The Roman authorities then sent Vespasian Caesar against the Jews. He came and laid siege to Jerusalem for three years. There were at that time in Jerusalem these three wealthy people: Nakdimon ben Guryon, ben Kalba Savua, and ben Tzitzit HaKesat. The Gemara explains their names: Nakdimon ben Guryon was called by that name because the sun shined [nakad] on his behalf, as it is related elsewhere (see Ta’anit 19b) that the sun once continued to shine in order to prevent him from suffering a substantial loss. Ben Kalba Savua was called this because anyone who entered his house when he was hungry as a dog [kelev] would leave satiated [save’a]. Ben Tzitzit HaKesat was referred to by that name because his ritual fringes [tzitzit] dragged along on blankets [keset], meaning that he would not walk in the street with his feet on the ground, but rather they would place blankets beneath him. There are those who say that his seat [kiseh] was found among the nobles of Rome, meaning that he would sit among them. These three wealthy people offered their assistance. One of them said to the leaders of the city: I will feed the residents with wheat and barley. And one of them said to leaders of the city: I will provide the residents with wine, salt, and oil. And one of them said to the leaders of the city: I will supply the residents with wood. The Gemara comments: And the Sages gave special praise to he who gave the wood, since this was an especially expensive gift. As Rav Ḥisda would give all of the keys [aklidei] to his servant, except for the key to his shed for storing wood, which he deemed the most important of them all. As Rav Ḥisda said: One storehouse [akhleva] of wheat requires sixty storehouses of wood for cooking and baking fuel. These three wealthy men had between them enough commodities to sustain the besieged for twenty-one years.
There were certain zealots among the people of Jerusalem. The Sages said to them: Let us go out and make peace with the Romans. But the zealots did not allow them to do this. The zealots said to the Sages: Let us go out and engage in battle against the Romans. But the Sages said to them: You will not be successful. It would be better for you to wait until the siege is broken. In order to force the residents of the city to engage in battle, the zealots arose and burned down these storehouses [ambarei] of wheat and barley, and there was a general famine.
With regard to this famine it is related that Marta bat Baitos was one of the wealthy women of Jerusalem. She sent out her agent and said to him: Go bring me fine flour [semida]. By the time he went, the fine flour was already sold. He came and said to her: There is no fine flour, but there is ordinary flour. She said to him: Go then and bring me ordinary flour. By the time he went, the ordinary flour was also sold. He came and said to her: There is no ordinary flour, but there is coarse flour [gushkera]. She said to him: Go then and bring me coarse flour. By the time he went, the coarse flour was already sold. He came and said to her: There is no coarse flour, but there is barley flour. She said to him: Go then and bring me barley flour. But once again, by the time he went, the barley flour was also sold. She had just removed her shoes, but she said: I will go out myself and see if I can find something to eat. She stepped on some dung, which stuck to her foot, and, overcome by disgust, she died. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai read concerning her a verse found in the section of the Torah listing the curses that will befall Israel: “The tender and delicate woman among you who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground” (Deuteronomy 28:56). There are those who say that she did not step on dung, but rather she ate a fig of Rabbi Tzadok, and became disgusted and died. What are these figs? Rabbi Tzadok observed fasts for forty years, praying that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. He became so emaciated from fasting that when he would eat something it was visible from the outside of his body. And when he would eat after a fast they would bring him figs and he would suck out their liquid and cast the rest away. It was one such fig that Marta bat Baitos found and that caused her death. It is further related that as she was dying, she took out all of her gold and silver and threw it in the marketplace. She said: Why do I need this? And this is as it is written: “They shall cast their silver in the streets and their gold shall be as an impure thing; their silver and their gold shall not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord; they shall not satisfy their souls, neither fill their bowels” (Ezekiel 7:19). §
The Gemara relates: Abba Sikkara was the leader of the zealots [biryonei] of Jerusalem and the son of the sister of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai sent a message to him: Come to me in secret. He came, and Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Until when will you do this and kill everyone through starvation? Abba Sikkara said to him: What can I do, for if I say something to them they will kill me. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it is possible that through this there will be some small salvation. Abba Sikkara said to him: This is what you should do: Pretend to be sick, and have everyone come and ask about your welfare, so that word will spread about your ailing condition. Afterward bring something putrid and place it near you, so that people will say that you have died and are decomposing. And then, have your students enter to bring you to burial, and let no one else come in so that the zealots not notice that you are still light. As the zealots know that a living person is lighter than a dead person. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai did this. Rabbi Eliezer entered from one side and Rabbi Yehoshua from the other side to take him out. When they arrived at the entrance of the city on the inside, the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, wanted to pierce him with their swords in order to ascertain that he was actually dead, as was the common practice. Abba Sikkara said to them: The Romans will say that they pierce even their teacher. The guards then wanted at least to push him to see whether he was still alive, in which case he would cry out on account of the pushing. Abba Sikkara said to them: They will say that they push even their teacher. The guards then opened the gate and he was taken out.
When Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai reached there, i.e., the Roman camp, he said: Greetings to you, the king; greetings to you, the king. Vespasian said to him: You are liable for two death penalties, one because I am not a king and yet you call me king, and furthermore, if I am a king, why didn’t you come to me until now? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: As for what you said about yourself: I am not a king, in truth, you are a king, if not now, then in the future. As if you are not a king, Jerusalem will not be handed over into your hand, as it is written: “And the Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one” (Isaiah 10:34). And “mighty one” means only a king, as it is written: “And their mighty one shall be of themselves, and their ruler shall proceed from the midst of them” (Jeremiah 30:21), indicating that “mighty one” parallels “ruler.” And “Lebanon” means only the Temple, as it is stated: “That good mountain and the Lebanon” (Deuteronomy 3:25). And as for what you said with your second comment: If I am a king why didn’t you come to me until now, there are zealots among us who did not allow us to do this. Understanding that Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was prepared to ask him not to destroy the Temple, Vespasian said to him: If there is a barrel of honey and a snake [derakon] is wrapped around it, wouldn’t they break the barrel in order to kill the snake? In similar fashion, I am forced to destroy the city of Jerusalem in order to kill the zealots barricaded within it. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was silent and did not answer.
In light of this, Rav Yosef later read the following verse about him, and some say that it was Rabbi Akiva who applied the verse to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai: “I am the Lord…Who turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25). As Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai should have said the following to Vespasian in response: In such a case, we take tongs, remove the snake, and kill it, and in this way we leave the barrel intact. So too, you should kill the rebels and leave the city as it is.
In the meantime, as they were talking, a messenger [feristaka] arrived from Rome, and said to him: Rise, for the emperor has died, and the noblemen of Rome plan to appoint you as their leader and make you the next emperor. At that time Vespasian was wearing only one shoe, and when he tried to put on the other one, it would not go on his foot. He then tried to remove the other shoe that he was already wearing, but it would not come off. He said: What is this? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Be not distressed or troubled, for good tidings have reached you, as it is written: “Good tidings make the bone fat” (Proverbs 15:30), and your feet have grown fatter out of joy and satisfaction. Vespasian said to him: But what is the remedy? What must I do in order to put on my shoe? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Have someone with whom you are displeased come and pass before you, as it is written: “A broken spirit dries the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). He did this, and his shoe went on his foot. Vespasian said to him: Since you are so wise, why didn’t you come to see me until now? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: But didn’t I already tell you? Vespasian said to him: I also told you what I had to say.
Vespasian then said to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai: I will be going to Rome to accept my new position, and I will send someone else in my place to continue besieging the city and waging war against it. But before I leave, ask something of me that I can give you. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Give me Yavneh and its Sages and do not destroy it, and spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and do not kill them as if they were rebels, and lastly give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.
Rav Yosef read the following verse about him, and some say that it was Rabbi Akiva who applied the verse to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai: “I am the Lord…Who turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25), as he should have said to him to leave the Jews alone this time. And why didn’t Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai make this request? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there would not be even a small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request, in the hope that he would receive at least that much.
The Gemara asks: What was he requesting when he asked for doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok? How did they heal him? The first day they gave him water to drink that contained bran [parei]. The next day they gave him water containing flour mixed with bran [sipuka]. The following day they gave him water containing flour. In this way they slowly restored his ability to eat, allowing his stomach to broaden little by little.