This passage from the Jerusalem Talmud appears in a sugya (talmudic unit) that expounds on Mishnah Taanit 4:6 and describes the violent Roman conquest of Beitar, which ended the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 to 135 or 136 CE). Beitar is located near the present day Arab village of Battir, several kilometers south-east of Jerusalem. During the final stages of that revolt, the Romans besieged Beitar, which had served as rebel headquarters (for talmudic explanations of its fall, see the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a). Our section of this sugya details Roman brutality and bloodshed inflicted on the residents of this settlement, especially its children.
Section A graphically describes the effects of the ferocious Roman assault on the Jews of Beitar, detailing that blood flowed in such quantities that a horse – probably from the Roman army – was immersed up to its nose. The stream of blood was so intense that it swept rocks along with it, till it reached the sea (probably the Mediterranean), despite Beitar being forty miles inland. This passage illustrates the murderous savagery of the Roman army.
Section B further reports what was discovered in Beitar in the aftermath of the Roman conquest: the sight of children’s brains splattered on a rock, and containers filled with qtzutzei tefilin (the boxes from phylacteries that contain scriptural scrolls, without their straps, perhaps cut from slain men). The Romans therefore killed children and men alike. Phylacteries symbolize Jewish belief in God and adherence to the Torah, based on Deuteronomy 11:18: “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead” (NRSV). The image of these ritual items having been severed and discarded en masse represents a violent rupture between Jewish men and the God of Israel.
Section C cites a tannaitic passage that is attributed to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who was active in the second century – especially after the Bar Kokhba Revolt – when, according to rabbinic descriptions, he had a key role in resuming Torah study and reestablishing a rabbinic center. Here, this prominent sage describes the schools that had existed in Beitar: five hundred in total, with no fewer than five hundred pupils in each. These exaggerated numbers depict Beitar not only as the core of rebellion but as a center of Torah study. Thus, this town was not only populated by rebels but also innocent children who studied Torah. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel portrays these children as ready to attack the Roman enemy with their styluses. These sinless youngsters, who were ready to fight for their freedom, were wrapped then burned alive in the Torah scrolls from which they studied by Roman soldiers (see also Hacham, “Rabban Simeon son of Gamaliel,” p. 563). Thus, the fall of Beitar is also considered a catastrophe for the future of Torah study. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel describes himself as the sole survivor among these pupils though, significantly, he does not criticize the rebels or the revolt. Neither sages nor students are described leaving the city. Scholars discuss this source (and the entire sugya) in relation to the sages’ perspectives on the revolt and whether this narrative has historical value (see, for example, Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” 64-65; Hacham, “Rabban Simeon son of Gamaliel”). Nevertheless, this entire passage (A to C) portrays Roman brutality, especially as evidenced by the killing of Jewish children. The Torah neither protected its youngest students (for they were burned to death within it) nor the men who wrapped phylacteries, for the transgressions of Israel caused their deaths (“the sins caused”). No specific sins are detailed in that passage (see a possible suggestion elsewhere in this sugya: Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a). As in other rabbinic texts, this source articulates a traditional Deuteronomic perspective, which attributes Jewish defeats to Israel’s own transgressions, not Roman power.
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