How Pharisee Judaism Survived—Ben Zakkai

One main factor in the survival of Pharisaical Judaism, which became what we know today as Rabbinic Judaism, was the surrender of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He opposed the war and would have been killed by the Jewish military leaders, mostly the Zealots, for treason, had he not been smuggled out of Jerusalem by his disciples in a coffin, where he promptly  surrendered to the Romans.

They carried the coffin to [General] Vespasian’s tent, where ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin. He told Vespasian that he had had a vision (some would say, a shrewd political insight) that Vespasian would soon be emperor, and he asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavne (costal city south of Tel Aviv) where he could start a small school and study Torah in peace. Vespasian promised that if the prophecy came true, he would grant ben Zakkai’s request. Vespasian became Emperor within a year, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. (source)

A Fatal Blessing

In the year 80 CE, Ben Zakkai was succeeded over the school in Yavne by Gamaliel II—grandson of the Gamaliel we see in Acts 5.

Gamaliel II will be remembered for one primary act. Despite the fact, as well will see soon, that the Messianic Jews had at least one synagogue of their own, it is believed many Jewish believers still attended traditional synagogue. Gamaliel wanted them out; so he added a nineteenth benediction called the bircat haminim, a blessing against heretics (more like a curse!), to the Amidah. Interestingly the other name for the Amidah is the Shmoneh Esre (the eighteen [benedictions]), but it should be called the cha esre (the nineteen benedictions) for the one that was added. It was as if they wanted to quietly insert it without drawing attention. The fact that it was placed at number 12 and not 19, adds some credence to this suspicion. It was intended to weed out Messianic Jews, who were being more and more considered heretics by Pharisaical Judaism.

Religious Jews recite the Amidah thrice daily and when they do, one of the prayers is directly aimed at Jewish believers, Nazarenes (as we were called then):

For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noerim [Nazarenes] and the minim [heretics] be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant

The Messianic Jews certainly could not pray a curse upon themselves that declared them apostates and heretics to be destroyed and blotted out. It is likely that Messianic Jews in large numbers ceased to attend traditional synagogue. However, over the next generation, with the decline of the Jewish wing, if you will, of the body of Messiah, Church fathers began to claim that the Jews cursed Christians in their prayers. Action was taken to clarify this.

Without exception, the word noẓerim was expunged from all Jewish prayer rites, and in many, substitutions were made for minim (heretics) and meshummadim (apostates), as in the accepted opening in the Ashkenazi rite: “may the slanderers (malshinim) have no hope.” (source)

Prayer Replaces Sacrifice

More than anyone else, Ben Zakkai was responsible for the survival of Pharisee/Rabbinic Judaism. In Yavne he birthed a school that became the worldwide center of Jewish learning. He re-formed the Sanhedrin there with the blessing of the Romans. Without a Temple, Judaism would decline. Unlike today, first century Judaism aggressively sought to expand through converts. Ben Zakkai realized that converts would not be attracted to a Temple-less Judaism and would instead flock to Yeshua (and they did!). The focus of Jewish life had been the Temple and the sacrifices. It would have been great if he interpreted the falling of Jerusalem as judgment (as Yeshua predicted) and understood that in light of Yeshua’s death, the Temple was no longer needed. The writer of Hebrews said a few years before:

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Heb. 8:13)

Bible teachers have wrongly interpreted this passage as God rendering the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, obsolete. For two reasons this is impossible. 1) Yeshua said He did not come to destroy the Torah. (Matt. 5:17). Secondly, almost all New Testament theology is based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul constantly quotes them, as do the Gospel writers. What was obsolete, however, in light of the death of Yeshua, was the sacrificial system. Yeshua was the once-for-all-time and all-sin sacrifice.

Sadly Ben Zakkai could not see this and sought to create a new Judaism—a bloodless, sacrifice-less, Temple-less, Judaism. He convinced the newly established Sanhedrin to replace the need for sacrifice with prayer, quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” There would be no need to rebuild the Temple. Before this, sacrifice was central to Judaism.

Temple ritual was replaced with prayer service in synagogues which built upon practices of Jews in the Diaspora dating back to the Babylonian exile. (source)

Whenever God condemned sacrifice it was not because He is condemning the very system that He Himself established, but rather He is condemning the people for forsaking Him while still offering sacrifices. In the context of the Hosea passage, this is clear. He continues the verse about desiring mercy, not sacrifice with, “and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” God was not against sacrifice, but was seeking to confront hypocrisy; He was seeking relationship with His people.

Sadly one of the main arguments that Orthodox Jews use today to try and refute Messianic Judaism is that prayer and repentance are enough to atone for sin. Of course this was not the Jewish view until after the Second Temple was destroyed.

