Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai (c.30-90 CE or c. 47 BCE- 73 CE) ch.7 of "Akiva and Ephraim" by Alexander Zephyr
Yochanan ben Zakkai was the youngest and most distinguished disciple of Rabbi Hillel. He had inherited from his great teacher a peaceful character, a love for his fellow man, and prophetic wisdom. After the death of Hillel, R.Yochanan became the religious leader of the Jewish nation. During the turbulent years of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans (66-70 CE), R. Yochanan with his most prominent disciples had tried to calm the people down. He urged them to set their weapons aside and negotiate peace with the Romans. In his view, to wage war with the mighty Roman Empire was equivalent to national suicide. Together with the pro-Roman Sadducees and moderate Pharisees R. Yochanan and the others Sages thought that wisdom and pacifism would prevail but the Zealot fanatics and extremists rejected it all.
When the rebel army under the leadership of the Zealots, John of Giscala and Simon Bar Giora, at the battle of Beth Horon defeated the forces of Cestius Gallus, legate of Syria, this victory boosted the resilience of the rebels. It gave them confidence and arrogant faith in ultimate military success over their enemies. But the Romans regrouped. General Vespasian, appointed by Emperor Nero, successfully crushed Jewish resistance in Galilee, Caesarea, and the coast lands. All the rebels and the civilian population of Judea managed to escape to Jerusalem which became the center of the rebellion. John and Simon, both popular Zealot leaders of the Revolt, desperately started fighting each other for rulership of Jerusalem. Jerusalem's authorities and the fanatical Sikarii of Eleazar ben Simon took part in this battle. Brutal civil war erupted as a result, which later proved to be disastrous. The rivals were not only trying to destroy each other, they also burned their grain supplies, to starve their opponents into submission. The citizens of Jerusalem were terrorized by the Zealots and Sikarii, who fanned the flames of a murderous reign of terror; many starved to death, many tried to run away but were caught by Romans and crucified around the city, five hundred a day. Josephus describes the chaos inside Jerusalem and violence taking the form of riots, banditry, and fanaticism. Jerusalem was controlled by the Zealots, Sikarii, and the criminal elements of Biryonim, people who would rather die than surrender to the Romans. Some three thousand of them three years later were to find an heroic death in the fortress of Masada.
Â The rebels and their leaders did not listen to R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai and his colleagues. The rabbinical sources indicate twenty four different factions among the Jews. They did not want to negotiate peace and surrender. Civil war among rival factions raged at full strength. Jerusalem was so war-torn that its citizens had to climb over dead bodies in the Temple to offer their sacrifices. Many thousands of Jews inside the city were dying of famine and plague. A mortal disease afflicted the Jewish People. The rabbis called this disease 'sinat chinam' - Â 'senseless hatred' of one Jew for another Jew.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai knew that the fate of Jerusalem and the Temple was doomed by Divine Providence. According to the Talmud, for forty 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' (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma, 6:3, 43c; Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39b; and see Josephus, Wars, 6:293).
Josephus Flavius also recorded this story: "At the Passover, the eastern gate of the inner temple, being of brass and very firm, and with difficulty shut at eventide by twenty men; moreover with bars strengthened with iron, and having very deep bolts, which went down into the threshold, itself of one stone, was seen at six o'clock at night to open of its own accord. The guards of the temple running told it to the officer, and he, going up, with difficulty closed it. The uninstructed thought this a very favorable sign, that God had opened to them the gate of all goods. But those taught in the divine words, understood that the safety of the temple was removed of itself, and that the gate opened" (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 5:3).
The Prophet Jeremiah gave an account in detail of the Temple's destruction: 'For this is what the LORD says about the palace of the king of Judah: "Though you are like Gilead to Me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns not inhabited. I will send destroyers against you, each man with his weapons, and they will cut up your fine cedar beams and throw them into the fire' (Jeremiah 22:6-7). That is exactly what the Roman soldiers of Titus carried out.
R. Yochanan did what he could to stop this internal bloody madness of the Jewish factions in Jerusalem but they did not listen and even threatened to kill him if he would not stop preaching surrender of the city. He felt that he must somehow escape from Jerusalem as soon as possible and negotiate with the Romans to save what was still left to be saved - the Sages of the Sanhedrin, scholars of the Torah, and the town of Yavneh.
