Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was born approximately 110 years before the destruction of the second Bais Ha’mikdosh. He saw it in its great beauty and, unfortunately, witnessed its destruction. He lived to the ripe old age of 120 years, spending his first forty years in business, the next forty years in study and the last forty years as the leader of Klal Yisroel. (Sanhedrin 41)
He studied under the great giants of the time, Hillel and Shammai. (Pirkei Avos) He is mentioned as the least of Hillel’s eighty students. The greatest amongst them being Yonasan ben Uziel (Targum Yonason) who was so holy, that a bird flying overhead would instantly be burned. Yet, even he, being the smallest of all Hillel’s students had the power to be mechayeh meysim-bring the dead back to life. One wonders what the Rebbi’s power was?
He was knowledgeable in every area of Torah, be it Mikrah, Mishnah, Gemorah, Halacha, Aggadah, Tekufos, gematrios, the language of angels, sheidim, palm trees, and knew the secrets of creation (Maasei Beraishis) and Ma’asei Merkavah (secrets of the Chariot). (Sukkoh 28)
Yet, despite his great Torah knowledge, he would always tell his students that if you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourselves, for this was the purpose for which you were created. (Avos 2)
As he was once riding on a donkey, his great student Rebbi Eliezer ben Aroch asked him to teach him the secrets of Ma’sei Merkovoh. “I’m sorry” said Rebbi Yochanan “but one is not permitted to teach these secrets to anyone but may only give hints to those great enough to figure things out on their own”. Thereupon Rebbi Eliezer asked his Rebbi to permit him to say some of the things he had learned, whereupon Rebbi Yochanan granted him permission. Rebbi Yochanan now got off his donkey, covered himself with his cloak, and sat down on a rock under a olive tree as his student began to expound on the deep secrets of Merkvah. The sky blackened, powerful winds began to blow and the heavenly angels lit up the sky as they came to listen to the holy words of Rebbi Eliezer as he revealed the secrets of the heavenly Chariot.
Upon hearing his student’s great grasp of these hidden secrets, Rebbi Yochanan was so overcome with emotion that he kissed him and said “Blessed be G-d who has given such a great son to Avrohom Ovinu that is able to expound and understand these great secrets .”
It was said of Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that in his entire life he never engaged in idle talk.; for the words of Torah were constantly on his lips. Never did he even take four steps (amos) without speaking in Torah or without wearing tefillin. He was always the first to enter the Bais Ha’medrash and the last to leave. He learned uninterruptedly and never even for a moment would he be found dozing or sleeping in the Bais Medrash. He would personally open the door for his students to enter. Never would he say something that he did not hear from his Rebbi. The only time he closed the doors of his yeshivah was on Erev Pesach and Erev Yom Kippur. He was always the very first one to greet people, including a goy, in the street.
Once, when his son was very sick he asked his student Rebbi Chaninah ben Dosa to pray that he get well. Rebbi Chaninah put his head between his feet, prayed for him and he recuperated. When his wife asked him why he had asked this of his student and did not pray for him himself, he answered, “he is likened to a servant in front of His Master (and so has constant access), while I am like a governor in front of His Master”.
Already forty years before the destruction of the Bais Ha’Mikdosh there were many heavenly signs that it would soon be destroyed. The usual ten miracles didn’t take place. That’s when Rebbi Tzodok began his forty year fast, praying fervently to overturn the terrible decree. When the gates of the Heichal automatically opened wide as if inviting the enemy to enter, he shouted at them and they quickly shut closed.
For three years, the Roman General Vespasian set siege to the city of Yerushalayim but was unable to get her to surrender. Rebbi Yochanan was of the opinion that armed resistance against the Romans was useless and the only chance for survival was to make peace with them. However, there was a large group of people, called the Baryonim who thought they could fight against the mighty Roman army rather than surrender. Yerushalayim still had a large supply of oil, wine and wood and could easily hold out against an enemy siege. The Baryonim deliberately set fire to these storehouses in hope of forcing the people to fight the enemy.
Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai called his nephew, Abba Sikrah, who was the leader of this rebellious group and tried to reason with him. “We’ll all die if you continue this madness”, he told him. Abbah Sikrah told him that there was really nothing he can do for he had lost all control of his followers. Were he to dare suggest that they make peace, they would have his head. Rebbi Yochanan pleaded with him to find him a way to get out of the city so that he could go and negotiate with the Roman general.
Abba Sikrah gave him the following advice. He was to pretend that he was very sick and allow only his most trusted students into his room. “After a few days let it be known that you have died.” Only the dead were permitted to be taken out of the city and buried outside. The plan worked perfectly and his coffin was taken out of the city without any mishap. Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai immediately made his way to the Roman general and was granted entry. Upon entering into the general’s presence, he bowed graciously and proclaimed ” Blessed be you my King, blessed be you my King”.
