various sects is well-nigh impossible to reconstruct, but we know that henceforth they pursued a religious and communal agenda different from that of the Jewish community.

Within the Jewish community itself, reactions to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple were diverse. Some revolutionaries continued their activities until the fall of Masada, Herod’s wilderness retreat near the Dead Sea, in 74 C.E. 7 Many Jews fled to Egypt to pursue their agitation against Rome. Still others doubtless went underground, continuing in one form or another to nurture hopes of a future uprising. Eusebius’ statement that first Vespasian (69–79 C.E.) and then Domitian (81–96 C.E.) sought to destroy the remnants of the seed of David 8 may be an allusion to continued revolutionary activity. These varied elements of dissension probably played a significant role in the unrest that engulfed Judea in the second and third decades of the second century, and perhaps in the eventual outbreak of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome—the so-called Bar-Kokhba revolt—in 132 C.E.

* Literally, “horsemen,” members of the Roman middle class, second to the nobility, from which horsemen originally were drawn.

Apocalyptic literature of despair

In some circles—however small they may have been—there was a certain air of despair and abandonment. The Tosefta, a third-century rabbinic commentary/expansion of the Mishnah, gives expression to
this distress- “After the last Temple was destroyed, ascetics who would not eat meat or drink wine increased in Israel. Rabbi Joshua met them, saying, ‘My sons, why do you not eat meat?’

“They said to him, ‘Shall we eat meat, for every day a continual burnt-offering [of meat] was offered on the altar,

and now it has been discontinued?’

“He said to them, ‘Then let us not eat it. And then why are you not drinking wine?’

“They said to him,‘Shall we drink wine, for every day wine was poured out as a drink-offering on the altar, and
now [this practice] has been discontinued?’

“He said to them, ‘Then let us not drink it.’ He said to them, ‘But if this is so, we also should not eat bread, for from
it did they bring the Two Loaves and the Show-Bread. We also should not drink water, for they poured out a water-
offering on the Festival [of Sukkoth] We also should not eat figs and grapes, for they brought them as First Fruits on
the Festival of theAtzeret [Shavuoth].’ They were silent.” 9

Although several apocalyptic books that can be dated to the post-destruction period also reflect distress and despair, they nevertheless express hope and comfort in a promising future. 10 For example, the following poetic lament appears in the Syriac apocalypse of 2 Baruch-

“Blessed is he who was not born,

or he who was born and died.

But we, the living, woe to us,

because we have seen those afflictions of Zion,

and that which has befallen Jerusalem.

“You, farmers, sow not again.

And you, O earth, why do you give the fruit of your harvest?

Keep within you the sweetness of your sustenance.

And you, vine, why do you still give your wine?

For an offering will not be given again from you in Zion,

and the first fruits will not again be offered.

And you, heaven, keep your dew within you,

and do not open the treasuries of rain.

And you, sun, keep the light of your rays within you.

And you, moon, extinguish the multitude of your light.

For why should the light rise again,

where the light of Zion is darkened?

And you, bridegrooms, do not enter,

and do not let the brides adorn themselves.

And you, wives, do not pray to bear children,

for the barren will rejoice more.

And those who have no children will be glad,

and those who have children will be sad.

For why do they bear in pain only to bury in grief?

“Henceforth, do not speak anymore of beauty,

and do not talk about gracefulness.

You, priests, take the keys of the sanctuary,

and cast them to the highest heaven,

and give them to the Lord and say,

‘Guard your house yourself,

because, behold, we have been found to be false stewards.’”

2 Baruch 10-6–7, 9–15, 17–18

But all was not despair; in this same book Israel was bidden to await the redemption that was not far off- “And that period is coming that will remain forever; and there is the new world which does not carry back to corruption those who enter into its beginning, and which has no mercy on those who come into torment or those who are living in it, and it does not carry to perdition. For those are the ones who will inherit this time of which it is spoken, and to these is the heritage of the promised time. These are they who prepared for themselves treasures of wisdom. And stores of insight are found within them. And they have not withdrawn from mercy and they have preserved the truth of the Law.

For the coming world will be given to these, but the habitation of the many others will be in the fire” (2 Baruch 44-12–15).