This is how the Talmudic story describes his brave and extremely risky escape from the fanatical Zealots and doomed Jerusalem.
"Abba Sikra, the head of the 'Biryonim,' the extremist Jewish militants, was the brother-in-law of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (in other sources he is presented as the nephew of Yochanan ben Zakkai). Ben Zakkai sent a message to Abba Sikra, 'Come to me in secret.' The latter came. Rabban Yochanan spoke, 'How long will you carry on like this, and starve everyone to death?' Abba Sikra said, 'What can I do? The situation is out of my control. If I tell them anything adverse, they will kill me." R. Yochanan said to him: "Devise a plan that will enable me to leave. Perhaps something can still be saved." Abba Sikra said: "Pretend that you are ill, and everyone will come to visit you. Then bring some stinking object and place it next to you and they'll say that you have died. Have your disciples carry you for burial outside the city."
"With his students Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua acting as pall-bearers, the coffin approached the Biryoni-manned guard-post just within the wall of Yerushalayim. The guards wanted to plunge their swords into the coffin to make sure that they were not being tricked, but the students said, 'The Romans will say that they're stabbing their leader!' The guards then wanted to push the coffin hard, to see if anyone inside would cry out. Again, the students quick-wittedly told them that if they did that, the hated Romans would say, 'The Jews are pushing the body of their leader!' The Biryoni guard opened the gate and reluctantly let the small burial party through."
It was well known Jewish tradition that priests must be buried outside the city wall. This was R. Yochanan's only means to escape, but it was clearly something the Zealots at the gates had thought of, so they routinely checked bodies to make sure they were not escapees. Thanks to the intervention of Abba Sikra, their leader, R. Yochanan, R. Eliezer and R. Joshua were saved.
"When the Jewish party reached the Roman camp, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin and greeted the general, 'Peace be unto you, O King! Peace be unto you, O King!' To which Vespasian responded, 'You have incurred the death penalty twice. First, you have called me King, and I am not the King! Second, if I am indeed the King, why have you not come out to me earlier, to how me proper respect?!"
"Ben Zakkai answered, 'I knew you had to be a king, because our prophets have foretold that the Temple will fall only into the hands of a king. And the reason I have not come out to you until now is that we are plagued by violent extremists within the city, who would not let me come out! "
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Here is another version of the response of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai 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; T. Bab. Gittin, fol. 56. 2; Midrash Echa Rabbati, 46. 4). With this explanation R. Yochanan let Vespasian know that he was defeating the Jewish People, the rebels, not their God who had made the Roman Emperor just an actor in this long foretold tragedy.
'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).
"Vespasian responded, 'If there were a snake curled around a barrel of honey, would you not break the barrel (that is, set fire to the walls of the city) in order to get rid of the snake? "
"Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was not able to respond to this. (At this point, Rabbi Yosef, and some say Rabbi Akiva, comment that sometimes 'G-d makes the wise foolish;' for Ben Zakkai should have responded that he had hoped to defeat the militants without having to destroy the walls of the city, and then to make peace with the Romans.)"
At this point, an Imperial messenger arrived from Rome, and announced, 'Arise! For the Emperor has died and the Senators have decided to make Vespasian, General of the Legions of Rome, the new Emperor!'
Vespasian said to Rabban Yochanan, 'I will leave now, to return to Rome. But I will dispatch someone to take my place. Before I go, ben Zakkai, you may make a request, which I will grant you'.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â R. Yochanan said to Vespasian: 'Give me Yavneh and her sages, the descendants of Rabban Gamliel, and a cure to heal Rabbi Tzadok. Allow me to continue to survive in Yavneh with a Sanhedrin, and I will relinquish national sovereignty in Jerusalem' (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-57b).
"(Here again, Rabbi Yosef, and some say Rabbi Akiva, comment that sometimes 'G-d makes the wise foolish;' for Ben Zakkai should have requested the preservation of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and that the Jewish People should be given a "second chance" to prove their loyalty to Rome.)"
