The Fall of Betar
This article is excerpted from the Jewish Talmud, Gittin 57.
[Note: When the Jews rebelled against Roman rule, they believed that their leader, Simon 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 57):]
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! (Psalms 60:12): Is it not so, G-d, that You have abandoned us, and will not accompany our armies!”
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 Ya’akov (Numbers 24:17) – Bar Koziva has come forth from Ya’akov, he is the Mashiach!” R. Yochanan ben Tursa 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 Mashiach]!”
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 [from the arch enemies of the Jews] came to him and said: “Master! As long as this rooster [R. Elazar ha-Moda’i who prayed repeatedly] 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 and flowed into the sea where its stain was noticeable for a distance of four mil.
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.