A similar composition from this period is 4 Ezra, 11 the most widely circulated Jewish apocalypse in antiquity and continuing into the Middle Ages. In several of its seven sections, Ezra, who is regarded in this work as a second Moses, bemoans Israel’s tragic fate in contrast to the prosperity enjoyed by Gentiles. Three sections consist of dialogues between Ezra and an angel; in each Ezra is assured that wickedness will soon cease, the dead will rise and the approaching end, brought about by God himself, will include the coming of the Messiah, the salvation ofthe few and the destruction of the many. The book’s final four sections are visions related to issues raised in the dialogues—the rebuilding of Zion, the reinstitution of the Temple and its sacrifices, the advent of God who will redeem mankind, and the coming of the Messiah which will signal the end of godlessness and the approach of the day of judgment.

A number of works coming from the Diaspora almost completely ignore the effects of 70. One type of apocalyptic book written at about this time is exemplified by the Fourth Sybil, 12 which proclaims in the name of God that a series of catastrophes will befall the peoples and cities of Europe and Asia unless they repent; at the end of days, God will raise people from the dead, pronounce judgment and grant new life to the righteous. Surprisingly, however, Fourth Sybil reflects no particular concern with the destruction of the Temple or Jerusalem.

Similarly with regard to the intriguing Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, falsely ascribed to Philo of Alexandria. 13 This book covers biblical history from Adam to David, often integrating aggadic* themes and occasionally altering the biblical material in an original fashion. Although it is dated to the late first century C.E., this author, too, makes no mention of the events of the year 70, which appear to have had no significant impact on his outlook.

In a similar vein, the books written by Josephus several decades after the destruction of the Temple—Antiquities of the Jews, Against Apion and Vita—discuss Jewish history, institutions, ideas and beliefs in the post-destruction period without any significant or discernible reaction to the destruction itself or to the trauma that it caused. Not only in his writings, but in his personal life as well, Josephus appears to reflect the ability of many Jews—both in Israel and the Diaspora—to adjust to the new circumstances and to restructure their political and religious future in accord with conditions in the post-70 era. Until his death in the mid-90s C.E., Agrippa II, the last of the Herodians, continued to rule in the northeastern sector of Roman Palestine (Trachonitis, Gaulanitis, Batanea, Auranitis) and in eastern Galilee. There is no indication that Agrippa II suffered from the effects of the year 70; just the opposite may have been the case; coins minted in the mid-80s with both Greek and Latin legends seem to indicate a new flourish of activity in his realm, and the initials SC (Senatus Consultum [Resolved by the Roman Senate]) may well reflect increased Roman recognition of his rule. The Talmud preserves a series of discussions between an Agrippa and contemporary rabbis, especially Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (late first to early second centuries), in which Agrippa is referred to approvingly. In the past it was generally assumed that these references were to Agrippa I, who ruled from 41 to 44 C.E., before the destruction of the Temple. However, it is quite possible that they refer to Agrippa II, who may have filled a part of the political and communal vacuum within the Jewish community left by the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. 14

* The aggadot (sing.,aggadah) are non-halakhic (legal) expositions of biblical text.

The sages and the Yavneh Academy

Perhaps the most significant reaction to the events of 70 was the convening of a group of sages in the little town of Yavneh (Greek, Jamnia), located near the coast between Jaffa and Ashdod. Their activities would leave an indelible mark on the future of the Jewish people. In Yavneh, these sages began a process which eventually led to the reconstruction of Judaism in the post-Temple period.

These sages, who had survived the traumatic events of the destruction relatively unscathed, continued the traditions of the Pharisees under new circumstances. In contrast to other pre-70 sects, they had not been linked to the Temple nor had they been based in any specific locale (as the Essenes were in Qumran); they managed to escape the fate of almost every other Jewish sect following the destruction of Jerusalem.

Within this Pharisaic movement were two academies, Beth Shammai (the House of Shammai) and Beth Hillel (the House of Hillel), named for the pre-destruction sages who had founded them. In the mid-first century, Beth Shammai had often adopted a strident nationalistic and religious position; the Hillelites, on the other hand, often opted for a more moderate posture. For example, the Shammaites adopted a pro-revolutionary and anti-Gentile stance on the eve of the revolt, whereas the House of Hillel remained more tolerant and open. 15

On the whole, the Yavnean sages proved to be very adept ideologically; they mitigated the disaster of 70 by offering alternate means of religious expression in the absence of the Temple. They were also adaptative in their reinterpretation and revision of the halahhah (Jewish religious law) and even introduced new patterns of behavior that addressed the social and religious conditions of the post-70 era.