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Many authors have portrayed this story slightly differently and added more variations to it. Especially, it applies to the part of so called 'bargaining' between R. Yochanan and Emperor Vespasian. According to their versions, Vespasian offered to R. Yochanan, as a reward, to choose three options, which included the saving of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. This is very doubtful. The Emperor could not have made such an offer. He knew very well that the Jewish rebels had killed too many Roman soldiers and caused a lot of physical, moral, and political damage to the Empire. They did not surrender the city and desperately fought to the death. The victorious Romans could not have possibly rewarded this nation by sparing for them Jerusalem and the Temple because they precisely understood what those items meant to the Jewish People, who regarded them as symbols of national pride, strength, and a source of rebellion. On the contrary, the Romans' intention was to punish these rebellious Jews in such a manner that it would undermine the rebellious spirit of this tiny nation once and for all and also give a powerful lesson to other nations under Roman domination. The destruction of the city and the Temple, plowing over Jerusalem, killing one million and one hundred thousand Jews and selling the rest to slavery,- these punishments were more appropriate to the Romans, and they served as an example of discouragement for other nations to rebel against mighty Rome. Besides, both of them were aware that the fate of the Temple and Jerusalem had been predicted by the Prophets of God. Nobody could have prevented the Divine sentence. (R. Yochanan had explained to the Emperor Vespasian why he would be King and about prophecies of the imminent destruction of the city and Temple). Even the Talmud, in defense of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, explains his thinking; namely, that events in the war had gone too far for such a request to be honored. In order, therefore, to preserve the Torah and to save the rest of the Jewish People, R. Yochanan had to insist on choosing Yavneh and its Sages. Being impressed with his prediction, wisdom, and peaceful attitude towards the Romans, Emperor Vespasian might have granted to R. Yochanan on the personal level his request to save the Sanhedrin and the Torah's scholars in the town of Yavneh because it was reported to Vespasian that these Sages did not support the Rebellion and were inclined to make peace with the Romans. But to promise as a reward (reward for what?!) to save Jerusalem and the Holy Temple for the Jews, such a concept goes beyond the wildest imagination.
This said, it is surprising to read five-six decades later groundless criticism of R. Akiva in the Talmud against R. Yochanan ben Zakkai's decision to choose Yavneh, the Sages of the Sanhedrin and Torah scholars instead of Jerusalem and the Temple. We have already demonstrated passages from Scripture that it was the will of God to destroy Jerusalem and the Holy Temple due to the many sins of the people (Jeremiah 22:6-7; Zechariah 11:1). Here are more Biblical proofs:
'I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate' (Jeremiah 7:34).
'Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets' (Micah 3:12).
'And the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined' (Daniel 9:26).
It is impossible to believe that R. Akiva was not familiar with these prophesied passages and the real historical situation of the First Great Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. He was a well grown man by this time and had eye witnessed events of this tragedy.
Why, then, was he not happy with the choice R. Yochanan had made at the famous meeting with Vespasian? The outcome had been very significant for the Jewish People and Judaism. His discontent and displeasure with R. Yochanan and the decision went so far that he did not even hesitate to use such strong words in addressing his opponent that they verge on assault, 'God makes the wise foolish' or "G-d sometimes turns wise people backward, and transforms their wisdom into foolishness" (B. T. Gittin 57b). R. Akiva also applied this verse to him: 'He turns wise men [i.e. the Sages] backward and confuses their mind' (Isaiah 44:25).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Right away this reminds us of the earlier years of the shepherd Akiva who in his ignorance and blind hatred towards Torah scholars wanted 'to bite them so badly as to crash their bones'.
Here we have two great giants of the Torah, two pillars of Judaism, two different personalities who disagree on the most important question in Jewish religion, 'Can the Jewish People survive without the Holy Temple and the sacrificial system associated with the Temple?'Â
R. Yochanan said 'Yes', and chose to save what realistically was possible, i.e. the Sages of the Sanhedrin, the Torah scholars, and the town of Yavneh. It has been proved for two thousand years of Jewish history that Judaism can survive and even flourish without the Temple and its sacrifices. 'For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings' (Hosea 6:6).
"The multitude of your sacrifices-- what are they to me? says the LORD. I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats" (Isaiah 1:11).
R. Yochanan preferred the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple with its sacrifices rather than risk the survival of the Jewish People. As time has shown, his choice was excellent! 'To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice' (Proverbs 21:3).
"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'" (ARN 4, 21).
