Ben Zakkai: Judaism, humility and the good death

Yochanan ben Zakkai/Zakai played a pivotal role in the compilation of the Mishna, which is the core text of the Talmud. He is remembered famously for his humility during his last days because like all sages he did not presume that in the world to come Olam Haba, the Holy One of Israel would receive him with open arms, even though he had devoted himself to the study and teaching of Torah and trying to obey all the commandments. The question I examine here is whether ben Zakkai’s lack of assurance (certainty) about his eternal destiny was indeed a sign, according to Judaism, of his humility.

Harav Zev Leff relates: “When R’ Yohanan ben Zakkai’s students went to visit him on his death bed, he began to cry. His students asked him why he was weeping. He answered that if he were brought before a mortal king who could be appeased or bribed, and whose decrees extended only as far as the grave, he would wail, how much more so now that he was soon to face the judgment of Hashem, Who cannot be appeased or bribed and Whose punishment is eternal. Did R’ Yohanan ben Zakkai really entertain the possibility that he was deserving of eternal death, the punishment reserved for heretics of the worst type?”

HaRav Zev Leff has asked a rhetorical question. In a rhetorical question, the last thing the questioner is seeking an answer. A rhetorical question is one only in structure, not in intention. what Zev Leff means by the question is his indignation at the suggestion that ben Zakkai could have deserved damnation; for surely, his humility renders that possibility unthinkable.

For Rabbi Neusner, ben Zakkai’s total lack of assurance of salvation is a great example of a “good death,” and “the mark of the humility of the sage,” who expressed his free will in the best way possible, namely, in his devotion to the study of and obedience to Torah – right to his last breath (Neusner, “The sages’ good death,” in Neusner and Chilton, “Comparing Spiritualities,” p. 48).

It’s understandable why ben Zakkai felt unrighteous, unjustified, uncertain before God, because foolhardy is the man, who, usually aware of falling short of the righteous requirements of God, presumes – uncircumscised or not – to have “made the cut.” But there is more to it: ben Zakkai, as a synergist ( Greek syn “with” ergon “work”), believed that he co-operated with God in his justification/salvation. Now, such a man knows that he and “all of us are like someone unclean, all our righteous deeds like menstrual rags BEGED IDIMבֶגֶד עִדִּים; we wither, all of us, like leaves; and our misdeeds blow us away like the wind” (Isaiah 64:6).

So, humility – the Jewish (synergist) view, and the synergist view in general (all Muslims, all Catholics, and many Protestants) – demands one remain unsure of one’s salvation. With regard to the Muslim, “By Allah, though I (Mohammed) am the Apostle of Allah, yet I do not know what Allah will do to me.” (Bukhari V5 B58 #266). To return to his cousin, the Jew. Does this mean that a Jew has to die in white-lipped fear and with clenched teeth? Can’t a Jew die serene? Here is Jacob Neusner again on Yochanan/Yohanan ben Zakkai:

Yohanan [ben Zakkai] died in full command of his senses, entirely aware of the next step in his life. Exemplifying a good death, he expressed his humility before the judgment that awaited. As he lay dying, no sage represented in the classical writings of Judaism cited Ps. 22:l, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But if they died serenely, it was not with an excess of self-confidence or pride. For, with all humanity, all of them expected to come before God in judgment, and none took vindication for granted. Death takes place in the context of faith, and the spirituality of Judaism comes to concrete embodiment in that larger context as well. For sages and the Torah that they shaped for all of holy Israel, not only did death form a natural stage in human life, but it also marked a step on a longer journey, one that led to eternal life.

So how sages described the good death makes sense within the conviction, critical to Judaism, that humanity can vanquish death and attain life eternal. Rabban Yohanan’s last lesson to his disciples tells the tale: “l am going before an honest judge, who will decide my fate for eternity.” Even a life spent in study and teaching of the Torah, a life lived in the presence of God, contained within it its share of arrogant sinfulness, and Yohanan did not take for granted God’s favor, let alone God’s grace. That constituted his final Torah-teaching: “Fear God as much as you fear people.”