The Yavnean period lasted for about 60 years, until the outbreak of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (70–132 C.E.). 16 It can be conveniently divided into two distinct stages, each associated with the sage who stood at the head of the Yavnean academy in successive generations—Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabban* Gamaliel II. 17

* A title of especial esteem accorded to a very select number of sages.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai

The first stage—under Yohanan ben Zakkai—laid the foundations, established a general framework, set certain directions and forged guidelines along which rabbinic activity would develop and crystallize. In the second stage—under Gamaliel II—new initiatives were undertaken to provide the Jewish people with the political, religious and social alternatives around which they could restructure their lives communally and institutionally.

Little is known about Yohanan ben Zakkai’s personal life. Reputedly a student of Hillel, he spent 18 years in Arav in the Lower Galilee, 18 and in the years prior to the outbreak of the revolt he lived in Jerusalem.

Later generations told of Yohanan’s supposed mastery of Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara (Talmud), halakhah, aggadah and midrash,* as well as the subtleties of the scriptural text, mysticism and metaphysical speculation. 19 The historical reliability of such traditions is questionable; on firmer ground, see a number of traditions reporting on Yohanan’s engaging the Sadducees in numerous disputes. 20

If we know little about Yohanan before 70, what we know about him in the post-70 period is quantitatively greater, although here, too, several traditions are shrouded in layers of legend. Many of the traditions are contradictory and serve to teach us more about how later generations regarded him than about the historical circumstances of his day. He apparently escaped from Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city and sought refuge in a Roman detention camp. There he introduced a number of legislative enactments (takkanot).

Yohanan’s general political, social and religious orientation may be summarized in several statements attributed to him (or, sometimes, to his student, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah) by later Jewish tradition.

They reflect a position of moderation and accommodation-

“Do not rush to destroy the altars of the Gentiles, lest you will have to rebuild them yourselves; do not destroy those of bricks, lest they say to you, ‘make them of stone’; [nor those] of stone, lest they say to you, ‘make them of wood.’“ 21

Yohanan praised those who “spread peace between city and city, between nation and nation, between government and government.” 22 Whether Yohanan was a pacifist or simply a political realist cannot be determined from the available sources. What is clear, however, is that he adopted a nonbelligerent stance vis-à-vis the Gentiles and an accommodating one within the Jewish community itself. His position was based on a realistic assessment of the political and social factors of the time. Even in the pre-70 era, for example, he is reported to have advocated the abolition of the rite of drinking the “bitter water,” a Temple ritual for determining whether a woman was guilty of adultery (Numbers 5-11–31). As it is said-

“When adulterers multiplied, [the rite of] bitter water ceased, and Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai brought it to an end….” 23

He was similarly realistic with respect to the destruction of the Temple. In the absence of sacrifice and other Temple-related rituals, alternative forms of worship and atonement had to be found. In short, he avoided extremism in any direction; he sought to combine hope for the future with a recognition of the loss sustained in the present, at the same time addressing aspects of Jewish life in light of the changing times.

The following quotations reflect Yohanan’s attitudes, first, toward messianic expectation and, second, regarding the destruction of the Temple-

“If you have a plant in your hand and they say to you, ‘The Messiah has come,’ go and complete the planting and afterwards go out and receive [the Messiah]. If children will say to you, ‘Come, let us build the Temple,’ do not listen to them. If elders say to you, ‘Come, letus destroy the Temple,’ listen to them. For the building of the young is in actuality destruction and the destruction [that is advocated] by the elders is indeed rebuilding.” 24

“He [Rabbi Joshua, the student par excellence of Rabbi Yohanan] said to them-‘My sons, mourning too much is undesirable and not to mourn at all is undesirable. Rather, our sages have said, “A person should plaster his house and leave a small portion [unplastered] as a memory of Jerusalem. A person should make all the preparations for a meal and leave a little bit [unfinished] in memory of Jerusalem. A woman should make jewelry for herself and leave a little [part of herself unornamented] as a memory of Jerusalem.”’“ 25

* Midrashim are halakhic and aggadic expositions of biblical text.

Yohanan’s takkanot (religious enactments)

Our sources, unfortunately, say little about Yohanan’s public life in Yavneh. The thrust of his activity appears to have centered around the issuance of a series oftakkanot (religious enactments).

