A book about a great Jewish leader who changed history comes to life on a Galilee trail that traces his life and that of the Sages.
By: Rochel Sylvetsky
There are no coincidences in this world. And there is also no end to Israeli initiative. Several weeks ago, I was asked to review The Prince and the Emperors, the Life and Times of Rabbi Judah the Prince by Dov S. Zakheim (Maggid Press), an enlightening, interesting and well-researched book on a pivotal period in Jewish history. While still in the midst of reading it, I attended the annual Rambam Conference in Tiberias that included a half day guided tour of one’s choice. Since I was reading about the life of Rabbi Judah the Prince, head of the Great Sanhedrin, the Jewish People’s legislative body for hundreds of years, I chose the tour to the Sanhedrin excavations in Tiberias. That is how I discovered that there is an interactive trek (or driving with stops) route called The Sanhedrin Trail and that I was touring its last stop.
It seems that love of this land and the resulting desire to bring its history to life led the Antiquities Authority to initiate an ambitious project in which archaeologists, helped by volunteering youngsters, are excavating the different places in the Galilee in which the Sanhedrin settled after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Planned as a gift for the citizens of Israel “to unite the public and especially the generation of the future to our past and heritage,” the 70 km trail has been ready for hikers since the 70th anniversary of the state, but is a work in progress because archaeologists are still finding artifacts at every site on it (funding, of course, is also an issue).
Where did they decide to dig? Exactly where the Talmud directed them to excavate when it says (Bab. Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashanah) that the Sanhedrin was exiled from Jerusalem with the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., moving to Yavne but then up north to the Galilee. It then tells us that it moved from Usha to Shfar’am, Beit She’arim, Zippori and finally Tiberias (list slightly shortened by this writer).
We know that Rabbi Judah spent time in all of these cities, and in the ruins of the Roman city of Tiberias, in addition to the paved Cardo and city gate, archaeologists have found the building that housed the Sanhedrin and the nearby bathhouse, a central meeting place in ancient times.
There I was, walking on the same paving stones Rabbi Judah trod on his way to the Sanhedrin offices, strolling in the city where in 435 C.E. the Sanhedrin was eventually disbanded, long after his death, by the ruling Eastern Roman Empire. Gripped by emotion, I could almost hear the Sages’ echoing footsteps and heated halakhic arguments.
Jewish history spans millennia, not mere centuries, and while Jewish spiritual legacy is eternal and not place-bound, the physical structures that witnessed Jewish presence in the Promised Land and are constantly being excavated, make that legacy tangible, bringing to life the people whose thoughts, interpretations and ideas are part of every Jew’s life, whether or not he is conscious of it.
Yair Amitzur, a doctoral student in archaeology, led the tour, enthusiastically quoting appropriate Gemaras, Toseftas–i.e. Talmudic period–and historical sources almost as if he and Dov Zakheim were chavrutot (Talmud study partners). He had the rabbis on the tour absolutely kvelling. And yes, the findings prove that, over 2000 years ago when the word Islam was minus several centuries old and the word Palestinian was simply the Roman name for the region, the Jews were there–as they are today.
The book on Rabbi Judah the Prince gained an added dimension that afternoon, connected to georgraphical places and thereby, to the people who lived in them and especially to Rabbi Judah the Prince himself, a larger than life figure who lived in the years (135-219 C.E.). This was a man whose leadership was legendary, Torah knowledge all-encompassing, secular knowledge encyclopedic (including languages), wealth considerable, and who met with Roman Emperors for the benefit of the people he led.
Rabbi Judah’s beloved people were still traumatized by the catastrophe that defined the crushing of the heroic Bar Kochva Rebellion, and he gave of his wealth to help them without measure. He led the Sanhedrin at a crucial turning point in Jewish history after the Second Temple’s destruction when the mesorah (Jewish law and heritage passed from generation to generation starting with Moses) was in danger. What would take the place of sacrifices, of pilgrimages, how would the calendar work so that Jews celebrate the holidays at the same time all over the world? Who would pass on the Oral Law?
Rebbe, as he was called, had the foresight and courage to realize that the law had to be written down and saw to the writing of the monumental work titled the Six Orders of the Mishna, the source on which the Talmud’s discussions and debates are based.
This accomplishment is awesome in itself and made the Sanhedrin’s Sages the founding fathers  of Jewish continuity. The Sages also became the forerunners of the vast library of Judaica that continues to grow and fill yeshiva libraries and Jewish homes to this day. It is no wonder it was said that Rabbi Judah embodied “Torah and greatness in one place.” When he died, the Sage Bar Kappara said: “Angels and humans struggled over the Holy Ark. The Angels overcame the humans, and the Holy Ark has been captured!”
A book bringing this all to life is a welcome addition to the shelves of the Jewish library, but this one has a unique perspective. Dov S. Zakheim’s original way of looking at Jewish leaders is a product of his own experience in various decision-making positions in the US government including Under Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration. His engrossing book on Nehemiah (the leader who led the rebuilding of the Second Temple) was also evidence of that political and governmental experience, and here, he has thoroughly researched Talmudic, Midrashic and whatever historical sources are available to bring Rabbi Judah and his period to life. He describes the accession to greatness, meetings with rulers, the force of Rebbe’s personality, his halakhic and ethical decisions, all gleaned from the tales about him in the Talmud.