(“The sages’ good death,” in “Comparing Spiritualities,” p. 46)

En passant, Neusner says in the above paragraph, “no sage represented in the classical writings of Judaism cited Ps. 22:l, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” if that were so, then, according to Judaism, Jesus didn’t reached the status of sage. This is understandable Jewish conclusion, because, as the Gospel record shows, Jesus was rejected by the Jewish leadership who played a crucial (pun unintended) role in his crucifixion. But more relevant here is the assertion that no sage died in despair. I find that odd coming from Neusner. I explain.

Neusner describes, on page 46, ben Zakkai as serene, humble, confident but not cocksure. Ben Zakkai says (above) “l am going before an honest judge, who will decide my fate for eternity.” When, however – and this I want to stress – I read the rest of ben Zakkai’s last words, which Neusner previously quoted on page 45 of his book (co-authored with Bruce Chilton), which I shall quote here presently, I get a different impression, a radically different impression, a despairing picture that reminds me of the young Catholic seminarian, Angelo Giuseppe Roncali:

This evening, when I thought about it seriously, the tears came to my eyes. I imagined myself on that sick bed [of someone he knew] and I wondered how it would go with me if I were to be judged in this very moment. I should deserve to go to hell, but I hope I shall not be sent there. In any case I am sure I ought to be sent to purgatory. Yet the mere thought of purgatory makes me shudder. What then will become of me? Oh poor me, how wretched I am!” (See here).

If purgatory makes this young 18-year-old shudder, perish the thought when it comes to hell. The seminarian was to become Pope John XXIII. Here is an entry from his diary:

Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? I am nothing. Everything I possess, my being, life, understanding, will and memory – all were given me by God, so all belong to him. Twenty short years ago all that I see around me was already here; the same sun, moon and stars…..Everything was being done without me, nobody was thinking of me….because I did not exist. And you, O God….drew me forth from the nothingness, you gave me being, life, a soul, in fact all the faculties of my body and spirit…you created me.”

Surely, ben Zakkai had identical pious thoughts. But what about death? How does he compare with the young seminarian on his imaginary sick-bed in the throes of death. Here is ben Zakkai close to death:

When R. Yohanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples came in to pay a call on him. When he saw them, he began to cry. His disciples said to him, “Light of Israel! Pillar at the right hand! Mighty hammer! On what account are you crying?” He said to them, “If I were going to be brought before a mortal king, who is here today and tomorrow gone to the grave, who, should he be angry with me, will not be angry forever; and if he should imprison me, will not imprison me forever, and if he should put me to death, whose sentence of death is not for eternity, and whom I can appease with the right words or bribe with money, even so, I should weep. “But now that I am being brought before the King of kings of kings [ben Zakkai says “kings” three times], the Holy One, blessed be He, who endures forever and ever, who, should he be angry with me, will be angry forever, and if he should imprison me, will imprison me forever, and if he should put me to death, whose sentence of death is for eternity, and whom I cannot appease with the right words or bribe with money, “1and not only so, but before me are two paths, one to the Garden of Eden and the other to Gehenna, and I do not know by which path I shall be brought, and should I not weep?”
(Neusner, p. 45).

Neusner (p. 48) contrasts ben Zakkai’s “humility” with Moses’ certainty that he (Moses) will gain the world to come. Neusner quotes from the Sifre to Deuteronomy cccv:iii/305:3. The “Sifre to Deuteronomy: an analytical translation” is one of Neusner’s publications:

But it is certain for him [Moses] that he gains the world to come, as it is said, And the Lord said to Moses, Behold, you are going to sleep with your fathers and will arise’ (Deut. 31:16).”

So, the Sifre maintains that Deut 31:16 says that Moses “will arise.” Really! But what does Deut 31:16 really say?

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Behold, thou art about to sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them” (Mechon Mamre translation).

If anyone was going to rise, it wasn’t Moses, nor was the “rise” anything to do with resurrection or eternal life but with insurrection and infernal death – idolatry. Moses is right, the people did rise up and go astray, which is most evident in the Talmud.

Neusner continues ( p.48):

The angel of death cannot prevail over the Torah…”

Absolutely right. Thankfully, the angel of deception (Beelzebub) will not be able to prevail over the scriptures, which he has done so (w)easily in the Sifre on Deut 31:16 (above).

