Rabban Gamliel II: How Judaism was transformed

Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai, who fled during the Roman siege on Jerusalem, received permission from the Romans to establish a school of halacha (Jewish religious law). He re-establishes the Jewish Sanhedrin (council for national leadership) in Yavneh (70 CE), where the Sanhedrin era of Judaism begins, and the term rabbi is first used for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Gamliel II replaces Yohanan ben Zakkai as the Nasi (head of the Sanhedrin) in Yavneh in 80 CE, 10 years after the destruction of the Temple. He asserts authority inherited from Sanhedrin in Jerusalem before the Roman war. Until this time, many scholars who had avoided associating themselves with Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai’s Sanhedrin, begin to fully participate. Rabban Gamilel II was the grandson of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel. He was the Nasi for 40 years.

Rabban Gamliel II and the Sanhedrin had to overcome many difficult challenges:

  • Jewish life until then were centered around the Temple. Without the Temple, Jews could no longer practice the same way they did before. New ways had to be invented to preserve Judaism.
  • Until the destruction of the Temple, early Christians (Judeo-Christians) were considered Jews. However, once the early Christians claimed that the fall of the Temple was a proof that Christianity replaces Judaism as the true religion, it became a serious threat to Judaism. A threat which the Jewish leadership of the time had to deal with in order to preserve the Jewish religion.
  • A primary reason for the chaos in Jerusalem, which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple was that religious and civilian Jewish leaders operated independently of each other, lacking a strong central authority to instill order. Each leader believed that his way was the true way. Infighting between Jewish leaders brought to the fall of Jerusalem. Without the Temple and civilian government institutions to unite and guide them, the Jewish people were at risk of losing their identity and eventually disappear.

Rabban Gamliel II’s principal aim and major achievement was to make Yavnehh  not  only the religious center of Judaism after the fall of the Temple, but also the center of Jewish leadership. A place where the devastated nation could look for guidance and inspiration after the disaster. Though  somewhat high-handed and domineering in public life, Gamaliel  II was  a modest, and kind-hearted individual whose  consideration  for others extended not only to pupils and  the  Jewish  community  at  large  but  also  to  well-intentioned  gentiles.  As the Nasi, it was the responsibility of Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh to find solutions. During his time, Judaism was transformed and adapted to a new reality.  The following measures were implemented in his time as the leader of the Jewish people:

  • Determining the Biblical canon (a list of books considered to be authoritative scripture). A list of 24 holy books that constitute the Jewish Bible was finalized to prevent books with Christian message to be added to the Jewish library of religious books. Reading of books other than the Biblical canon was forbidden.
  • Until the destruction of the Temple, Christians were considered Jews. At that time, Judeo-Christians participated in prayers in synagogues. A 19th prayer was added to the Amidah prayer, designed to  exclude  Judeo-Christians  and  other heretical elements from   synagogue   worship by inserting a line into the Amida prayer, condemning Christians and other religions, something that Judeo-Christians objected to. The Christian messages were declared unholy. (Due to its inflammatory nature, this line was modified several times throughout history since then. It is no longer includes the word Christianity).
  • In order to unite the Jewish nation there was a need to established  a  coherent  policy  on religious matters, as well as policy toward  the outside world, and create a centralized Jewish Rabbinic authority. Gamliel ended the old  heated disagreementbetween the schools of Hillel and Shammai, by making Hillel’s interpretations to be the official interpretations on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology.  Gamliel’s methods weren’t always acceptable to other Rabbis and when he publicly humiliated other leading scholars, his own brother-in-law Eliezer ben Hycanus and Joshua ben  Hananiah over  the date on which he calculated that  the  Day of Atonement would fall, Gamaliel was deposed and  temporarily  was replaced by Eleazar ben Azariah. A reconciliation restored  him to office, nominating Eleazar as vice-president of the Sanhedrin.
  • When the Temple existed, Jewish prayers in synagogues had different forms in different synagogues. During Gamliel’s time, prayers in synagogues were institutionalized and structured to be uniformed in content and practice. Prayers in synagogues became as important as praying in the Temple in earlier days. Giving a set form to the Amidah prayer, the recitation of which became a daily obligation. Learning the Torah and the Talmud was institutionalized  as a  central pillar in Jewish life. The rules for conversion to Judaism were finalized.
  • Reformulating  the  Passover Seder and Yom Kippur rituals: In the days of the Temple, the primary holiday celebration was animal sacrifice. The void that was created  with the destruction of the Temple had to be filled with different kind of holiday celebrations. Celebrating Passover was evolved to be centered around the Seder dinner, eating Matzah, and reading the Haggadah. The Atoning for sins became Yom Kippur’s primary motive during Gamliel’s time.
  • Through  his personal example, he did away with   elaborate   burial   rites  so  as  to  avoid  social distinctions.

Rabban Gamliel II attained vast prestige as the official spokesman and representative of his  people. A delegation  of leading sages, headed by Gamliel II to  Rome averted a decree outlawing conversion to Judaism,  after  the  Emperor Domitian’s own cousin, Flavius Clemens, had embraced the Jewish faith.

To read more about how Judaism was shaped after  the destruction of the Temple, click on the links below.

Rabbi Akiva

Joshua (Yehoshua) Ben Gamla

 To read more about the Jewish revolt against  the Roman Empire click on the link below.

The Jewish Roman Wars

RabanGamliel tomb

Rabban Gamliel II Tomb in Yavneh