Vespasian's Campaign of Conquest

In 67 CE, the veteran Roman general Vespasian invaded Eretz Israel with four outstanding legions, including the X Legion, the most distinguished of all Roman legions. In addition, Vespasian brought the latest weapons of war, including catapults, siege towers, and battering rams. His strategy was to conquer the land, moving down from the Galilee in the north, thereby isolating Jerusalem. Wisely, he left the heavily defended capital for last.

The city of Sepphoris, with its strategic fortifications, surrendered to the Romans without lifting a hand in self-defense. Vespasian then marched through the Galilee, easily capturing such important towns as Tiberias, Gamla (in the nearby Golan Heights), and Gush Chalav. After 47 days of fierce battle, the Romans scaled the walls of the presumably impregnable fortress at Jotapata, massacring 40,000 Jewish defenders.

After completing the conquest of the north, Vespasian turned south and west, conquering the Mediterranean seacoast, and all inland areas, finally besieging Jerusalem in 68 CE.

Life in Jerusalem

Rival Zealot factions, ruthlessly executing anyone suspected of wishing to negotiate with Rome, held the besieged city. Starvation was rampant, even among the very wealthy. The Talmud tells the story of Martha bas Beothus, an upper-class woman who never walked in the street but always rode in a carriage, and who was accustomed to eating only the finest foods. After sending her servant on a fruitless search for an ever-dwindling supply of inferior food, Martha decided to walk out and see what she could find. After accidentally stepping on some refuse, she was so nauseated that she became fatally ill. As Martha was dying, she threw all her gold and silver into the street, proclaiming its worthlessness, but no one bothered to collect the treasure.

Meanwhile, there was turmoil in Rome, as several emperors were proclaimed and deposed in 69 CE. As the Roman Senate searched for a successor who could bring stability to the empire, Vespasian, one of the contestants, maintained the siege of Jerusalem, biding his time and awaiting developments in Rome.

The Mission of Rabbi Joachanan Ben Zakkai

As Jerusalem hurtled toward its inevitable destruction, the sages made a last effort to negotiate with the Romans to save what something of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, the leading Torah scholar in Jerusalem, secretly approached his nephew, Zealot head Abba Sikra, requesting safe conduct out of the city.

When public exit became impossible, because the Zealot forces executed anyone attempting to leave, Abba Sikra proposed that Rabbi Jochanan feign sickness, then have his students spread a rumor that the great sage had passed away. Because Jewish law forbids keeping a dead person overnight in Jerusalem, Rabbi Jochanan was placed in a coffin, along with some decaying meat, and carried by trusted disciples. (An outsider would quickly realize that a coffin carrying a live person is lighter than if it contained a corpse — hence the term dead weight.) Rabbi Jochanan’s followers all prayed that the ruse would succeed. Everything worked according to plan until the coffin approached the city gates. There, the Zealot guards demanded to stab the body to insure that it was actually dead. At that point, Abba Sikra intervened, telling the guards that it was disrespectful to stab the dead rabbi, and Rabbi Jochanan's students were permitted to take the coffin out of the city.

Out of sight of the guards, Rabbi Jochanan left his coffin and approached the Roman camp. Upon meeting with Vespasian, Rabbi Jochanan greeted the general with the salutation due an emperor, predicting that Vespasian would be so crowned. As they were conversing, a messenger arrived from Rome with the news that the Senate had indeed proclaimed Vespasian emperor.

Impressed by Rabbi Jochanan's prescience, Vespasian, in a spirit of magnanimity, granted him three wishes. Realizing that Vespasian would refuse to spare the Bais Hamikdash, Rabbi Jochanan requested something that seemed insignificant to the Romans, but was crucial to Jewish survival. (There is an alternative opinion in the Talmud that criticizes Rabbi Jochanan for not asking Vespasian to spare the Bais Hamikdash.)

Indeed, Rabbi Jochanan knew that the Jewish people could outlast the loss of their land, and even the loss of their Bais Hamikdash, but that without Torah sages the nation would die. As such, Rabbi Jochanan uttered four of the most famous words in Jewish history: "Ten Li Yavneh VaChachomeha" — Give me Yavneh and its scholars. Vespasian, having no opposition to a group of rabbis studying Torah in an obscure hamlet, readily acquiesced to the request, allowing the sages to assemble at Yavneh even prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. (Fifty years later, the Romans regretted their colossal mistake, realizing that Torah is indeed the key to Jewish survival.)

Rabbi Jochanan also asked that the Romans spare the family of the Nasi, and that physicians heal the sage Rabbi Tzadok, who fasted 40 years hoping to invoke Divine mercy and forestall the impending destruction. Both these requests were answered as well. In all, the farsightedness of Rabbi Jochanan has preserved the Jewish people to this day: Rome is long gone, but the Jewish people are still studying the teachings of the Yavneh sages.