He taught that the situation without the Temple and sacrifices will not be permanent. The people of Israel will repent, and God in due time will send the Messiah son of David who will build the Temple and reinstate the sacrificial system. There will be a reunification of all the Tribes of the whole House of Israel who will return to the Promised Land. There will be a Redemption of the whole of Israel, The Messianic Age, which will be followed by the purely spiritual World-To-Come.
Â He and his colleagues did not support the rebel uprising. They tried to calm the people down and negotiate peace with the Romans. R. Yochanan taught that the redemption shall be initiated and come from the Almighty. All attempts by the Jewish People to redeem themselves had failed because they had come through human initiative. If the Jews had been obedient to God there would have been no destruction. The Messianic World also has to be initiated by God, not by the people. Before it comes, the Jewish People has to exercise patience. All their efforts should be directed to establishing a proper spiritual relationship with their God and their fellow man. Only through repentance, prayer, and obedience to God and observance of His Divine Laws shall Israel become the generation that will merit Redemption. Messianic speculations, initiated by individuals, whether they are religious, political, or military leaders of the nation, do not do any good, and as the history of the Jewish nation shows, these manmade attempts have always ended with catastrophic disasters.
Unfortunately, in the First Great Revolt against the Romans the Jews could not overcome the national sinsÂ - baseless hatred, factional rivalry, and the religious fanaticism of the Zealots and Sikarii, whose chaos, bloody terror, and madness prevailed. Because of these sins, the Revolt was crushed, masses of Jews were killed, and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. This was punishment from God to a sinful nation. R. Yochanan fully appreciated the historical and religious reality in the world and, particularly, in Judaea. He knew the strength and might of the Roman Empire and the minimum chance of the rebels to succeed. He also was perfectly aware that for Jews to merit God's redemption, the nation should totally repent of their sins, and start to obey God and His Laws. "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22).
'He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God' (Micah 6:8).
In this Revolt God was not on the side of the rebels. The Jews had to fight the Romans without the help of the Almighty. Consequently, the rebels, Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple were doomed for slaughter, slavery, and destruction. But what is important, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's vision for survival of the Jewish People and their religion without the Holy Temple and its sacrificial system and even without possession of the Land of Israel, has proved itself throughout a long two thousand years of Exile. Judaism of today is the most power proof of R. Yochanan having made the right choice atÂ his famous historical meeting with Vespasian. That meeting determined the fate and destiny of the Jewish People.
R. Akiva vehemently objected to the decision of R. Yochanan to choose Yavneh and its Sages instead of trying to save the Temple. The validity of this criticism to us is very doubtful. R. Akiva was the most influential Torah scholar and the religious leader of his time. It is he who took upon himself the heavy burden of reshaping the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple under Roman occupation. He and his five most prominent students took this task from the hands of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. The Destruction of the Temple was a tragedy for the Jewish People and caused a major crisis in Judaism. It was R. Akiva with his five closest disciples who were facing a new reality of worshiping the God of Israel without His sanctuary and everyday sacrificial rituals, to which Jews had been accustomed for centuries. These great men, the 'Father of Wisdom' and the 'Head of all the Sages', have developed and refined rabbinical Judaism from worship centered around the Temple in Jerusalem, where Atonement for sin was possible through sacrificial rituals. They have elevated Judaism toÂ unseen spiritual heightsÂ where Forgiveness of sin may be achieved by repentance, prayer, Torah study, and acts of loving kindness. They taught the Jewish People that even without the Temple and its sacrificial system, the God of Israel has not abandoned His People. He still loves and cares and wants all of them to merit life in His beautiful spiritual Kingdom of the World-to-Come. The classical rabbinical Judaism of these men outlived the greatest Empires and their idolatrous religions. This was in spite of all the bloody persecutions and Holocausts. Judaism throughout two thousand years of Exile has emerged as resilient, adaptable, and portable, and as a purified monotheistic religion with the highest moral and spiritual values humanity has ever experienced.
Sure, R. Akiva was aware of the events of the First Jewish-Roman War and the intention of the Romans to destroy Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. Certainly, he knew the prophetic predictions that determined the fate of the City and the Sanctuary. This may be seen from the Talmudic story of Mount Scopus.
