Shiur #15b: The Fears of Resistance Fighters

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #15b: The Fears of Resistance Fighters


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


[The background of this aggada has the Romans laying siege to Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the Beit Ha-mikdash in the year 70 C.E.  The Jewish faction known as the biryonim wants to wage war with the Romans — so much so that they destroy the Jews' own storehouses – while Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai thinks that the military campaign is futile and wants to salvage what he can.]


Abba Sikra, the head of the biryonim in Jerusalem, was the nephew of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.  [Rabban Yochanan] said to him: "Come to me in secret."

He came.  [Rabban Yochanan] said: "How long will you do this — until you kill everyone through famine?"

[Abba Sikra] said: "What can I do?  If I say anything, they will kill me."

He said: "Think of a method to get me out, and we may have a partial salvation."

He said to him: "Pretend that you are sick; let everyone come and ask about your welfare.  Then bring something that stinks, lie next to it and let them say that you have passed away.  Let your students carry you out, not anyone else, so that the others not notice that you are light; people know that a live person is lighter than a dead person."

He did so.  Rabbi Eli'ezer carried him on one side and Rabbi Yehoshu'a on the other.  When they arrived at the gate, [the biryonim] wanted to stab him (to confirm his death).  [Abba Sikra] said to them: "They will say that they stabbed their rabbi!"  They wanted to shove him.  He said to them: "They will say that they shoved their rabbi!"  So they opened the gate and he went out. 

            (Gittin 56a)


The key word in this story is the ambiguous pronoun "they."  Whose murmurings are the biryonim afraid of? Rashi explains that "they" refers to the Romans.  If so, it is striking how ardent Jewish nationalists who stand for independence still care what the Romans say about them.  Their decision to employ drastic means (such as burning the Jewish food supply) in order to fight a losing battle for independence may actually reflect an adoption of certain Roman ideals.  If so, it makes sense that they care what the Romans would say. 


            Rabbi Yosef Chayim disagrees with Rashi in his Ben Yehoyada.  He says that the Romans would have no way of knowing that the Jewish guards at the gate pushed the casket about, so the biryonim could not possibly be afraid of what the Romans would say.  Instead, he suggests that "they" refers to other biryonim.  This interpretation perceptively highlights one of the dangers of militant revolutionary activity.  Once violent forces are unleashed, it is difficult to control them, and rival factions may seize any opportunity to attack one’s own faction.    


            Note that earlier in the story Abba Sikra agrees with Rabban Yochanan's evaluation of the situation but could not do anything because the others would kill him.  Having unleashed the passions of the masses, Abba Sikra turns from the leader into the pawn of stronger forces.  In a similar way, any act that might lead to the dishonor of the biryonim could cause another faction to put the guards to death.


            The examples of tyranny that emerged from the Russian and French Revolutions certainly provide ample evidence of these concerns.  Resistance, rebellion and force do have a place in the Jewish worldview.  However, the dangers of their getting out of hand must be kept in mind always.