Bar Kokhba

This revolt began as small, spontaneous clashes between Jews and Roman forces. Jews were hiding in caves in order to be able to perform the mitzvahs. When discovered by Roman soldiers, they resisted, in some cases successfully. Eventually, a great warrior, Shimon ben Kozba, united the disparate armed Jewish groups into a cohesive fighting force, which then captured Jerusalem from the Romans. Ben Kozba further proclaimed himself as the Messiah, and had the backing of theBen Kozba proclaimed himself the messiah greatest sage of his time, Rabbi Akiva, along with many other sages. Shortly, Ben Kozba became known as Bar Kokhba (Bar Kochba), which means son of a star, based on a verse in the Torah (Numbers 24:17) that likens the Messiah to a star.

However, other sages felt strongly that Bar Kokhba was not the Messiah, and two incidents vindicated them. First, before one of his battles, Bar Kokhba blasphemously proclaimed: "G‑d, if you choose not to help us, at least do not come to the aid of our enemies," thereby implying that the Jews could be victorious without Divine assistance. On another occasion, Bar Kokhba suspected that his saintly uncle, Rabbi Elazar HaModai, knew military secrets. Enraged, Bar Kokhba confronted the elderly Rabbi Elazar, kicking him and causing his death. Their hopes dashed, the Jews then called Bar Kokhba "Bar Koziba," meaning son of a lie. All told, Bar Kokhba ruled in Jerusalem for two and a half years, with minted coins commemorating his rule.

The Downfall of Betar

Aghast at the success of the Jewish uprising, Hadrian committed all his forces to crush the revolt. Julius Severus, a top general, was recalled from far-off Britain to head the Roman army. Slowly, despite meeting fierce resistance from Bar Kokhba's troops, the Romans reconquered Jerusalem and much of the country. Finally, Bar Kokhba fled to the fortified city of Betar. On Tisha B'Av, 133 CE, after nine years of war, the Romans conquered Betar, effectively ending all Jewish resistance. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the vengeful Romans in Betar alone. With virtually no survivors, rivers of Jewish blood flowed for miles to the sea, and the Romans were able to fertilize their fields for seven years using their victims' blood. Jewish bodies were not buried, but were used as fences for fields, in a chilling premonition of Nazi practice. Bar Kokhba also died, either executed by the sages for making false Messianic claims, or during the final battle for Betar.

Shaat Hashmad

As would occur 1,800 years later, the Romans embarked on implementing the Final Solution to the Jewish problem in Eretz Israel, and the destruction became worse than at the time of the churban. A Roman official, Tinneas Rufus, ransacked Eretz Israel, killing countless numbers of Jews and selling others as slaves throughout the Roman Empire.All anti-Torah edicts were reinforced, and performance of any mitzvah was punished by torture and death. Indeed, this period of time, among the worst in Jewish history, is described in the Talmud as Shaas Hashmad — a time of full-fledged warfare against the Jewish religion. Events became so dire that, although Jewish law normally mandates that one may violate any transgression — other than idolatry, adultery, and murder — to save one's life, at such a time it is prescribed that one must give his life rather than transgress even the smallest Jewish custom, including those not established halachically. To make matters worse, the Romans, realizing thatPerformance of any mitzvah was punished by torture and death the Torah sages are the moral center of the Jewish people, hunted them down ruthlessly. (Centuries later, the Nazis would follow the same tactics.) Many scholars were executed, and others fled to safety in Babylon.

In order to eradicate any vestige of Jewish connection to Eretz Israel,the Romans

renamed it Palestina, after the previous Philistine inhabitants. Currently, this name survives as Palestine, and is likewise used instead of Eretz Israel to deny any Jewish connection to the land.

Matters Improve

After Hadrian's death in 138 CE, the Romans gradually relaxed the heavy yoke of oppression. As a gesture, they permitted interment of the vast number of corpses at Betar; the day this took place, the 15th of Av, was subsequently observed as a joyous occasion. Miraculously, the bodies had not decayed, and in commemoration the sages added the benediction HaTov VeHaMaitiv in Birkas HaMazon, Grace After Meals, thanking G‑d for his great kindness.

Although the Romans also stopped enforcing the anti-Torah decrees, they were not officially rescinded. Realizing that the possibility existed of the Romans suddenly reimposing the hated edicts, the sages worked assiduously to have them overturned, and eventually succeeded. In addition, the Romans began a rebuilding program for Eretz Israel, and the Jewish community was strengthened by the arrival of Babylonian Jews. Despite the better conditions, it still was too dangerous for the hereditary Nasi, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, to adopt a leadership position. As a result, the Sanhedrin remained leaderless. Providentially, though, help came from a most unexpected source — the Romans themselves.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

This renowned Tanna, an outstanding disciple of Rabbi Akiva, was a staunch critic of the Romans. In a famous episode recorded in the Talmud, several sages were discussing Roman rule. Rabbi Judah Berabbi Ilai praised it, while Rabbi Shimon bar YochaiHe fled and hid in a cave for 13 years scathingly criticized it. Upon hearing of the conversation, the Romans sentenced Rabbi Shimon to death, whereupon he fled and hid in a cave for 13 years. Grateful to Rabbi Judah Berabbi Ilai for his support, the Romans commanded that the Jews promote him. Seizing the opportunity, the sages appointed Rabbi Judah as leader of the Sanhedrin. Clearly, they could not call Rabbi Judah Nasi, as this title would arouse Roman ire. Nevertheless, the Jewish people had a recognized leader at a most critical time.

For this part, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was known as a great Kabbalist and the authorship of the mystical work, the Zohar, is attributed to him. His tomb at Meron in the Galilee attracts thousands of pilgrims, especially on Lag B'Omer, the anniversary of his death.