FROM THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS we get a clear picture of the political situation of the country and of its inhabitants as well as of the means that were employed by the enemy to oppress the people. But the internal life of the Jewish home was not greatly affected by the war which raged outside its walls. All those laws and customs which governed the life of the people were already strongly established to the smallest detail; the regulations concerning the daily prayers and the observance of the Sabbath and the holy days were definitely formed. The same was true regarding the family organization, the permissible and prohibited marriages, financial disputes among Jews as well the punishment of offenses against the public order. There were also well established dietary regulations and rules of cleanliness. All customs regarding offerings to the priests and the obligations toward the poor were defined. Even questions pertaining to the offering of sacrifices, which many scholars no longer considered as the most important foundation of the Jewish faith, and the laws affecting life and death, which were taken out of the jurisdiction of the Jewish courts, were codified in great detail together with their traditions and forms. But all of this legislation was not yet written down and the people had to guard it in their memory for use in future interpretations of the law.
We may therefore definitely say that the whole “oral law” as we have it today was already completed by that time. Such disputes as arose over the interpretation of a text came about as a result of the fact that the law was not set down in writing and was contained in the memory of the students.
In the observance of every day customs each one had his own traditions and these varied only slightly. But the regulations regarding cleanliness and the laws pertaining to the offering of sacrifices, which was no longer practiced, were increasingly disputed as time went on. Many of the regulations pertaining to sacrifices were forgotten soon after their offering was discontinued and it frequently occurred that a later scholar who never witnessed the service in the temple had to correct an older scholar who did witness the service but whose recollections were indistinct.
A rule was therefore adopted that whenever one expressed an opinion about a practice which was no longer observed, such an opinion had only a theoretical significance as to the desirable form of the observance but it did not serve as proof that this had actually been the form in which the practice was observed in the past.
Laws affecting civil disputes which involved monetary matters attained a high level of development. This was especially the case in the matter of offering proof which assumed numerous forms depending on the nature of the case; at times it was necessary to bring witnesses, at other times an oath, a written document or other proof of possession was required.
Usually two witnesses were required in such law suits. Their testimony had to coincide and they had to be known as men of high moral standards. For this reason no “Am Haaretz” was eligible to be a witness nor a person who might be suspected of falsifying his testimony out of fear of one of the litigants or through irresponsible levity. Women, children, cripples (blind and deaf) and fools who cannot judge what they see were also ruled out as witnesses. Similarly relatives of the litigants were rejected and in case both witnesses were related only one of them was allowed to testify. Persons known as “wicked,” gamblers, pigeon thieves and usurers were ruled out because they were considered as robbers who deprive people of their money. The same was true of persons who dealt in fruit of the sabbatical year or who were suspected of robbery. Among those not qualified to testify were also included tax collectors for the Roman government, shepherds who graze their herds in strangers’ fields and people suspected of being personally interested in the case.
There were cases when the court had to be satisfied with the testimony of only one witness. Thus the testimony of one witness to the death of a person was sufficient to free the widow to remarry. In other cases where the plaintiff could produce only one witness, the defendant could swear to his innocence and thus invalidate the testimony. Similar was the case of a woman who came before the court in times of peace and declared that her husband was dead. If she was known to have lived happily with him her testimony was accepted as valid in spite of the fact that women were not allowed to testify and despite the rule that no one might testify on his own behalf.
When hearing a witness the court had to impress upon him the possible significance of his words and to cross question him minutely. If the witnesses contradicted each other the testimony of both was ruled out. If they recanted their testimony, they were considered as false witnesses and the punishment that was to be meted out to the defendant was imposed upon them. In some cases it was possible to convict a defendant on the basis of testimony of witnesses who did not see the crime themselves but who heard of it from the defendant. But there were also limitations such as that a man might not be convicted on the basis of his own confession even though such a confession was worth the testimony of a hundred witnesses, for no man could make himself out to be wicked.