All of nature conspired against death. But Moses died, and Joshua wept – not for Moses, but for himself. Death affects the living; that is who mourns. But Joshua and God both take comfort from the fact that Moses certainly will enter the world to come – a fitting contrast to the uncertainty on that same matter that Yohanan ben Zakkai expresses, a mark of the humility of the sage…”

Yes, Moses certainly will enter the world to come, but the reason is found nowhere in Deut 31:16. Rabbi Akiva Katz, in one of his lectures, says “any six-year-old can understand the Torah. If this is so, which I certainly doubt, why can’t the sages understand what any six-year-old purportedly can?

Neusner continues:

…the great sage [ben Zakkai] dies at a moment of humility before God, on the one side, and of Torah-study, on the other. The good death makes a statement of humility. (Emphasis added) Given the sages’ conviction that humanity was made to study the Torah we may hardly find surprising that the good death encompassed Torah study, as in the case of Yohanan ben Zakkai. His mind to the very end focused upon what his disciples could and should learn from him, even at the hour of his death.”

Neusner (p. 50) says: “The mark of the sage is that, at the hour of death, he continues to engage

in study of the Torah. The blessing that the sage receives is that he is able to do so even to his last breath.” And (p. 53) “lf you have learned much Torah, do not puff yourself up on that account, for it was for that purpose that you were created.”

So don’t become all puffed up with Torah – or without it as happened to Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Anyone present at ben Zakkai’s death-bed might indeed have quaked in dismay, if not in terror, at his last words: “… if he should imprison me, will he imprison me forever, and if he should put me to death, whose sentence of death is for eternity, and whom I cannot appease with the right words or bribe with money, and not only so, but before me are two paths, one to the Garden of Eden and the other to Gehenna, and I do not know by which path I shall be brought, and should I not weep?” If that is where the study of Torah till your last breath leads, then, naturally there’s nothing left but to weep – in despair. If only life, in such a terrible scenario, would go up in a puff.

Neusner ( p. 53) continues:

The measure of pride that characterizes the prayer diminishes when we remember Yohanan ben Zakkai’s humility, after a life of Torah study. The disciple of the sage has the right to thank God for the portion that God has meted out, a life of penury and even separation from loved ones perhaps, but also a life that produces a reward for work, meaning, life of the world to come.”

What should the Christian’s attitude be to the above? The Christian should honour a life of penury (it is difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven – Matthew 19:23), endure separation from loved ones (37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” – Matthew 10:37) and treasure a life that produces a reward for work (“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work” – Revelation 22:12).

Neusner continues:

The sage sets forth the model of the good death, which is to say, death in full consciousness of what is happening, rich in hope for what is going to happen: “l run to the life of the world to come .” As a matter of fact, the natural course of life, to seventy or even eighty years, represents how God made us and what God wants for us.”

The Christian should run with the same attitude: “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air (1 Corinthians 9:26).

…since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).


I am already being poured out, and the time of my release hath arrived; the good strife I have striven, the course I have finished, the faith I have kept (2 Timothy, 4:6-7).

Yochanan ben Zakkai seemed to have the same attitude. He differed, however, in one thing, one sad thing. He had no assurance. It was his “humility” that blocked his path, that bludgeoned his hope. So, here we have one of the pivotal founders of Talmudic Judaism, ben Zakkai, who couldn’t, wouldn’t, dare offend the Holy One of Israel by being bold to say with his classmate Saul of Tarsus, “henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of the righteousness that the Lord — the Righteous Judge — shall give to me in that day, and not only to me, but also to all those loving his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).

Ben Zakkai didn’t understand what Paul understood. “I can only ‘run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!’” (Psalm 119:32).

Ben Zakkai did not die of a puffed up heart; he died of a swollen heart, swollen with humility – not of the biblical but the talmudic kind. He didn’t, as with most religious people (Catholics, Muslims and many Christians) understand that when the Bible says that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9),

[w]e are to understand by this that the whole of the work whereby men are saved from their natural estate of sin and ruin, and are translated into the kingdom of God and made heirs of eternal happiness, is of God, and of him only. “Salvation is of the Lord.” (When Voluntary is not free? Faith and Will in salvation, and Charles Spurgeon ).

1I’m not sure why Neusner adds quotation marks here because in the whole paragraph, it is ben Zakkai speaking. Unless ben Zakkai is quoting someone else whom I am not aware of.

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