The two detailed chapters on Roman history during this period are less interesting to my taste, but, among other things, they are necessary for readers to understand how Rome’s war against the Parthians affected the Jews. Zakheim, perhaps desiring to make the book relevant to today’s times, has a tendency to moralize when comparing today’s society with that of the Sages – pointing out their combining Torah with a career and secular studies, their belief in the need for payng taxes, speaking politely about one’s enemies and more. (In my opinion, the stories are strong enough to instill their messages without explanation and have always been read, including in children’s books like Ko Asu Chachamenu, with that in mind.)
Zakheim talks about the different approaches to the aggadeta (non-halakhic narrative) recounted in the Talmud, but elects to write from his own, centrist Orthodox viewpoint where while every story may not necessarily be considered biographical in the strict sense of the term, each contains much information about key individuals and life in the Talmudic era.
The special art of this book, and one that took much painstaking synthesis on the author’s part, is piecing the bits of information into a credible and enriching picture of the great man’s life. Zakheim succeeds in putting the Mishna into historical and human context without writing a historical novel, that is, by analyzing the stories in the texts while putting them in historical perspective. That is how he concludes – showing how he reaches that conclusion–that Rabbi Judah met two Roman emperors, father and son, albeit at different periods, featured in Talmudic lore as the meetings of Rebbe and Antoninus, although he also suggests that some of the narratives may not be literally factual and are meant to serve as models.
Rebbe comes across the way he is seen in Jewish history–he is a model for leadership and a life of service to G-d and His people. Reading the book puts the different pieces of knowledge about him into the composite picture of a great man, making it a most worthwhile, as well as educational, read. A brief background is added here for those unfamiliar with Judaic heritage:
Every American knows about the Founding Fathers whose actions over two centuries ago, from composing the Declaration of Independence to the ratifying of the Constitution, gave the USA fundamental values of democracy, civil rights and freedom (putting woke and progressive liberalism aside). One can visit the White House, watch Congress in session, tour the Founding Father’s homes and read their biographies.
The Jewish People’s founders were the three Biblical Patriarchs and their wives who countered the prevalent idolatry, teaching belief in one G-d and following His directives. Rather than a man-made body of laws or declaration, Moses received the Torah (Five Books of Moses and the Oral Law) in the Revelation at Sinai and taught it to Joshua, beginning a process of mesorah the passing on of the written and Oral Torah from generation to generation up to the present time. (Interestingly, America’s Founding Fathers based their writings on the divine truths and guidance found in the Torah and many of them knew enough Hebrew to read the original).
The Jews coalesced as a nation when they left Egypt to make their way to the Holy Land promised to their forefathers, eventually building the Temples in Jerusalem where priests brought the people’s offerings to G-d and to where all ascended three times yearly, but what ensured and still does ensure Jewish continuity, especially once the Temples were destroyed and Jews exiled from their land, is adherence to the laws they accepted at Sinai. The law encompasses and directs every aspect of the nation’s life–agriculture, business dealings, criminal and civil law, personal behavior, ritual purity, religious obligations and holidays – some of them inapplicable at the present time, but always longed for in the Silent Prayer said three times daily by observant Jews.
How to administer those immutable, G-d given laws? How to interpret them? How to solve new problems and conflcts that arise? These questions began in the desert and were solved by Moses taking his father in law Jethro’s advice and forming a court system, in addition to allocation of responsibilities to elders and princes, later to prophets, judges and kings and the Sages of the legal council known as the Sanhedrin. But hundreds of years later, once the Bar Kochva rebellion was crushed in 135 C.E., and dispersion, in addition to subjugation by Rome in Judea itself, became a growing reality, making sure the laws themselves were not forgotten was a daunting challenge. A pressing issue was the absolutely necessity of ensuring the unity of the Jewish calendar without depending on sighting the New Moon in Israel so that holidays etc. would be observed on the same dates outside of it. How to preserve a people?
The Great Sanhedrin, consisting of 71 Sages was the arbiter of Jewish Law. Under Rebbe, it became the force that preserved Jewish law and and thereby the Jewish people, with its head, known as the Prince (Nassi) – a descendant of the family of King David, symbolizing that continuity.
Rochel Sylvetsky made aliya to Israel with her family in 1971, coordinated Mathematics at Ulpenat Horev, worked in math curriculum planning at Hebrew U. and as academic coordinator at Touro College Graduate School in Jerusalem. She served as Chairperson of Emunah Israel and was CEO of Kfar Hassidim Youth Village. Upon her retirement, Arutz Sheva asked her to be managing editor of the English site, a position she filled for several years before becoming Senior Consultant and Op-ed and Judaism editor. She serves on the Boards of Orot Yisrael College and the Knesset Channel.