An oath was exacted when there were no witnesses or when only one witness appeared against the defendant. Similarly watchmen who disclaimed responsibility for damages to property while in their charge had to take an oath. This was also the case when a defendant admitted part of his guilt or one who denied guilt and was confronted by one witness. There were also cases when the plaintiff had to take an oath. These included workmen who claimed that they were not paid, the victim of a robbery in a case where the defendant pleaded not guilty, and the case of a man who was suspected of falsehood but against whom there were no witnesses.
The best proof in a law suit was a written document atesting to a loan, an engagement, a marriage or a divorce. Other documents recognized were contracts of sale or purchase, wills affecting inheritance, certificates of gift, receipts, mortgages, evaluation of property during the division of an inheritance, certificates of alimony to a deserted wife or children, written declaration of a married minor rejecting her husband, statements of arbitration and numerous others. Sometimes an oath was required in addition to the written documents whenever the signatures on the latter were doubtful.
Circumstantial evidence was highly regarded. Property in possession of a person was considered to be his own and any claim to it had to be proved by the claimant.
[The people were at that time imbued with a strong desire to fortify and define their faith and it is remarkable that, in spite of the unfavorable political position of the Jews, Judaism nevertheless gained adherents and many neighboring peoples came closer to it. It may be assumed that the period was one of spiritual crisis among the heathen nations. Tiring of the idols many people confusedly speculated that the forces of nature are not gods but that they are part of an invisible power which governs the forces of nature. When they heard that Jews worship such an invisible God, many came to Judea to acquaint themselves with the worshippers of this God.
It was characteristic that the seekers after a new truth mainly belonged to the upper educated strata of their nations. Adiabene, a small buffer state on the banks of the Tigris, was then ruled by a queen Helene. This queen was married to her brother Izates, and after his death she once visited Jerusalem. Deeply impressed by what she saw and especially by the religious ceremonials of the temple she was converted and adopted Judaism. Later her son, Izates II, also joined the faith.
It is probable that some of the Jewish scholars of that time were not too happy over the new converts. It seems certain that the strict regulations against proselytes and the sharp expressions against them in the Talmud such as that “proselytes are as difficult for Jews as a swelling” all date from this period. The troubles which Jews had to withstand from the Samaritans and the Idumeans taught them to be careful in admitting new converts.
Most of the proselytes of that time were women. Conversion was more difficult for men and fewer of them adopted Judaism. When king Izates II decided to become a Jew one of the scholars taught him the precepts of Judaism and told him that he must not undergo circumcision in order not to arouse the anger of his countrymen; it would be sufficient if he recognized the principles of the Jewish religion and the overlordship of an invisible God. But Izates was later circumcised when he realized that without this rite he was deprived of the rights of a Jew.
Many highly placed persons strove toward the Jewish faith. They were intrigued by the high moral teachings of the Jewish religion although they did not highly regard the Jew as a person. It therefore seems certain that were the political situation of the Jewish nation more favorable all the surrounding nations would have embraced Judaism.
It is also remarkable that some of the scholars of that time were but little concerned with the continued existence of the temple. Many events which then transpired were not written down and those that history did note express a definite tendency of thought. But it seems certain that some scholars considered the development of the Torah as more important than the maintenance of the temple. They probably reasoned that were the temple to be destroyed it could be rebuilt in more auspicious times but if the Torah were to be neglected it might spell the doom of the Jewish nation.
It is also evident that some scholars did not attach much importance to the offering of sacrifices while others carefully pondered the minutest details of the temple service. This, however, took place after the temple was destroyed. Only after the temple was razed did the realization of its significance as a central national force dawn upon people. Only then did even those who considered the temple to be of minor importance in the Jewish religion grasp its importance. Revolutionary sentiment died down after the rebels were slaughtered or led captive to Rome to fight with wild beasts in its arenas. A new concept of the significance of sacrifices was then gained. It was now understood that when the text says that sacrifices are offered as “pleasing odors” it was not meant that God enjoys the odor of burnt flesh but rather that he is satisfied to see men do his will. When it was no longer possible to offer sacrifices, some scholars held that fasts and self-inflicted suffering are considered by God to be worthier than burnt offerings while others maintained that prayer was of greater importance than sacrifices.
