The Sages

Character, Context & Creativity

Volume II: From Yavneh to the Bar Kokhba Revolt

By Binyamin Lau

Translated by Ilana Kushan

Maggid Books, 2012, 435 pages


Lau, a respected Orthodox rabbi with a PhD, approaches his subject, the history of Judaism after the Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE until after the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 with a scientific and historical manner. He cites numerous sources, including stories in the Talmuds and Midrashim about the rabbis who lived during this period. He doesn’t dismiss these stories as fables or accept them as altogether true accounts, but sifts through them with the recognition that although they are filled with legendary material, they express some truths.


This is his second in a three volume series. The first examined “The Second Temple Period” the third “The Galilee Days.” The books were written in Hebrew. This one was published in Hebrew in 2007. Ilana Kurshan translated the work in readable English.


I discussed Lau’s world view and literary approach in my review of his first volume. For example, when he discussed the traditions about the miracle worker “Honi the circle-maker,” who like Rip Van Winkle, is said to have slept for seventy years, Lau calls it “an exaggeration.” Likewise, in discussing the Talmudic understanding of history, he stated: “The sages were indeed not concerned about historical accuracy.” He noted that in sifting “through the sources of (the second Temple) period, one is struck by the discrepancy between the sources of the Babylonian Talmud and those of the Jerusalem Talmud.” “The nature of Hanukkah,” he wrote, differs in the two books (of the Maccabees), each version reflecting its author and his culture,” and there is a third radically different version in the Talmud. Most significantly, he discussed the famous disputes between the sages Hillel and Shammai and pointed out that the opinions of Shammai were “representing the ‘early halakha,’ prior to the changes resulting from Hillel’s innovations.”


I wrote that “Lau presents an historical survey of Judaism that recognizes the need to further the development of the Oral Law to address the problems of the modern world. We need: ‘Leadership that stands up and takes responsibility (and leads) toward the direction of repair and growth.’ We need to stop being ‘afraid of issuing judgments.’ The power of Judaism ‘does not derive from addiction to the world of nostalgia.’”


Lau continues this outlook in this volume. He tells how in 70 CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai realized that changes must be made in Judaism as a result of the Roman destruction of Israel and the ending of sacrifices that had been a central element in Judaism. Ben Zakkai with the help of some but not all of the surviving sages settled in the city of Yavneh and stressed the role of study as a replacement for sacrifices and the synagogue for the Temple. They emphasized the need for religious unity. While in the past, Jews followed whatever opinion satisfied them, ben Zakkai and his colleagues ruled that the conservative teachings of the school of Shammai were not the law, but instead the more innovative and people-oriented decisions of Hillel’s school, and they enacted new laws. But they had opposition. Then as now there were sages who insisted on maintaining the ancient practices. Lau discusses the opposition of rabbis such as the conservative Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the “plastered well that never loses a drop,” but who had no refreshing new water from an “ever-flowing spring.” He tells how and why the majority who followed ben Zakkai’s leadership excommunicated Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.


In this first section, Lau discusses the kind of authority ben Zakkai had and whether, as some suppose, he was a patriarch, his role after Rabbi Gamliel came to Yavneh, why Gamliel didn’t come sooner, what approaches to Judaism the various students of ben Zakkai took, and much more, including an eleven page discussion on the relevance of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’ conservative world view today.


Part two of five parts analyses the community in Yavneh from the patriarch Rabban Gamliel to Rabbi Yehoshua. Among many subjects, it examines the authority of the patriarch. The patriarch was primarily the secular leader, for he wasn’t always the most learned sage. It also examines this second generation’s attempts to stop disputes in Israel, the struggle against heretics and Christians, and ends by considering when contemporary Jews need to obey authority and when they can resort to creative license.


Part three focuses on the famous Rabbi Akiva. It reveals, among other matters, that contrary to some legends, the rabbi may have had three wives, not necessarily at the same time, and he was married and had a son when he joined his son and went to school for the first time. Lau examines whether every rabbi agreed with Akiva that Bar Kokhba was the messiah, whether Akiva had a significant role in the 132-135 revolt, an earlier revolt against Rome in three separate non-Israeli sites, the important views of sages such as Rabbi Yishmael and Ben Azzai, and concludes with a look at whether Torah study is more important than behavior.


The fourth part considers what precipitated the 132-135 revolt, the prior smaller uprisings by “bandits” in Israel, what kind of man was Bar Kokhba, and since Lau shows that he was not religious, he concludes by discussing “Religion and Nationalism – Strange Bedfellows?”


In the last part, Lau investigates the aftereffects of the revolt, the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s decrees, the results of these decrees, the mass exodus from Israel, what really happened during the days of the counting of the omer, did Rabbi Akiva really have 24,000 students that died during a seven week period, and what lessons from the Bar Kokhba revolt “Still Ring True Although Beitar Did Fall?”


In sum this is an important book because it is filled with a wealth of significant, well-documented, and thoughtfully analyzed material, and whether one agrees with the author or not, readers will find his ideas informative and thought provoking.