This famous narrative from the Jerusalem Talmud explains the Roman victory in Beitar (near the present day Arab village of Battir, a few kilometers south-east of Jerusalem), which marked the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 to 135 or 136 CE). During the final stages of the revolt, the Romans besieged Beitar, which served as rebel headquarters. This passage appears in a talmudic sugya that expounds on Mishnah Taanit 4:6. This mishnah is one of the few references to this revolt and its leader in tannaitic texts (Tosefta Shabbat 15:9 is rare for its explicit mention of Bar Kokhba/Bar Kuzva by name; in this commentary, I refer to this figure as Bar Kokhba even though Bar Kuzva appears in our text; more on the variations of this name in Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” p. 53-55). By contrast with the terse style of tannaitic references to this revolt, our sugya provides lengthy narratives in Hebrew and Aramaic on this rebellion. However, given that the Talmud seeks to address the failure of this revolt and the death of its leader, rather than provide historical accounts, in this discussion, I analyze the talmudic authors’ perspectives on this Jewish defeat without engaging the issues typically discussed in modern scholarship (for the historical value of this source, see Mustigman, From the Mount of Olives).
Section A, the only portion of this narrative written in Hebrew, describes Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Moda‘i, a third-generation tanna who was active in the second century, in Beitar during the three-and-a-half-year siege waged by Hadrian. According to Raz Mustigman, this timeframe echoes Daniel 9:26-27, indicating that Beitar was about to be liberated from Roman rule (From the Mount of Olives, p. 74). Indeed, in Section B, we learn that Hadrian almost withdrew. Throughout that time, Rabbi Eleazar sat in mourning with sackcloth and ashes, an image that echoes several biblical descriptions, for example: “When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry” (Esther 4:1, NRSV); “In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” (4:3, NRSV); and, “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3, NRSV). In these cases, these measures were taken in response to a catastrophe that threatens the Jewish people (see also Mishnah Ta‘anit, chapter 3). Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Moda‘i beseeches God not to hold court, meaning to judge the people of Israel or, perhaps, the rebels within the besieged town. His prayer implies that their collective sins outweigh their merits. Indeed, in the previous section of this sugya, Bar Kokhba is depicted asking God to refrain from intervening in the war, assuming that his forces can win on their own. Such expressions of hubris by Bar Kokhba and his men constitute the sin that leads to their inevitable destruction (Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” p. 58). As our passage reveals, Rabbi Eleazar was actually protecting Beitar, which fell as soon as his prayers ceased.
As mentioned above, Section B states that Hadrian was ready to withdraw the siege, a signal that he had given up on subduing this revolt. At that point, a Samaritan offers assistance, promising to put the city in Hadrian’s control. Josephus reports on tensions between Samaritans and Jews (Ant. XII, 257-264), as do various rabbinic texts (see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:3, 44d). In this story, a Samaritan plays a crucial role in the fall of Beitar and in crushing Jewish hopes for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly the Aramaic verb that expresses “handing over” the city (also in Section C) uses the root sh-l-m, also found in “peace” (shlam in Aramaic, shalom in Hebrew).
Section C describes the Samaritan entering the city through its sewage conduit. He finds Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Moda‘i and seems to recognize that this sage is the source of the city’s endurance; therefore, he orchestrates a rift between Rabbi Eleazar and Bar Kokhba who, according to this section, are uncle and nephew. Nevertheless, the Samaritan’s scheme succeeds. Having convinced the leader of this revolt to mistrust his uncle, in Section D, Bar Kokhba approaches Rabbi Eleazar to discuss the issue raised by the Samaritan and ultimately kills the sage with a kick. This violent behavior results in the fall of this city. The Samaritan, therefore, understood what the Romans did not: the fate of the war depended on the devout prayers of one rabbi, which enabled the Jews in Beitar to withstand their siege for three and a half years.
Upon the death of this sage, a heavenly voice proclaims that the eye and the arm of Israel have been eliminated and, therefore, Bar Kokhba will be punished. This heavenly voice indicates that Israel’s true strength does not stem from Bar Kokhba and his men, but from this pious sage; indeed, as soon as his prayers ceased, the Romans seized Beitar and Bar Kokhba was killed. Thus divine judgment could no longer be delayed. Furthermore, this Roman victory was not due to their military power, morality or superior strategy; rather this triumph is the outcome of God’s response to Israel’s transgressions. In this equation, Rome is merely an instrument (for a similar view on the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, see Tosefta Menahot 13:21-23; Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 1:1, 38c; Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:3, 8a; Taanit 2:2, 65c).
In Section E, the focus returns to Hadrian, to whom the head of Bar Kokhba is delivered. When Hadrian inquires who killed this rebel leader, the Samaritan takes credit for this act. However, the emperor then asks to see the corpse, only to find that Bar Kokhba had been killed by a serpent – neither by this Samaritan nor a Roman soldier – emphasizing that his death was divinely ordained. Snakes and other animals are portrayed as divine agents of death in other rabbinic sources as well (see, for example, Sifra Emor, parashah 8, pereq 3 [99d]; cf. Acts 28:3-4). Hadrian recites a biblical verse to acknowledge that God took Bar Kokhba’s life: “Unless their Rock had sold them, the Lord had given them up?” (Deuteronomy 32:30, NRSV). Thus, this emperor admits that no Roman power could have defeated this revolt or its leader. Only the God of Israel could accomplish that feat. Thus, despite the Roman suppression of this revolt under Hadrian’s leadership, the Talmud does not acknowledge Roman might as a factor in this victory. Moreover, it states that the Roman emperor himself credits this triumph to the God of the Jews.
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