Once, R. Gamliel, R. Elazar, R. Joshua, and R. Akiva were walking towards Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus, they tore their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. They started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed. Said they to him: "Why are you laughing?" Said he to them: "Why are you weeping?" Said they to him: "A place [so holy] that it is said of it, 'the stranger that approaches it shall die,' (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes traverse it, and we shouldn't weep?" Said he to them: "That is why I laugh. For it is written, 'And I will take for Myself faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah'(Isaiah 8:2). Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah was [in the time of] the First Temple, and Zechariah was [in the time of] the Second Temple! But the Torah makes Zachariah's prophecy dependent upon Uriah's prophecy. With Uriah, it is written: 'Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; [Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest]'(Micah 3:12). With Zachariah it is written, 'Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem' (Zechariah 8:4).
"As long as Uriah's prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zechariah's prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah's prophecy will be fulfilled."Â With these words they replied to him: "Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!" (Talmud, Makkot 24b).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â When R. Akiva saw the ruins of the Temple in fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah 7:34; 22:6-7; Daniel 9:26; Zechariah 11:1; Micah 3:12, with which predictions he was very familiar, right away he recalled the prophecies of the rebuilding of the Third Temple and restoration of God's People Israel.
'Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it' (Zechariah 2:4).
'Thus says the LORD of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand because of old age' (Zechariah 8:4).
'Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow' (Jeremiah 31:13).
In the light of everything we just said it is highly improbable that R. Akiva criticized R Yochanan for his decision to choose Yavneh and the Sages instead of the Holy Temple, for the simple reason that there was not such a choice or any kind of option available. He knew that Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were doomed to be destroyed and there was not a chance to save them. There was no justification for R. Akiva's criticism of his teacher R. Yochanan over his choice because by criticizing him he actually would have criticized himself.
As our Sages say, 'there is no greater honor than that due a teacher, and no greater awe than that due a teacher' (Avot 4:15). Our Sages declared: "Your fear of your teacher should be equivalent to your fear of Heaven."
Whoever criticizes his teacher - is considered as if he criticized the Divine Presence, as implied [by Numbers 21:5]: "And the people spoke out against God and Moses."
Besides, R. Akiva himself taught his followers the same doctrines propagated by R. Yochanan: That in the religious-political environment after the destruction of the Temple, being under the harsh subjugation of the Romans, studying the Torah, obeying God's Commandments, and doing deeds of loving-kindness was the only way for the Jewish People and Judaism to survive.
Here is an illustration in point. R. Akiva told the parable of the fox passing by the river that saw fish desperately swimming to escape the hooks and nets of fishermen. When the fox suggested that they come up on dry land to escape this danger, they replied: "You, fox, are reputed to be the cleverest of animals but you speak like a fool. If we are in danger while we are in the water which is our natural habitat, what chance do we have of survival if we leave the water?" Rabbi Akiva went on to compare Torah for Jews to water for fish with the conclusion that abandoning Torah would be a greater danger to survival (Mesechta Berachot 61b).
Some theological authors have been so obsessed with this so called 'bitter' dispute between R. Yochanan and R. Akiva on the subject as to whether R. Yochanan made the right choice or not at the fateful, decisively important meeting with Vespasian. We think that there was no 'bitter' dispute, nor 'sweet' dispute. As a matter of fact, there were not any disputes at all because by the time (many decades or even centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple), the Talmudic story was written, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai had been long dead.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Those scholars went even farther, asserting that at the time of his death R. Yochanan was tormented with agonizing doubts about the correctness of his decision. We do not know whether R. Yochanan ever regretted his decision, but a clue can be found in the story of his death:
When R. Yochanan lay ailing, his disciples came to visit him. Seeing them, he began to cry. They asked, "Light of Israel, pillar of Torah, strong hammer -- why do you weep?" He replied, "There are two paths open before me -- one leading to paradise and one to hell, and I do not know by which of them they are taking me -- should I not weep?"