While the revolution was raging throughout the land the temple service was conducted as usual. At the same time, many scholars sought to escape from the revolution-torn city and they established a new sanctuary for the study of the Torah in Jabneh.
The Romans did not yet persecute the study of the Torah, for in those days they did not see in the Torah any danger to the unity of the Roman empire. They therefore paid no attention to the scholarly pursuits as long as the Jews regularly paid their taxes to the government. It also seems certain that the Romans would have saved the temple from destruction were it not for their allies among the Jews who constantly called their attention to the fact that as long as the temple remained in existence Jews would never submit to Roman rule and no matter how much they were persecuted they would continue to revolt.
Among the friends of the Romans who constantly insisted that the temple must be destroyed and that its continued existence gave encouragement to the embattled Jews, the foremost were the Jewish king Agrippa II and his sister Berenice. Berenice was not noted for modesty in her personal life and she became the mistress of Titus, the commander of the Roman army in Judea.
The relations between Titus and Berenice are described in the Talmud in the following words: “He held a harlot by the hand and entered the Holy of Holies.”1)גטין נ״ז ב׳. Just as the Talmud never referred to Herod except as “the Idumean slave” so also they referred to Berenice as a “harlot.”
Historical legend relates that Titus commanded his soldiers not to harm the temple. But Agrippa and Berenice refused to obey him in this matter and hinted to the soldiers that they would never subdue the revolt as long as the temple remained intact. Berenice is said to have climbed on the shoulder of a Roman soldier and with her own hand to have thrown into the temple the burning torch which set fire to the building. When Titus heard that the temple was burning he ran to help put out the fire, but he came too late, for the flames had already enveloped the whole temple.
It is obvious that one would not sin against historical truth if he disbelieved this legend. It was originated by Josephus who is not entirely trustworthy when chronicling the role of Titus and king Agrippa during the destruction of the temple.
The revolt lasted many years. It was not concentrated in one locality but flared up in different sections of the country until it assumed a general nature and on a certain day the priests refused to offer the daily sacrifice for the welfare of the Roman emperor and also rejected sacrifices offered by non-Jews who lived in Judea.
Friends of the Romans immediately informed the representatives of the government of the new turn in the tactics of the rebels. When Roman soldiers were dispatched to enforce the offering of the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperor and to force the acceptance of the sacrificial offerings of the non-Jews, the patriots occupied the temple and killed many of the soldiers who were stationed in Jerusalem and its vicinity.
This action caused great confusion among the Jews because it was unauthorized and many prominent persons in Jerusalem publicly expressed their displeasure. For this expression of loyalty to the Romans the zealots executed many of them as well as numerous others whom they suspected of secret sympathy with the Romans.
Later others declared that since the deed could not be undone it was necessary to wait for the reaction of Rome, meanwhile fortifying the cities in anticipation of the coming of the enemy.
At that time there lived in Jerusalem three wealthy men who belonged to aristocratic families which could trace their descent as far back as king Saul and Moses. Their names were Nakdimon ben Gurion, Ben Kalba Savua and Ben Tzizith Hakeseth. These three undertook to supply the city with wheat and barley, wine and oil as well as salt and wood for the duration of the siege of Jerusalem even if that were to last many years.
But the zealots were eager to come out in open struggle against the Romans and they felt sure that they were strong enough for the contest. They feared that the presence of large supplies of food during the forthcoming siege might induce the people to stay within the walls and discourage them from attacking the enemy outside the gates. They were therefore dissatisfied with the offer of the wealthy men and in the dark of night they burned the store rooms filled with grain. A great famine then followed the like of which the city never experienced before.