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (Lev. 17:11)

Even in the Babylonian Exile, the dream was always to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. We see in Lamentations a broken-hearted prophet, lamenting over Jerusalem’s demise. Ben Zakkai’s response is the opposite. He cared not for Jerusalem nor the Temple, but preserving the traditions of the elders, the Oral Law. It was successful and practical, but not the biblical response that we see after the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy. (Ps. 137:5-6)

After Ben Zakkai, there is virtually no movement in Judaism to rebuild the Temple. Even those today who seek it are considered extreme.

Part Three coming soon!



Ron Cantor and the Maoz Media team bring you the 77th and FINAL episode of the Maoz Israel Report Podcast!

Please tune in for a personal update from Ron on this final episode of the Maoz Israel Report Podcast. Thank you to all of our faithful listeners and we are blessed to have been able to share with you these past 2 years direct from Tel Aviv!

Don’t hesitate to be in touch with Maoz Israel Ministries, Messiah’s Mandate, and Tiferet Yeshua Congregation:

Birthed in Revival

We know from Scripture that the Messianic Community in Jerusalem was thriving in the first decades after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. When Paul comes back to Jerusalem to greet the apostles, they report to him:

On hearing it, they praised God; but they also said to him, “You see, brother, how many tens of thousands of believers there are among the Judeans, and they are all zealous for the Torah.” (Acts 21:20 CJB)

There are two interesting points worth noting. First, they are Torah-honoring Jewish believers. This does not mean that they necessarily followed all the traditions of Pharisaical Judaism, but that they suddenly found deep meaning in the commands and feasts that they previously only kept out of religious guilt or soulish zeal. This is reported to Paul as a good thing. There is no hint that they are moving away from Torah or their Jewishness, but closer.

Secondly, many translations use the English thousands for the Greek myriads. However a myriad is 10,000, so myriads plural, as is used in this verse, is correctly tens of thousands! We can safely conclude that Jerusalem had upwards of 30,000 believers and that, from a population of about 100,000! Acts 2 records 3,000 Jews coming to faith, and shortly there after, they numbered 5,000.

But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)

So 20 years later in Acts 21, 30,000 is not farfetched at all!

Revival in Tel Aviv!

In addition to Jerusalem, God was moving mightily in other areas of Israel. Certainly in the Galilee, where Yeshua was raised, the Messianic movement was growing, but also in what is now the greater Tel Aviv area. There are two miracles recorded in Acts 9 at the hands of Simon Peter. First in Lydda (Lod today, where Ben Gurion Airport sits) a crippled man is healed. From there he travels to Joppa and raises Tabitha from the dead. Those miracles resulted in a large number of Jews coming to faith.

All those [all Jews!] who lived in Lydda and Sharon (a large area covering the plains north of Tel Aviv) saw him and turned to the Lord. (Acts 9:35)

[The miracle of Tabitha being raised from the dead] became known all over Joppa, and many people [all Jews!] believed in the Lord. (Acts 9:42)

I added [all Jews!] because at the time the Gospel was only being offered to Jews. It was in the next chapter, some time later, that Peter had the revelation that Gentiles could also find salvation in the Jewish Messiah.

In addition many Cohenim (Temple Priests) came to faith.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

James the Just—Yakov Hazadik

The congregation continued to grow under the leadership of Jacob (There was no first century Jews named James) the brother of Yeshua. The historian Eusebius recounts Jacob’s martyrdom. At the time, he was held in high regard by virtually all sects of Judaism. So much so that he was called Jacob the Righteous. However the incredible growth of the Nazarene Movement (as they were called) led to deep feelings of jealously. Josephus tells us that the governor of Judea had died. While the new one was on his way to Judea, the chief priest, Ananus, devised a plan to get rid of Jacob.

Josephus doesn’t reveal the plan in detail, but if we combine it with Eusebius, we get a clearer picture. The Pharisees requested that he come to the pinnacle of the Temple to address the Jews celebrating Passover. Interestingly enough, this is exactly where Satan took Yeshua to tempt Him (Matt. 4:5ff). Once there they challenged him to denounce Yeshua. He responded:

Why do you ask me about Yeshua, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!

The Pharisee were furious, but the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The Pharisees then ascended to the pinnacle and threw him down. Jacob survived the fall and began to pray for them. “I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” Like Stephen, they began to stone him and finally:

A fuller (i.e., launderer) took out one of the clubs that he used to beat clothes and smashed James on the head, killing him with one blow. (source)

Josephus puts the death of Jacob at 62 CE while Eusebius says 69 CE. If it was 62 CE, it make sense that Hebrews were written soon after, to encourage persecuted Jewish believers to not give up. Considering that Josephus was a contemporary of Jacob, I tend to agree with him.

