Who was Ben Zakkai?

The Courage of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai

Yohanan ben Zakkai (Hebrew: יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי‎, Yōḥānān ben Zakkaʾy; 1st century CE), sometimes abbreviated as Ribaz (ריב״ז‎) for Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, was one of the Tannaim, an important Jewish sage during the late Second Temple period and in the transformative post-destruction era. He was a primary contributor to the core text of Rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah. His name is often preceded by the honorific title, “Rabban.” He is widely regarded as one of the most important Jewish figures of his time, and his escape from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (which allowed him to continue teaching) may have been instrumental in Rabbinic Judaism’s survival post-Temple. His tomb is located in Tiberias within the Maimonides burial compound. He was the first Jewish sage attributed the title of rabbi in the Mishnah.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (d. c. 85 ce) was one of the most influential figures in ancient Jewish history. Emerging from the ruins of the destroyed Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai led the Jewish people through the dangerous first years after the devastation of the last remnants of their state by the Romans. A disciple of Hillel, he was of the “national-realist” school that favored tactical surrender to the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire. In his most famous act, he arranged to fake his own death in order to escape his enemies among the Zealots to negotiate a peace treaty with Vespasian, who would later become Emperor. “Give me Yavneh and its scholars,” asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, setting in place the foundation for the existence of Judaism after the Temple could no longer serve as the center of Jewish religious life. 

For more about the life of Rabban ben Zakkai, click here. Holly Blue Hawkins has some insights relating ben Zakkai’s leadership to today’s challenges in this article.