In Conceding Defeat, Yohanan ben Zakkai Paved the Way for the Restoration of Jewish Sovereignty

December 17, 2021 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. His website, containing all of his media appearances, podcasts, and writing, can be found at

A few weeks ago, Israeli archaeologists announced that they had discovered numerous artifacts of Roman-era Jewish life in the city of Yavneh, famous as the meeting place in the Sanhedrin, or high rabbinic council, in the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction. According to the Talmud, Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, the leading rabbi at the time, realized that the Romans were going to defeat the internally divided Jewish rebels, and negotiated permission to maintain “Yavneh and its sages”—that is, rabbinic life and study in the absence of political independence or the Temple. Both his detractors and defenders have, in recent times, depicted ben Zakkai as a sort of Jewish Quisling. Meir Soloveichik explains that he was nothing of the sort:

The story of Yoḥanan ben Zakkai has been misused for years by those who seek to attack the modern Jewish state. The anti-Israel historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that ben Zakkai “took the momentous decision to break with the tradition of militancy which Judas Maccabaeus had inaugurated” in facing down the Seleucid empire in 165 CE. Ben Zakkai, in Toynbee’s estimation, “was proclaiming his conversion from the way of Violence to the way of Gentleness; and through this conversion he became the founder of the new Jewry which survived—albeit only as a fossil.” Decades later, Peter Beinart, arguing for a binational state, asserted that when Yoḥanan ben Zakkai “asked the Roman emperor to give him Yavneh, he was acknowledging that a phase of Jewish history had run its course. It was time for Jews to imagine a different path.”

This is preposterous. The very same talmudic texts that describe ben Zakkai’s fleeing Jerusalem also inform us that he obligated Israel to commemorate Temple rituals in the hope that . . . the Temple in Jerusalem would soon be rebuilt, believing that Jews must be eternally prepared for the moment when Jerusalem is restored as the capital of Judea, and of Judaism. Indeed, the very rabbinic faith of which Yoḥanan was patriarch and progenitor celebrated throughout the centuries the victories of Judas Maccabeus. One of the other requests ben Zakkai and others made of Rome was to allow them to preserve the office of nasi, Jewish patriarch. It was held by descendants of King David and thus served as a tangible link to Jerusalem. The Jewish liturgy, formulated in Yavneh, pleads with God for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty.

Yet the hard truth is that it is not only antagonists to Zionism who have misunderstood the legacy of Yavneh; even some of the founders and leaders of modern Israel itself failed to understand him or to celebrate him properly.

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