Masada is without a doubt one of the most frequently visited sites in Israel, outside of Jerusalem. The mountaintop, once inaccessible to all but the hardiest hikers, is now reachable by cable car, and much of the site is handicapped accessible. The archaeological remains date back primarily to the period of King Herod, who ruled from 37-4 BCE toward the end of the Second Temple period. They are spectacular, and the story of the Jewish rebellion against Rome that took place on Masada just one hundred years after Herod, during the Great Revolt of 66-70 CE, is compelling. Yet the only historical source for Masada and the 960 Jews who took their own lives rather than serve the Romans is the writings of the Roman historian, Josephus Flavius, once known as Yosef ben Matityahu, a Jewish general in the war against Rome. Remarkably, despite extensive discussions in the Talmud about the period of the Revolt, there is no reference to Masada or to the events that purportedly took place there. The place and the story seem not to have existed for the rabbis of the Talmudic era.
The Talmud does, however, recount a very different story from the same period. Confronted with the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the intransigence of the Jewish extremists (frequently referred to as Zealots), a respected rabbinic leader by the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai devised a strategy. The Gemara relates in detail how his students, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, snuck their rebbe out of Jerusalem in a coffin. Rabbi Yochanan went straight to the camp of Vespasian, the Roman general. The ensuing drama is described in detail in the Talmud (Gittin 56b) and culminates with Rabbi Yochanan’s four-word request that resonated throughout the following 2,000 years of Jewish history: “Ten li Yavneh vechachamechah, Give me the city of Yavneh and its sages.” Vespasian acquiesced, and Rabbi Yochanan was permitted to reestablish the Sanhedrin and a rabbinic academy in Yavneh. The Sanhedrin it continued to function after the Temple’s destruction. Rabbi Yochanan served as the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin and authored numerous edicts specifically intended to preserve elements of Temple practice.
Modern Yavneh, a city of over 30,000 people, is located near the Tel Aviv-Ashdod highway (Route 42), and encompasses Tel Yavneh, the site of the original Yavneh. Unfortunately, the only visible remains on Tel Yavneh are from the Crusader period and from a small Arab village that stood on the site prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. It is, however, a powerful experience to stand on the spot where chachmei Yavneh once met to carry on and strengthen the process of interpreting Jewish law. It was here that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai himself established a number of important edicts that perpetuated certain Temple practices, even though the Temple lay in ruins. The Academy itself was called “Kerem (lit. vineyard) BeYavneh” because the students sat in rows, reminiscent of the rows of grapes in a vineyard. The perspective from the tel is quite lovely, offering a view of the nearby Mediterranean and, on a clear day, of the coast from Tel Aviv to Ashdod.
Near the tel is the tomb of Rabban Gamliel, who succeeded Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai as nasi of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh. A great grandson of Hillel, Rabban Gamliel served in this position from approximately 80 to 100 CE. He strengthened the Sanhedrin and also had a major impact on the development of halachah in Yavneh. At the time of the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132 CE), the Sanhedrin moved to the Galil, and it was in Tzipori around seventy years later that Rebbi, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, the son of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, compiled the Mishnah. The tomb of Rabban Gamliel is a meaningful stop for those wishing to travel in the footsteps of the Sanhedrin and to visit the graves of the kedoshim of Eretz Yisrael who preserved Torah for future generations.
I must admit that in my fifteen years of guiding tours throughout Israel, I have been to Masada a few hundred times. I can count the number of times that I have been to Yavneh on one hand. Yet, although in Masada one could hear a dramatic historical account and see magnificent Herodian ruins, in Yavneh, one could stand at the spot where Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabban Gamliel and their successors set in motion the means of safeguarding Jewish practice without the Temple and even eventually, without the Land of Israel. The sages of Yavneh found the key to preserving the memory of the Beit Hamikash in the practice and hearts of Jews and to sustaining the yearning to return to the Land of Israel to rebuild what had been lost so many years before.
Masada is a wonderful site to visit; certainly it a tribute to the architectural and engineering skills of “Herod the Great,” and a place where one can acquire insight into the various philosophies that prevailed during the Great Revolt. But Yavneh and its sages had a far greater impact on the survival of Judaism.
Mr. Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in running inspiring and enjoyable tours of Israel for congregations, schools and families. Mr. Abelow can be reached at 972-54-313-3712 or at firstname.lastname@example.org