On yesterday’s daf we were introduced to the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza and the unfortunate incident at the party to which bar Kamtza was mistakenly invited. As we saw, according to the Gemara, this led to the Roman siege around the city of Jerusalem and eventually to the destruction of the Temple.
On our daf, the Gemara describes how Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai managed to escape the city and negotiate with Vespasian, the Roman general in charge of the army surrounding Jerusalem. Rabban Yohanan offered words of welcome to him, referring to him as the king. Vespasian argued that Rabban Yohanan deserved death for calling him the king when someone else was sitting on the throne in Rome. Rabban Yohanan assured him that he had to be the king, since Jerusalem was destined to fall only into the hands of a king. In the course of their conversation a messenger arrived from Rome and informed Vespasian that he had been chosen to be ruler of Rome, an announcement that made Vespasian realize the truth of Rabban Yohanan’s statement. In appreciation he offered to respond favorably to any request that Rabban Yohanan would make. Rabban Yohanan asked that the city of Yavneh be spared together with its sages, a request that would pave the way for revived Jewish life even after the destruction of the Temple.
Roman historians refer to the year that this occurred as “the year of the four Caesars.” When the year began, Nero was the reigning emperor, and any military general who showed any interest in becoming ruler was immediately sentenced to death as punishment for rebelling against the king – even if there was no real proof that the general had done so. When Nero was killed in an uprising, the leadership figures who were his potential successors fought among themselves. The Roman legions that were stationed in the Balkans, Syria and Judea all supported Vespasian, as did the governor of Egypt. While leading the siege around Jerusalem, Vespasian was informed that his allies in Rome had succeeded Vitellius who was acting as emperor in Rome, and he was recognized by all as the Emperor of Rome.