The general looked at him in great anger and said “You now deserve to be killed twice. Once, for addressing me as the king when I am only the general, and secondly , if it be true that I am the king then why did you not come earlier?”
Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai replied, “Undoubtedly you must be the King because our prophets have prophesied that Yerushalayim will fall into the hands of a King, and the reason I haven’t come earlier is because the Baryonim would not permit me to leave the city.”
At that very moment a Roman nobleman arrived on horseback with an urgent message for the general. It stated that the king had died and that Vespasian had been proclaimed the new ruler. Vespasian was amazed at this turn of events and told Rebbi Yochanan to make any request of him and it would be granted.
Rebbi Yochanan, of course, realized that if he asked for too much he may get nothing at all, so he make just three requests. He asked to be given the city of Yavneh and its great scholars. He asked that the leadership of the princely family of Rebbi Gamliel should be allowed to continue, and he requested that a doctor be given to heal Rebbi Tzodok.
The king graciously agreed to all three requests.
And so, while Rebbi Yochanan could not save the city of Yerushalayim itself, he at least rescued the great Torah Sages and thereby insured that the study of Torah would continue uninterruptedly. (Gittin 56)
As he was once walking in Yerushalayim and saw the Bais Ha’mikdosh laying in ruins, his student Rebbi Yehosuah remarked, “Woe to us that the place where we were able to obtain our forgiveness lies in ruins”. “My son” answered Rebbi Yochanan. “We must always remember that we are still left with one method of forgiveness that is her equal, and that is gemilas chasodim-doing good deeds.”
He would tell his students that there are three things that merit a person with a share in the world to come and they are: a) Living in Eretz Yisroel b) Bringing up one’s children to Torah Study c) Reciting Havdala on wine on Motzoei Shabbos. (Pesochim 113)
Once, when he was told that a certain family of kohanim were all dying before they reached the age of eighteen, he immediately suspected that they came from the family of Eli Ha’kohen that had been cursed with short life. He advised them to devote themselves to Torah study and they would merit longer life. His advice paid off and the family called their children Yochanan in honor of the great tzadik.
He had five students that stood out from amongst all the rest. He praised Rebbi Eliezer ben Horkenus as being like a lime pit that doesn’t lose a drop of its water. About Rebbi Yehosuah ben Chananyah he said, “Praise worthy is the mother that gave birth to such a special son.” Rebbi Yossi HaKohen was praised as the pious one, and Rebbi Shimon ben Nesanel as one who truly feared sin. Rebbi Elozor ben Aroch was likened to a spring whose waters came gushing forth with great strength. If all the scholars would be put on one side of a scale and Rebbi Eliezer ben Horkinus would be put on the other side, he would outweigh them all.
He instituted many important enactments. After the Bais Ha’mikdosh was destroyed he instituted that the lulov and esrog be taken all seven days of Sukkos in all cities around the world. During the time of the Bais Hamikdosh it was taken only for one day. The only place it was taken for all seven days was in the Bais Ha’mikdosh itself. He instituted many other important enactments in order to strengthen Torah law and remember the Beit Ha’Mikdosh.
When Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai became sick, his students came to visit him. When he saw them enter, he began to cry. “Rebbi, the light of Yisroel, the right pillar, the strong hammer,” said his students, “why do you cry?” Answered Rebbi Yochanan, ” If I would have to appear in front of an ordinary King who rules only temporarily and whose anger is not lasting and whose death penalty is only of short duration, wouldn’t I be terrified? Now that I must come before the King of Kings, Whose rule is eternal and Whose anger is eternal and Whose punishment of death remains everlasting, should I not be frightened?”” Furthermore,” he said “there are two paths in front of me, one leads to Gan Eden while the other leads to Gehenom, and one can never be sure on which path he will be led, shouldn’t I therefore cry?”
Thereupon they said to him “Rebbi, please bless us”. He thereupon told them “If only your fear of heaven be equal to your fear of man”. “And not more?” they asked. “When a person sins he is always afraid lest a person see him,” was his reply. “If only you realize that HaShem is always watching.”
As he was about to return his neshomah to the One Above he told his students. “Empty the house of any objects that can become tomei and prepare a chair for Chizkiyahu King of Yehudah who is coming to greet me”. (Berochos 28)
When he died it was said “that the shine of wisdom has gone”.
He lies buried in the city of T’verya, right alongside where the Rambam would be buried 1,100 years later.