The Roman governor meanwhile incited the Greek population of Caesarea against their Jewish neighbors. When the news of the clash became known, the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem attacked the Greeks as well as other non-Jews within the city. This mutual enmity quickly enveloped the whole country and whenever Jew and non-Jew met a battle ensued in which the weaker side was given no mercy.
These clashes spread to Acco, Haifa, Ascalon and other cities and also affected the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt who till this time lived peacefully. When the news reached Alexandria the Greek population began to attack the Jews and, meeting with resistance, they started a war of annihilation against them. The leader of the Greeks was a Jewish apostate Tiberius Alexander.
The chronicles of these violent events speak of tens of thousands of people being killed. While it is possible that some of these figures are exaggerated there remains no doubt that large numbers perished and the horrors of the situation were not exaggerated.
When the Romans finally decided to suppress the Jewish insurrection their army was put under the command of Galus. With him was the Jewish king Agrippa who acted as his guide and who instructed the soldiery to execute all those they met.
Meanwhile the disturbances within Jerusalem gained in intensity from day to day. Outside the cities the Jewish warriors showed feats of prodigious valor which terrified the Romans to such an extent that many of them deserted their camp and joined the Jews in the struggle for liberation. But within Jerusalem there raged a violent struggle between those who wanted peace and the militants who demanded war.
The story in the Talmud about the disputes between the school of Shammai (who wanted war) and the school of Hillel (who wanted peace) of which it is said that “a sword was placed within the temple and it was announced that one might enter but he might not leave until a decision was arrived at”2)שבת י״ז א׳. is interpreted by some historians to refer to the above mentioned conflicts. On another occasion it is told that “the disciples of Shammai stood at the foot of the wall armed with swords and spears and they beat the disciples of Hillel.”3)ירושלמי שבת פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.
Still others campaigned for war by means of the written word. There was then written the “Megillat Taanith” which cites all the afflictions which Jews had to withstand throughout their existence in order to arouse the people against the insufferable troubles. Others wrote “Megillat Beth Chashmonai,” the story of the Hasmonean family, which told of the causes of the Hasmonean revolt in order to remind the people of the great miracles which then transpired when a small handful of valiant Jews undertook the struggle against the mighty Greeks. All of this was aimed to encourage the rebels in the belief that God would certainly aid them against the Romans even though their military forces be small.
The greatest error of the leaders of the war against Rome was committed when they appointed Josephus to head the war in Galilee. In his history of the war Josephus relates the tricks and intrigues to which he resorted in his fight against the insurrection up to the destruction of the temple. After the destruction he received an appointment from the Roman emperor and out of gratitude to Rome he assumed the surname Flavius which was also the name of the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus.
To save the situation the Romans dispatched a horde of six hundred thousand armed men under the leadership of Vespasian against the Jewish rebels. Vespasian, who was noted for his victories over the Germans, proceeded to storm the fortresses outside of Jerusalem in an attempt to cut off that city from all avenues of escape. He was always successful in utilizing the aid of traitors who informed him of the weaknesses of the various cities and how they might best be taken. His conduct of the war lacked all ethics of combat and whenever he occupied a city after promising to spare its inhabitants, he invariably broke his promise and brutally slaughtered its residents.
The Jews fought with indescribable heroism but they were everywhere betrayed and the Romans took one city after another. Jerusalem alone remained steadfast and would not surrender but it was afflicted by another difficulty. Tens of thousands of refugees from the surrounding towns fled into the city and attempted to dictate the activities of its inhabitants. A large portion of the Jerusalem population would have been glad to end the insurrection in any manner possible, but the zealots considered them as traitors and once a man was stamped by the suspicion of treason he could be killed without punishment.
