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The Fall of Betar

The Fall of Betar


[Note: When the Jews rebelled against Roman rule, they believed that their leader, Shimon bar Koziva (also known as Bar Kochba), would fulfill their messianic longings. But their hopes were cruelly dashed on Tisha B’Av, 135 CE, as the Jewish rebels were brutally butchered in the final battle at Betar. The following account is from the Talmud (Gittin 57a–b):]

Because of the spoke of a chariot Betar was destroyed. For they [the residents of Betar] had a custom: When a boy was born they would plant a cedar tree, and when a girl was born they would plant an acacia. At the time of a marriage, the trees were cut down and the wood was used to make the bridal canopy.

One day Caesar’s daughter was passing by, and the spoke of her chariot broke. Her attendants cut down a cedar and took it to fix the chariot. The residents of Betar came and attacked them, and the attendants went and told Caesar: “The Jews are rebelling against you.” The Romans attacked them [and destroyed the city].

R. Yochanan taught: There were eighty thousand Roman soldiers who beseiged Betar. [The city was defended by] Bar Koziva, who had two hundred thousand soldiers with severed fingers [for the test of admission into Bar Koziva’s army called for one to cut off his own finger to show his bravery].

The sages asked him: “How long will you continue to make cripples of Israel?” He replied: “How else shall I test them?” They answered: “Anyone who is incapable of uprooting a cedar of Lebanon while riding by on his horse should not be counted among your troops.”

He [Bar Koziva] had two hundred thousand like this [capable of uprooting a cedar], and two hundred thousand like that [who had severed their own fingers]. Hadrian sent armies against them, but they came out [of Betar] and slaughtered Hadrian’s forces.

Once, when Bar Koziva’s forces were going out to battle, an elderly man came and said: “May your G‑d give you assistance.” They misspoke and replied: “Let Him not assist us nor hinder us! ‘Is it not so, G‑d, that You have abandoned us, and will not accompany our armies!’” (Psalms 60:12)

What was an example of Bar Koziva’s great strength? He would block the catapult stones with his knee and hurl them back, killing many soldiers.

When R. Akiva saw him, he declared: “‘A star has come forth from Jacob’ (Numbers 24:17)—Bar Koziva has come forth from Jacob; he is the Moshiach!” R. Yochanan ben Torta told him: “Akiva! Grass will grow on your cheeks and the son of David will not have arrived [i.e., Bar Koziva is not the Moshiach]!”

For three and a half years Hadrian Caesar besieged Betar. R. Elazar ha-Moda’i was there, and wore sackcloth and fasted, praying: “Master of the World! Do not sit in judgment today.”

Hadrian decided to return [i.e., to end his unsuccessful siege of Betar], when a Cuthite [one of the archenemies of the Jews] came to him and said: “Master! As long as this rooster [R. Elazar ha-Moda’i] sits there in ashes, you will be unable to conquer it. Wait for me, and I shall enable you to capture it today.”

He [the Cuthite] went into Betar through the main gate and found R. Elazar, who was busy praying. He made believe that he was whispering in his ear. The people reported this to Bar Koziva, telling him: “Your uncle, R. Elazar, seeks to deliver the country into the hands of Hadrian.”

Bar Koziva sent a messenger to bring the Cuthite before him. “What did you say to R. Elazar, and what did he answer?”

The Cuthite replied: “If I tell you, the king [Hadrian] will kill me; and if I don’t tell you, then you will kill me. Better that I allow myself to be killed than to reveal the secrets of the king.”

Bar Koziva assumed that R. Elazar sought to deliver the country [into the hands of Hadrian]. Bar Koziva sent messengers to bring R. Elazar to him, and asked him: “What did the Cuthite say to you?”

R. Elazar replied: “I don’t know what he whispered, for I was in the middle of my prayers and heard nothing.”

“And what did you say to him?”

“I said nothing.”

Bar Koziva became very angry and kicked him, causing him to die. A voice was then heard from Heaven, saying: “‘Woe to the shepherd of the idol, who has abandoned the flock; a sword on his forearm and on his right eye’ (Zechariah 11:17). You have broken the forearm of Israel and blinded her right eye. Therefore, the forearm of that man [Bar Koziva] shall wither and his right eye shall be struck.” The Jews’ own sins thus brought it about that Betar was captured and Bar Koziva was put to death.