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Did R. Yochanan tell his disciples that he was weeping because of the wrong decision he made at the meeting with Vespasian? Does any Scriptural, Talmudic, Rabbinical, or any other source give us any proof or the smallest hint that this was the case? Not at all! Why then are there so many speculations, baseless assumptions, and fantasies? Could not it be that R. Yochanan had another reason to weep before his death? As is said in the Gemara in Sanhedrin 101a where R. Akiva says to R. Eliezer, "The Rebbi taught that 'there is no righteous person in the land who did good and did not sin" (Kohelet 7:20). The same idea is conveyed in Ecclesiastus 7:20: "For there is no righteous man on earth who does good and sins not". Like any righteous man, R Yochanan could have sinned and was not sure in his last hour if God had forgiven him or not. What was his sin, why he was tormented and worried 'by which path they are taking me'? Nobody has found the key to unlock this mystery. He kept this information deep inside and took it with him to eternity. This explanation is more viable than the previous one and justifies his doubts about his destiny after the death. We are certain that for all his heroic effort to save the Jewish People and Judaism, teaching the Torah and upbringing a new generation of remarkably outstanding scholars, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had been taken by God to Paradise, as his eulogy said, 'Not even the guard of the gate of Gehinom could stand in his way!'
R. Yochanan endured heavy emotional feelings at the fall of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, but he did more than anyone else to save the Jewish People and Judaism and paved the way for God's People Israel to rise again.
The date of Yochanan's death is unknown, but the esteem of future generations for his image and work was expressed in the Mishnaic statement (Sot. 9:15) that "When R. Yochanan b. Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased."
Now let us concentrate on R. Akiva and his role in the Second Jewish Revolt of 132-135 CE.Â Â R. Yochanan was pacifist. He did not support the military struggle against the Romans and even tried to negotiate peace with them. R. Akiva, on the contrary, was not a man of peace but a man of action. He was a very nationalistic Jew, who hated the Roman occupation and their idolatrous beliefs. He dreamed of a free and independent Judaea, where Jews would be preoccupied with the study of Torah in peace, justice, and harmony with God and their fellow men. His vision of the Messiah son of David, the King of Israel and the Messianic World was not associated with the distant future. The recapturing of Jerusalem, rebuilding the Third Temple, reinstating the sacrificial system, and bringing about the long awaited Messianic Era, - all of this he expected to happen in his life time.
R. Riskin characterizes R. Akiva beliefs this way: "Rabbi Akiva believed differently. He understood the function of the Holy Temple and Jerusalem as being cardinal to the mission of Israel, a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers (to the world) through whom all of the families of the earth are to be blessed."
Here is the interesting point. Scriptural passages like these below do not speak of the Jewish People only: "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2); 'For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. For the Lord your God has chosen you out of all peoples on the face of the earth to be His People, His treasured possession' (Deuteronomy 7:6); 'I have formed Israel for Myself that they will declare Me before the whole world. I will make you to be a covenant for the peoples and a the light to the Gentiles, that you will bring My salvation to the ends of the earth. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising' (Isaiah 42:6; 43:21; 49:6).
Make no mistake: God speaks here of the genuine nation of the whole Twelve Tribes of Israel, sons of Jacob; not of Judah alone, not of Christian 'Spiritual Israel', nor the nation of Muslims, nor any other nations who try to replace real Israel by themselves. God states it clearly, 'Israel has been chosen out of all people on the face of the earth!' And there was a reason for God to choose Israel!
How could R. Akiva's ideas come to pass, if he excluded the 'Lost' Ten Tribes of Israel from the future Messianic Age and the World-To-Come?!
Many Bible scholars and theologians have written on the subject of Israel's choseness, a 'Nation of Priests', 'a Light to the World'. Numerous books, articles, and valuable researches have been produced on this subject. We are going to add a few modest thoughts to these matters. First of all, we would like to ask a few questions: Has Israel fulfilled its Divine mission? Has she become 'a Covenant for the people and a Light for the Gentiles?' Have they brought God's Salvation to the ends of the earth?
The answer to the posed questions is, NO! Why is this so? Because the time has not arrived yet for Israel to do what the Almighty has designated them to do. At the present time the Israelites of the Ten Tribes in exile cannot truly even be called 'Israelites' in the correct, religious sense because of their lives and faiths. They are rather categorized as Gentiles not consciously knowing their Israelite origin. They have mingled with godless foreigners, making themselves as worthless as a half-baked cake (Hosea 7:8).'"Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel," declares the LORD' (Jeremiah 3:20);
How could they be today a Nation of Priests and bring the glory of the God of Israel to the ends of the earth? But, no matter what, hundreds of millions of the 'Israelites' from the Ten Tribes will acknowledge their Israelite identity! They will turn to the God of their fathers and His Divine Torah. How do we know that? Because the Bible says so! The Almighty will acknowledge and accept them. "In the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people', it will be said 'You are the sons of the living God' "(Hosea 1:10). 'Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, he will display His glory in Israel' (Isaiah 44:23).
