Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was a student of Hillel and was a member of the Sanhedrin. He played a vital role in safeguarding Judaism after the revolt of 67-70 CE. His tomb is located near the Rambam centre.
He was was one of the tannaim, an important Jewish sage in the era of the Second Temple, and a primary contributor to the core text of Rabbinical Judaism, the Mishnah.
Towards the end of the siege of Jerusalem, when the Romans were about to enter the city and destroy the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan met with the Roman general Vespasian. The Jewish guards did not allow anyone to leave the city except for burial. Rabbi Yochanan’s students announced his death and carried him out of the city in a coffin. Once outside the city, Rabbi Yochanan went to Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan addressed him as Caesar. Vespasian ordered the rabbi killed, but just at that moment a messenger from Rome arrived and announced that the Caesar was dead and Vespasian had been appointed his successor. Judging Rabbi Yochanan to be a prophet, Vespasian spared his life and offered him one request. Rabbi Yochanan asked that the Jews be allowed to study Torah at Yavne, a small town on the coast.
Rabbi Yochanan was criticized by some rabbis for his modest petition saying that he should have asked the Romans to spare Jerusalem and the Temple. But Rabbi Yochanan feared that if he asked for too much he would be refused. Before his death he told his students that there were two paths before him, one leading to heaven and one to hell, and he was not sure which path he would take. (Brachot 28b)
After the revolt the Romans sought to kill Rabbi Gamliel, the designated head of the Sanhedrin, and Rabbi Yochanan led the nation in his place. When the political situation improved several years later, Rabbi Gamliel emerged from hiding and Rabbi Yochanan relinquished his position.
Despite his eminence, Rabbi Yochanan always greeted his fellow first, including gentiles in the market. (Brachot 17a)
The following are some of his teachings:
If you have learned much Torah, do not ascribe merit to yourself; it was for this that you were created. (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
Whoever walks four meters in the land of Israel is assured of a place in the world to come. (Ketubot 111a)
Once he said to his students, go out and see what is good for a man to seek. Rabbi Eliezer replied, a liberal eye; Rabbi Joshua replied, a good companion; Rabbi Yossi replied, a good neighbour; Rabbi Shimeon replied, foresight; and Rabbi Elazar replied, a good heart. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said, ‘I prefer Elazar’s answer, for in his words your words are included.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:9)