The mutual conflicts of the Jerusalem Jews as well as the famine which broke out after the food supplies were burned were a great encouragement to Vespasian who saw in them a sign that the gods were favoring him. Secure in the belief that Rome would triumph in the end, he was satisfied to watch the Jews aid him in his work.
Vespasian meanwhile entrusted the conduct of the war to his son Titus who maintained friendly relations with king Agrippa II and with Josephus and was also on intimate terms with princess Berenice. These instructed him what means to employ and, knowing that the city was without food, they pointed out to him how he could also cut off its water supply. When these attempts brought no results, Titus announced to the besieged that he would provide food and drink to all those who would come out to him and that he would also permit them to return to the city.
Many of the besieged were deceived by these promises and, as could be expected, Titus did not keep his promise. Some of the deserters were given salty food but no water; others were crucified in front of the fortress in full view of the besieged; still others had their arms cut off after which they were sent back into the city.
But in spite of the siege the temple service continued until the 17th day of Tamuz. Throughout long months the inhabitants of the city had nothing to eat but the daily sacrifice was offered until the last lamb was gone and not even a handful of flour was left in the city. Then the sacrifice was discontinued and the fire on the altar expired.
With the aid of famine and plagues, mutual conflict and other suffering which reached such a stage that the people were forced to become cannibalistic, the Romans conquered Jerusalem. But even when the Romans were already within the gates of the city the Jews continued to fight valiantly until they saw the temple in flames; only then did they lose their courage.
No one believed that God would permit His temple to be destroyed and, when this finally did happen, everyone within the city, men and women, young and old, went about crazed with despair. Thousands cast themselves into the fire while others fell on their own swords.
The burning of the temple marked a spiritual crisis in Jewish life. Their life became centered about the Torah and now Jerusalem was superseded by Jabneh.
After four years of bloody warfare Jerusalem lay devastated, the temple destroyed, the best people of the nation were killed or dragged into captivity where they were sold as slaves into the copper and lead mines. The young men of the aristocratic families were forced to run after the triumphal chariot of Titus while carrying in their hands the vessels of the temple which became the booty of the Romans and after the celebration of the triumph they had to face each other as well as wild animals in battles staged in the arenas of Rome for the pleasure of the populace.
These spectacles were visited among others by the ex-king Agrippa, his sister Berenice and Josephus who later described those wars in a tone of praise to Vespasian.
Jabneh developed into an important city during the revolt preceding the destruction of the temple. Its population was so large that the city provided forty thousand men for the war; it may therefore be reckoned that its population was about two hundred thousand. When the Romans spared the city they hardly knew the strength which was inherent in the Torah and how dangerous for them it might become.
It seems certain that many of the scholars left Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple because of their refusal to participate in the revolt. These settled in Jabneh which was apparently not affected by the tumult of war. When Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai visited the emperor Vespasian in his camp, he found favor in his eyes and Vespasian asked him to make a request. Rabban Jochanan did not ask that Jerusalem or the temple be spared but he requested that Jabneh and its scholars be saved. This clearly indicates that Jabneh was already then the home of a large number of scholars.
Jabneh then became the center of Judaism — a new Jerusalem without a temple or sacrifices. A new Sanhedrin was organized which assumed the rights of the previous Sanhedrin of Jerusalem to regulate Jewish life according to the interpretations of the Torah. The scholars of Jabneh were of no less stature than those of Jerusalem. They would not have been chosen had they not been men of great religious and secular learning as well as masters of the languages of the neighboring peoples, so as to be able to try cases between Jews and non-Jews without having to resort to outside experts and interpreters.
