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A Rabbinic Account of Jerusalem Siege

The Babylonian Talmud's account of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, compiled many years later, remembers the leading sages of the day as Rabbis and describes them as opponents of the revolt and virtual prisoners of the rebel leaders in the city.

In this talmudic passage, the sage Yohanan ben Zakkai escapes from Jerusalem in the hope of reestablishing rabbinic leadership at Yavneh and somehow preserving Judaism in the wake of Jerusalem's certain destruction.










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."

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. 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 the 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?" [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]...."

[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."

[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 and its sages, the chain of Rabban Gamliel, and doctors to cure Rabbi Zadok."

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...."