All of this will happen in the 'Latter Days', in the End Times, at the dawn of the Messianic Era, and will be possible with the help of the Jewish nation, the keepers of the Law;Â (Yalkut Shimeoni, Song of Solomon 905 on Jeremiah 3:18 'For Torah will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem' (cf. Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2); the Prophet Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6) 'will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers'; at the advent of the Messiah, the King of Israel' (Ezekiel 37:22).
To accomplish their unique mission successfully, the Houses of Judah and Israel must be reunited; the Messiah son of David must be revealed; the Messianic World must be started; Israel, as a nation, must be redeemed by the Almighty. When these numerous Biblical prophecies of reunion and the Messianic Age come to pass, and Israel becomes one nation as it was in the time of Moses when God formed the Israelite nation and gave them His immortal Torah on Mount Sinai, only then will Israel reach the heights of God's Wisdom and Perfection, overcome the limitations of the physical world, be redeemed and become a nation of Priests, a Light to the World, and a Salvation to the Gentiles. Only in the time of the Messianic Era the House of Israel will, finally, know their Lord, God of Israel (Ezekiel 39:22, 28-29); and fulfill their Divine Destiny.Â
"At this stage, when it becomes possible to observe the Torah and its mitzvoth in their totality, the era of the Messiah will have actually begun" ( Maimonides, Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4].
Israel will accomplish their Divine mission successfully! God says of Israel:
"I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:31). This ancient prophecy will find its complete fulfillment only in the Messianic Time! Because of the Israelites and through them, the Almighty will bless all the people of the Earth.
R. Akiva concentrated all his energy, ideas, influence, and his life towards achieving his own vision. Unlike R. Yochanan, who believed that the redemption and the Messianic World must be initiated by the Almighty and only when certain conditions are applied, R. Akiva disregarded those conditions and by his own authority ignited the flame of Revolt against the Romans. R. Yochanan warned that any human effort to initiate the redemption and acknowledgment of the Messiah will lead to catastrophe. As for R. Akiva, many contemporary sages, colleagues, and even his closest disciples (R. Joshua, Yochai, father of Simon, R. Eliezar from Modiin, R. Tarfon, and R. Judah) advised him not to take part in the armed Revolt and not to declare its military leader, Bar Kokhba, the Messiah. They cautioned him of the great responsibility of being deeply involved in Political Messianism and the heavy consequences for the Jewish People if the Revolt failed. Nobody and nothing could change R. Akiva's beliefs and determination to go ahead with armed confrontation against the Roman Empire and proclamation of Bar Kokhba, the wrong man for Divine mission, the Jewish Messiah. R. Akiva underestimated the political situation in the Roman World and in Judaea particularly. He undervalued the lack of moral and spiritual readiness of his 24,000 students and the Jewish People of his generation for redemption and the Messianic Age. He gave up, for the reasons we outlined above, on the Ten Tribes of Israel in exile, saying that they were lost forever and would never come back to the Promised Land. How in the world can one speak of the redemption of the whole House of Israel in the days of Mashiach without the Ten Tribes?! In his sincere hopes and beliefs that a well planned and organized Rebellion would be successful, R. Akiva boldly tried to force Divine Providence to go along with his vision of achieving final victory over the Romans and bringing the blessed Messianic Age to the people of the World. It is not the Jewish People who wage the Messianic Wars and win in the battles, this is God's job, and it is He who wins the battles for His People. The Jewish Revolt was brutally crashed and so were the dreams and aspirations of R. Akiva. As was the case in the First Jewish-Roman War, the God of Israel was not on the side of R. Akiva and the Jewish People in the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and that was the main reason why both uprisings ended in failure. R. Akiva died as a hero in a torturous cruel death, executed by the Romans on the eve of Yom Kippur in the city of Caesarea. With his last breath he recited Shema: 'Hear, O Israel, God is our God; God is One.' A heavenly voice went out and announced: "Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva that your life expired with 'Echad' [i.e. One] (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b).