Bar Kokhba Revolt
Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d (part two)
This source is part of an extended sugya (talmudic unit) that expounds on Mishnah Taanit 4:6, which mentions the fall of Beitar, marking the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 to 135 or 136 CE). Our selection describes the Roman and the Jewish armies, including how Bar Kokhba (known as Bar Kozva in the Talmud) would test his warriors. It concludes with Bar Kozva’s defiance toward God, which might partially explain the Jewish defeat detailed in the next passage of this sugya (Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a).
Section A cites Rabbi Yoḥanan, a renowned second-generation amora who was active in the third century (died ca. 280); Sections B and C may also be attributed to him, but it is uncertain. This first section offers a brief overview of the organization of Roman troops during the siege of Beitar, including the trumpeters that represent the sound (lit. voice; qol) of war (more on this motif in the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d [part one]).
While the Roman army was substantial, according to Section B, so too were the troops commanded by Bar Kozva. This section states that Bar Kozva would test potential recruits by cutting or injuring one of their fingers (a parallel in Lamentations Rabbah 2:4 uses the root q-t-‘ to describe cutting, whereas the root n-t-f, which broadly means dripping, here bleeding, appears in this talmudic text). Despite this harsh method of selection, our text describes hundreds of thousands of volunteers (Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” p. 57). However, the sages disapproved of this practice, as their message to Bar Kozva conveys. Notably, the communique cited here questions this military test but not the revolt or its leader, by contrast with the explicit opposition to Bar Kozba expressed in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 93b (see this text in Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d [part one]). Rather, they contact him to articulate their disapproval of this specific criterion. This overall support in the Jerusalem Talmud is significant, given that this text was composed after the tragic outcome of this war was well known. Bar Kozva responds to the rabbis’ critique by asking how else prospective troops could be evaluated. Here too, the text does not suggest tension between the two parties. The sages propose that volunteers who can uproot a Lebanese cedar while riding a horse are suitable for Bar Kozva’s army (using the term ’istratia, from the Greek stratia). This leader adopts their suggestion and his army eventually numbers two hundred thousand from each method of assessment. Both the Roman and the Jewish armies are portrayed as impressive, with the Jewish soldiers being extraordinarily strong and capable of enduring pain. Therefore, an explanation is needed for the Roman victory.
While Sections A to C are written in Hebrew, Section D is in Aramaic and, thus, may represent a later literary stratum. In this Aramaic passage, when Bar Kozva went into battle, he would ask God, whom he addressed as “Master of the universe,” not to intervene, neither to aid the Jewish army, nor to put it to shame or to hinder it (the translation of the root kh-s-f is uncertain here), citing a Psalms 60:12: “Have you not rejected us, O God, and you will not march out with our armies” (based on NRSV; verse 10 in most Christian Bibles; see also Psalms 108:12, verse 11 in most Christian Bibles). In its biblical context, this verse pleads for God’s help, but here its meaning is reversed (Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” p. 58). In our source, Bar Kozva is guilty of hubris by fully relying on his army to ensure victory and believing that he can win without divine assistance, thus renouncing God’s help when it is most needed; this may provide an explanation for the failure of this revolt. For Israel Ben-Shalom, the fact that this section is in Aramaic, whereas the others are in Hebrew, indicates that this rabbinic critique against Bar Kozva was appended later in the development of this sugya (“The Support,” p. 26). Irrespective of whether Section D is a later addition, within the context of the entire sugya, this source (A to D) expresses ambivalence toward Bar Kozva. As noted above, the sages criticized his means of testing potential recruits and his resistance to divine involvement without opposing this leader or the revolt itself, (cf. Adele Reinhartz, “Rabbinic Perceptions,” p. 176-177, who claims that positive rabbinic statements about Bar Kozva “originated during the period of the revolt,” whereas “negative statements … could reflect either conflicting views at the time of the revolt, or the attempt of post-revolt rabbis to account for the failure of the revolt by blaming its leader.” By contrast, Peter Schäfer, “Bar Kokhba,” sees no historical evidence of rabbinic support for Bar Kozva in this text).
In realistic terms, this revolt could never have succeeded, considering the superiority of the Roman army; however, from a rabbinic perspective, victory was plausible and the power imbalance could be overturned. Indeed, the next section of this sugya (Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a) indicates that Roman conquest was caused by Israel’s sins and Bar Kozva’s actions, not the military prowess of that empire.
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