His head was brought to Hadrian, who asked: “Who killed him?” A Cuthite came forward and said: “I did.” Hadrian told him: “Go and bring his body.” He went and brought it, and they found a snake curled around his neck. Hadrian declared: “Had his G‑d not killed him, who would have been able to do so?”

Eighty thousand Romans entered Betar and slaughtered the men, women and children until blood flowed from the doorways and sewers. Horses sank up until their nostrils, and the rivers of blood lifted up rocks weighing forty se’ah [approximately 700 lb.], and flowed into the sea, where its stain was noticeable for a distance of four mil [approximately 2.5 miles].

Hadrian had a large vineyard, eighteen mil [approximately 11.5 miles] by eighteen mil—the distance between Tiberias and Tzippori—and he surrounded it with a wall made from the bodies of those slain in Betar. He also ordered that they not be brought to burial.

The sages taught: for seven years the gentiles harvested their vineyards without having to fertilize them, because of the blood of Israel.

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Anonymous Jerusalem via August 13, 2016

In pa"rashah bechukotai, Hashem tells us what will be if we follow his will. well it looks like those things have occurred which means Hashem must now be happy with us. maybe I am cynical but perhaps over two thousand years our rabbis have become very comfortable " living in the midbar". who could ever have thought that Jewish people would return home and build such a great civilization in less than a hundred years and yet many rabbis say that we are not there yet and we should not give up any of The plethora of minhagim from eating rice on Pesach to dressing like Polish nobelmen.. In Israel, a nation is living again and with more torah study that every existed in all the romantisized shetles of Europe. And I am an Orthodox Jew, but my thoughts are not fossilized Reply

Linda Best Raleigh, NC via August 6, 2014

I'm so sorry I missed Tisha B'Av. My car broke down. Next time? Reply

Anonymous Lakewood, NJ August 10, 2011

Talmud I don't recognize this to be the excact text of of the Talmud Gittin 57. Where is the rest from? Reply

Anonymous Pacific Palisades, CA/USA via August 8, 2011

Comment re comments All these comments are great.
I mourn for all the Jewish losses throughout history and pray that we, along with the rest of the world, will have no more... I want to see the ashes transformed into joy now - yesterday would not be too soon. Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg, South Africa August 8, 2011

Feedbackand thanks. I have learned many more facts and details from this article about the fall of Betar. It is fascinating.It has also helped me spend this Tisha B'Av right. Thank you. Reply

Dan Yardley, PA July 4, 2010

Betar So! Was Akiba correct, or was Yochanan correct? Would 570,000 Jews been slaughtered if Bar Kosiva had not been backed by Rabbinical endorsement? Would Judah still be a State had the Jews followed the dictates of "D'inah Malchutah Dina" ("the law of the land is the law")?
It would appear to me that the term "Chofetz Chaim" ("one who wants life") entails living and learning. Is it possible that those among us, who deliberately go out of our way to bait Jews "who are not our sort of Jew", or who do not buy the land on which they dwell, are the intellectual descendants of the Betar state of mind, and are looking for martyrdom. It is extremely difficult to look at our history and decide which road to follow, seeing that our messianic hopes have been dashed throughout the centuries, and that we need to study more before we make decisions which will echo through the future. Reply

NormanF Salida, CO/USA April 13, 2010

From Betar To The Rebirth Of A Nation Betar lives again! The new Jewish town which is close to the ruins of the old one, remind that miracles happen in Jewish history. Against the greatest of odds, the Jews built not far from where their ancestors heroically fell against the Romans. This is testimony to the fact the Jews are G-d's witnesses in the world, that the cruelty and bloodshed of history turn to happiness and resurrection. Whoever denies this denies G-d. To those who question whether it was right to establish Israel, its physical restoration is the prelude to its spiritual rebirth. I feel sad for those observant Jews in Europe who spent their energies opposing Zionism when they could have all made aliyah and transformed the character of the Holy Land. All those lives wasted in the Shoah (Holocaust) due to human blindness when they could have been saved is a lesson learned. We must all care less for the appearances of people and pay more attention to saving their souls. Then will Zionism and Judaism be truly reconciled at last. Reply