Tradition speaks of nine such takkanot; 26 they are of interest both for what they tell us and for what they omit. Three deal with an attempt to transfer Temple practices to an appropriate post-70 setting (the synagogue?). The practices addressed in these enactments had been associated specifically with the Temple.

For example, before 70, the shofar (ram’s horn) was blown on Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) only in the Temple (incidentally, in those days, it was blown even when Rosh Hashanah fell on the Sabbath). After 70, Yohanan declared that the shofar could be blown anywhere. 27 Similarly, in the pre-70 period the lulav (palm branch) was used in the Temple for seven days on Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles), but in other places only for one day. Following the destruction of the Temple, Yohanan declared that the lulav could be used everywhere for seven days. 28

Three other takkanot likewise dealt with practices associated with sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. With the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of sacrifices, requirements had to be changed. For example, in the pre-70 period, testimony for the appearance of the new moon 29 could be given only until the afternoon sacrifice was offered. Following 70, Rabbi Yohanan declared that such testimony was acceptable throughout the day. 30

Another of Yohanan’s takkanot abolished the requirement from Temple times that a convert set aside a quarter of a shekel (or, translated into the coinage of the day, a quarter of a dinar) in lieu of a sacrifice. 31 Still another annulled the requirement that the first fruits of a newly planted tree be brought to Jerusalem in the fourth year. 32

What is striking about these takkanot is not only what they deal with—their concern for certain important ritual and procedural matters following the destruction of the Temple—but what they don’t deal with. Many areas of Jewish life, such as the holidays generally, the Sabbath and prayer, are not addressed. Moreover, no takkanah deals with social, institutional or economic issues that undoubtedly beset the Jewish community at the time. These takkanot therefore may provide a good indication of the scope and limitations—of Yohanan’s activities in Yavneh.

This impression is reinforced by several other considerations. We have no evidence that Rome recognized Yohanan’s leadership (this is in contrast to his successor Rabban Gamaliel). Nor do our sources reflect any kind of recognition by Jews generally, or by communal heads, of Yohanan’s position. He is never reported to have visited Jewish communities, nor is there any indication that Jews consulted him on halakhic issues (again in contrast to Gamaliel).

Also striking is the limited number of people who seem to have joined Yohanan in Yavneh. There may very well have been opposition from certain Jewish circles to his attempts to restructure and redefine some aspects of Jewish life. Some may have resented Yohanan’s abandonment of Jerusalem during the Roman siege; others may have opposed his readiness to make adjustments and “compromises” in Temple prerogatives and privileges. This was almost certainly true of many among the surviving Temple priesthood, who undoubtedly resented Yohanan’s attempt to transfer Temple practices to other Jewish frameworks; they probably would have preferred preserving the uniqueness of the Temple with regard to central Jewish ceremonies, even in the post-70 era and even if this meant suspension, of the rituals.

Yohanan’s willingness to adapt traditional practices to radically new historical circumstances is reflected not only in his takkanot but in a number of his sayings as well. A much-revered comment of Simon the Just (c. 200B.C.E.) stated that the three pillars on which the world rests are the Torah, Temple worship and acts of piety. 33 Yohanan dramatically reinterpreted one component of this statement.

When asked, “Now that there are no sacrifices, how can we seek atonement?” Yohanan replied that good deeds (literally, acts of loving-kindness) will atone as sacrifices once did. 34

Rabban Gamaliel II

Yohanan was succeeded at Yavneh by Rabban Gamaliel II (c. 90–115). Under Gamaliel, Yavneh changed radically. Most importantly, its rabbinic center achieved recognition and status, not only within the Jewish community but among the non-Jewish population as well. It became a center of most sages, some of whom lived there permanently, while others visited periodically. One source speaks of 85 rabbis who convened there, 35 another of a gathering of 138 sages. 36 Halakhic questions were brought to Yavneh from all parts of the country, 37 as well as from “Asia” (probably a locale in Palestine, although conceivably in Asia Minor). In addition to halakhic advice, Rabban Gamaliel and his court at Yavneh dealt with regulations regarding testimony of a new moon (the sign of the beginning of a new month) and the intercalation of years. 38

Gamaliel, accompanied by other sages, often traveled to cities and towns throughout the country to visit colleagues, supervise religious practices and dispense halakhic advice. 39 He visited Jericho, Lod and Ashkelon in Judea; 40 Narbata and “Samaritan towns” in Samaria; 41 Kefar Othnai (Legio) in the Jezreel Valley; as well as Tiberias, Acco, Akhziv and the “Ladder of Tyre” in the Galilee. 42