The scholars of Jabneh gathered in a place which was called “the vineyard of Jabneh.” The meaning of this name is not entirely clear and some claim that it refers to their manner of being seated in rows just as vines are planted in a vineyard.4)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ד׳. In Jabneh the decision was finally made that in all disputes between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel the law should be practiced according to the school of Hillel. This decision was arrived at as a result of a “Bath Kol”*)Opinions vary regarding the exact nature of a “Bath Kol.” Some declare it to be a natural phenomenon, while others say it is an expression of the will of God. According to the first it is a reflection of popular opinion, a voice from among the people, while the latter say it is a voice from heaven. When the Talmud states that after the death of the last prophets (Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh) appeared no more and the “Bath Kol” took its place, Tosephoth remark that “some say they did not hear a voice coming from heaven but only an echo such as one hears reflected.” (Sanhedrin, 11.) which announced that the opinions of the school of Shammai are also from God but that only the opinions of the school of Hillel should be put into practice.5)ירושלמי ברכות פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.
When the people saw that sacrifices were no longer offered they fell into a great despair. Many of them could not understand the value of the prayers that were substituted for the sacrifices and the weaker ones joined the various religious sects that sought a new god outside of the Jewish faith. It was then that the Tana Shmuel Hakatan established the prayer against the disbelievers (ברכת המינים) which curses all those who depart from the Jewish faith to be taken from among the living.
Many laws were codified in Jabneh and special attention was paid to determining the first of the month and the feast days. This calendar was also valid for the Jews of Rome, Greece, Egypt and Babylon.
Jabneh thus became a place of refuge for fugitives from the strife in Jerusalem. While the tumult of war was still resounded and the hearts of the people contracted in pain at sight of the dead and wounded and at the sound of the Roman cheers, this group of scholars forged the essence of the Jewish nation. It was not difficult for them to find that which they sought. They realized that the Torah was the only hope for continued national existence and their work could not be hindered by strangers nor by all the legions of the Romans. While the enemy could kill people, destroy the temple and lay waste the land he could not annihilate the spirit of the nation.
After a short time there was also founded in Jabneh a court having the same powers as the court in Jerusalem. The text of the Bible that “if a thing shall be hidden from you in a judgment between blood and blood or between one claim and another or between one damage and another in a dispute within your gates, you shall arise and go to the place which the Lord God will choose” (Deut. 17:8) they interpreted to mean that the court gives authority to the place where it is located and not the place to the court; it was therefore concluded that Jabneh might also be such a place.
Jabneh came to be considered the equal of Jerusalem in the matter of some customs such as the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah when the first day of the year happens on a Sabbath. In such a case it was previously prohibited to blow the Shofar on Sabbath outside of Jerusalem where no sacrifices were offered.
It is related that the introduction of this custom in Jabneh met with some difficulties. Prominent opponents of this measure, such as the men of Bathyra whose ancestors once headed the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, could not compromise with the idea that Jabneh should be considered the equal of Jerusalem in sanctity and that the blowing of the Shofar on a Sabbath should be permitted within it. They wanted to debate the matter with Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai but he said: “Let us first blow the Shofar and then we shall debate the issue.” When they wanted to debate the question after this was done he said to them: “Now that the sound of the Shofar has been heard in Jabneh it is useless to debate the matter.”
Until this time it was the custom that the head of the Court had to announce the beginning of the new month but in Jabneh it was ruled that any member of the court might announce the beginning of the new month even in the absence of the head of the court.
The basis for these new innovations was that with the destruction of the temple the needs of the people changed in accordance with the new political situation. The great changes which the events of that time brought about eliminated the original purpose of many of the customs and they had to be changed according to the new state of affairs. It is characteristic of the people that they adapted themselves rapidly to the changed circumstances and looked at the present and toward the near future instead of to the past.
As the people devoted themselves to the observance of the commandments according to the traditions of the oral law, they gained the necessary strength to rise above the gloom of the present and to concentrate their thoughts on spiritual matters. Their first activity was to gather all the traditions and to put them down in writing. Seeing that many old customs were being forgotten and that even some of the scholars, who were active in the academy, sometimes forgot that which they had seen, they began to collect in book form all the traditional customs and laws including those that were no longer practiced after the destruction of the temple.