Flee to the Mountains

Now this is where things start to change drastically for the Jewish believers in Israel. Yeshua had told his disciples less than 40 years prior, when they see the armies surrounding Jerusalem they should flee to the mountains.

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is at hand.Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let those who are in the midst of her depart. Let those who are in the country not enter therein. (Luke 21:20-21)

“The Great Revolt” took place in 66 CE when the Jews rebelled against Roman rule. The Romans responded by leveling the city and destroying the Temple in 70 CE. As many as one million Jews died all over Israel.

However, the Messianic Jews, heeding the warning of Yeshua, fled. This is most likely a dual prophecy that will have a greater fulfillment before the coming of Yeshua. However the believers in Jerusalem assumed, as many of us today, that they would see the return of Yeshua. Seeing that the prophetic warnings (Matt. 24 and Luke 21) came from Yeshua as he was teaching on the end times, they were sure that His return was near.

They fled across the Jordan River and settled in a mountainous area called Pella.

The [Messianic Jewish] community in Jerusalem escaped this terrible catastrophe by fleeing to Pella in Transjordan and the countryside of Gilean and in expectation of … the second coming of [the Messiah].[i]

When the war ended and Yeshua had not yet returned, the Messianic Jews returned to Jerusalem where they suffered persecution from the Jews who had fought the Romans—they were labeled as traitors. Of course, they were many other Jews who opposed the fighting, including Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who we will learn about in part 2. We can only guess that they fled in 68 CE, after the revolt, but before Jerusalem’s demise, and that they returned around 73 CE after the Zealots were defeated at Masada.


[i] Church of the Apostles on Mt. Zion, Bargil Pixner, Miskan 13, 1990

Below is a short video of my recent 41k bike ride around Tel Aviv.

Ben Affleck seems so amiable in his movies. However, on the set of Bill Maher’s liberal TV show (I don’t even know the name), he was seething. Yes, seething mad that someone might think, just because Muslims are chopping off heads, raping young girls and committing honor killings, there might be a problem within the doctrines of Islam.

Even Bill Maher, an avowed atheist and super liberal seems to get it right when it comes to Islam. However, Hollywood A-lister Mr. Affleck (who is so famous his name gets spellchecked in Word!) disagrees. He thinks any criticism of Islam is Islamaphobic (a word that Word does not recognize). In fact, he thinks, “It’s gross. It’s racist.”

Affleck ascribes to a belief system based on fairytales that Radical Islamists are a small minority and in no way reflect the belief of the overwhelming majority of peace-loving Muslims. He and his ilk like to say silly things like, “Only 7% of Muslims are radicalized.”

That sounds so reassuring until you do the math and realize that 7% is roughly 100,000,000 people! One hundred million Islamic fanatics willing to rape, murder and pillage for the sake of their religious beliefs. Yes, at least one in every seventy people on earth, believes it is okay to kidnap, rape and maim unbelievers.  And that doesn’t even include moderate Islamic leaders  and their regimes like Bashar Assad, the PLO or the King of Saudi Arabia, who have no problem killing for political gain.

However, I don’t need to combat Affleck on these issues. Maher and Sam Harris, his debating partner, do a fine job (if Affleck would just let them talk) using facts to dispel Affleck’s emotion-driven myths. My issue is Affleck’s utter hypocrisy.

While claiming that, as a good liberal, he must be kind and tolerant of Muslims, he uses the name of Jesus as a curse word. About 2:21 into the clip (See below), after Mr. Harris refers to Islam as the mother-load of bad ideas, Ben utters the name above every name, and in a way he would never use the name of Mohammed—as a curse.

He took the name of Jesus, and inserted it in place of a four-letter curse word—all the while, defending Islam. I am sure he didn’t even notice it.

What is clear is liberals like Affleck defend Islam in a way they would never defend Christianity. Does he think that moderate Islam is pro-choice? Pro-gay? Pro-equal rights for women? Pro-nudity in films like Affleck’s most recent movie (I am told)?

Harris calmly points out to the agitated actor that nearly 80% of the UK’s Muslim community felt the Danish cartoonist who drew Mohammed should have been prosecuted. Maher points out that 90% of Egyptians believe death is the appropriate response for leaving Islam. A careful study of Moderate Islam would reveal that they are only moderate compared to people who rape and behead. There are numerous cases of non-militant Muslims supporting terror, committing honor killings, being racists and frankly, hating people like you—western liberals.

But again, I digress. These Hollywood elites will defend Islam, while holding Christianity in disdain. That is my point. Curse Jesus while defending Mohammed and pretend you are genuinely tolerant. It is open season on believers in the New Testament, but don’t you dare draw a picture of Mohammed.

Warning: The Clip does have profanity, but not against Islam!