One rabbi (Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, a student of Yohanan ben Zakkai) traveled to Alexandria to discuss various halakhic issues; 43 another (Rabbi Akiva) ventured to Arabia, Africa, Gallia (probably Galatia in Asia Minor), Cilicia, Cappadocia, Nehardea (in Babylonia) and Medea. 44 Gamaliel himself traveled to Rome on a number of occasions. 45

Rabban Gamaliel’s status among the sages is evident. In the court of law, he sat in the middle, with elders sitting to his right and left; 46 his authority is reflected in the fact that he had the power to remove the mayor, or head, of Gader from office—and he used it. 47

Gamaliel’s high prestige, especially in light of the relatively low public profile held by his predecessor, Yohanan ben Zakkai, may be understood in light of two factors, one internal, the other external. The first had to do with his pedigree. For generations his family had held a rank of seniority and leadership, at least within Pharisaic circles; his great-grandfather was Hillel the Elder, who lived in the time of Herod the Great. His grandfather, Rabban Gamaliel the Elder had held a leading position in first-century Jerusalem; he was a prominent figure in the Sanhedrin in the 30s, when the priests and Sadducees contemplated bringing the early Christians to trial (Acts 5-34–39). The father of Rabban Gamaliel II was Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel, who played an active role in the moderate leadership of Jerusalem during the early stages of the revolt. 48

We do not know what happened to Rabban Gamaliel II following the destruction of the Temple. Either he was too young to assume leadership immediately following the war or, owing to his father’s participation in the rebellion, he had to seek refuge during this initial period, until a new political constellation allowed him to assume a role comparable to that enjoyed by his forebears. In any case, the high regard accorded the House of Hillel among the Pharisees specifically and within the Jewish community generally was clearly a key factor in Gamaliel II’s assumption of a prominent position at Yavneh. A second factor that sheds light on Gamaliel II’s prestige and leadership, and that may have been no less crucial, was Rome’s recognition of him as spokesman and leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, de facto if not de jure. 49 According to one source, Gamaliel went to Syria “to be granted authority by the Roman governor.” 50 Although the precise nature of that authority is not spelled out, based on the context it may have had to do with the right to decide on calendrical issues. 51

Why this recognition was conferred on Gamaliel by the Romans is another question. Perhaps the Romans were simply following their long-established policy of seeking support among the local aristocracy in order to maintain their rule over conquered provinces. Gamaliel became a logical candidate for the Romans to cultivate and nurture. This prestige and authority was probably conferred on Gamaliel some time close to the turn of the century.*

Roman recognition of Gamaliel may also have been connected to the death of Agrippa II in the mid-90s. As noted above, Agrippa—who ruled Trachonitis, Gaulanitis, Auranitis and Batanea in the north-eastern part of Palestine—may have served as the link between the Roman government and the Jewish community generally during the decades following the destruction of the Temple. If this was the case, Rome would have looked elsewhere for this link when he died and would have found it in the head of the academy at Yavneh. Neither the extent nor the nature of Rabban Gamaliel’s position of leadership among the sages of Yavneh is clear. On a number of occasions his decisions were challenged by colleagues; on other occasions, he acted in an authoritarian manner. In several instances, Rabban Gamaliel chastised Rabbi Akiva (a younger contemporary and the leading sage in the first third of the second century) for acting contrary to one of his decisions 52 or for siding with an opinion of the sages that did not conform to Gamaliel’s own view. 53

Gamaliel upbraided Rabbi Tarfon when he absented himself from deliberations of the Yavnean court. 54 He even banished his own brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, from rabbinic circles; Eliezer purportedly died in a state of humiliation. 55

Gamaliel’s major opponent within rabbinic circles was Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, a student of Rabbi Yohanan and the elder statesman among the sages of Yavneh in the era of Rabban Gamaliel. The two clashed head-on on a number of occasions- Joshua was once critical of Gamaliel’s treatment of a calendrical question. On that occasion, Gamaliel ordered Joshua to appear at the Yavnean court carrying his staff and money on the day that Joshua had calculated was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, thus humiliating his opponent by having him perform acts prohibited by Jewish law on that day. 56

On another occasion, Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Joshua disputed over whether the evening prayer (‘Arvit)was obligatory. Gamaliel claimed that it was; Joshua and other sages argued that it was not. Gamaliel forced a confrontation at the academy. Having embarrassed Joshua in front of his colleagues, Gamaliel succeeded in angering them; according to tradition, they then deposed him as head of the academy. Only after expressing regret and acknowledging his misconduct was Gamaliel reinstated. 57

Apparently Rabban Gamaliel’s position, at least among the sages, was not inviolate; given enough cause, the sages were able to take effective action against him. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Gamaliel’s temporary ouster affected his status as the Roman representative, or spokesman, of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the imperial government.

* It is unlikely that the Flavian dynasty would have accorded such recognition to a Jewish leader, especially during the reign of its last representative, Domitian (81–96 C.E.), who appears to have harbored a decidedly negative attitude toward Jews and Judaism. As previously noted, it was Domitian who reputedly made an attempt to hunt down Jews suspected of being from the Davidic line (Eccles. Hist.3,19), and it was he who initiated a persecution of supposed converts to Judaism in Rome (Smallwood, Jews under Roman Rule[see endnote 5], pp. 376–385). Thus, it was probable only after Domitian’s death that Rome was willing to consider cultivating a new type of leadership on which to base its rule in Judea.

The origins of traditions still observed today

Under Rabban Gamaliel, the Yavneh academy dealt with numerous communal issues, as well as matters of Jewish life and practice. In some cases, the decisions on these issues have had an effect on Jewish tradition down to our own day. We will discuss four areas where this has been the case-

1. Prayer. The liturgy of the pre-70 synagogue—in Palestine at least—appears to have centered exclusively around the Torah-reading ceremony, and then mainly on the Sabbath and festivals. 58 Only after 70 was prayer developed and instituted on a daily basis. The obligation of daily prayer for all Jews, in private and communally in the synagogue, seems to have crystallized at Yavneh, 59 as did the basic structure of Jewish prayer.

2. Decisions regarding the canon. Canonization of the Hebrew Bible was a long process, stretching over centuries. The first part—the five books of Moses, the Torah—was canonized by the time of Ezra, when the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Not long afterwards, the second part—the Prophets—was similarly accorded sacred status. Many of the books that later comprised the third part of the Hebrew Bible—the Writings—were already universally accepted by the first century C.E., but the status ofseveral books—Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon)—may have still been in doubt—at least in rabbinic eyes. In the language of the sages, did these books make the hands unclean? That is, were they divinely inspired? Under the leadership of Rabban Gamaliel, further deliberations occurred and several important decisions were made in this regard. 60

3. Codification of Jewish law. The Yavneh academy devoted most of its time to clarifying and developing the received halakhah, or religious law. One issue was whether the halakhah be determined according to the moderate Beth Hillel or the stricter Beth Shammai. Acknowledging that both schools founded in the pre-70 period had, at least theoretically, an equal claim to legitimacy, Beth Hillel at Yavneh was ultimately accorded priority in determining matters ofhalakhah. 61

4. Holidays. The rabbis of Yavneh also attempted to fill the vacuum created by the loss of the Temple. Before 70, neither Rosh Hashanah nor Yom Kippur had played a major role in the religious lives of Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem. Rosh Hashanah was important largely because it marked the beginning of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar.* Yom Kippur involved a ceremony of major importance, but its celebration was largely confined to the Temple precincts. After 70, the sages of Yavneh created an entirely new liturgy for the high holidays. New themes crystallized—the kingship of God, remembrance and redemption—and appropriate blessings and prayers were formulated. Special scriptural readings were introduced, along with a special ceremony for the blowing of the shofar. Yom Kippur was institutionalized as a fast day for all, when the individual, as part of the congregation, was to
seek forgiveness.

The sages of Yavneh also filled a void with respect to the observance of Passover. Previously, the Passover celebration had been intimately connected with the Temple sacrifice; each household was bidden to participate in the Passover meal in the Temple precincts proper or anywhere in Jerusalem following the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. 62 After 70, this was no longer possible, and so the home observance we know as the Passover seder was created. Much of the Passover haggadah,the service for the seder, took shape at Yavneh under the leadership of Rabban Gamaliel.

* The number seven has special symbolic significance in Jewish tradition (seventh day of creation, seven days a week, seven years to a Sabbatical year, etc.).