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Texts on Bar Kochba: Midrash Rabbah Lamentations

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Coin of Bar Kochba, showing the Temple with a star on the roof and the Ark of the Covenant. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
 Coin of Simon ben Kosiba ,showing the Temple with the Messianic star on the roof and the Ark of the Covenant inside (British Museum)
Simon ben Kosiba, surnamed Simon bar Kochba ('son of the star') was a Jewish Messiah. Between 132 and 135, he was the leader of the last resistance against the Romans. After the end of the disastrous rebellion, the rabbis called him 'Bar Kozeba', which means 'son of the lie'.

One of the texts dealing with the revolt of Bar Kochba is a Midrash (commentary on a literary work) on Lamentations. The translation was made by A. Cohen.
 

Midrash Rabbah Lamentations
Babylonian Talmud, Gittin
Eusebius
Epiphanius
Cassius Dio
Jerome
Letters
Appian
Fronto

Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

When Rabbi Aqiba beheld Bar Kozeba, he exclaimed: 'This is the king Messiah!' Rabbi Johanan ben Torta retorted: 'Aqiba, grass will grow in your cheeks and he will still not have come!'

This famous exchange is also found in another rabbinical text:

Palestine Talmud, Ta'anit 4.5

Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught: 'Aqiba, my master, used to interpret a star goes forth from Jacob [1] as 'Kozeba goes forth from Jacob'. Rabbi Aqiba, when he saw Bar Kozeba, said: 'This is the king Messiah!' Rabbi Johanan ben Torta said to him: 'Aqiba! Grass will grow on your cheeks and still the son of David does not come!'
[translation: Craig Evans]

 

Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

Eighty thousand trumpeters besieged Bethar where Bar Kozeba was located, who had with him two hundred thousand men with an amputated finger.[2] The Sages sent him the message, 'How long will you continue to make the men of Israel blemished?'

He asked them, 'How else shall they be tested?'

They answered, 'Let anyone who cannot uproot a cedar from Lebanon be refused enrollment in your army.'

He thereupon had two hundred thousand men of each class; and when they went forth to battle they cried, 'O God, neither help nor discourage us!'

That is what is written, Hast not Thou, o God, cast us off? And go not forth, o God, with our hosts? [3]

And what used Bar Kozeba to do? He would catch the missiles from the enemy's catapults on one of his knees and hurl them back, killing many of the foe. On that account, Rabbi Aqiba made his remark.[4]
 

 
Relief, probably commemorating Hadrian's victory over the Jews. Merseyside county museums, Liverpool (Britain). From A.R. Birley, Hadrian. The restless emperor (1997).
Hadrian, killing a Jew (from A.R. Birley, Hadrian, 1997; !!!)

Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

For three and a half years the emperor Hadrian surrounded Bethar. In the city was rabbi Eleazar of Mode'in [5], who continually wore sackcloth and fasted, and used to pray daily: 'Lord of the universe, sit not in judgment today!' so that Hadrian thought of returning home [6].

A Cuthean [7] went [to the emperor] and found him and said: 'My lord, so long as that old cock wallows in ashes, you will not conquer the city. But wait for me, because I will do something that will enable you to subdue it to-day.'

He immediately entered the gate of the city, where he found rabbi Eleazar standing and praying. He pretended to whisper in the ear of rabbi Eleazar of Mode'in. People went and informed Bar Kozeba: 'Your friend, rabbi Eleazar, wishes to surrender the city to Hadrian.'

He sent and had the Cuthean brought to him and asked: 'What did you say to him?'

He replied: 'If I tell you, the emperor will kill me; and if I do not tell you, you will kill me. It is better that I should kill myself and the secrets of the government be not divulged.'

Bar Kozeba was convinced that rabbi Eleazar wanted to surrender the city, so when the latter finished his praying, he had him brought into his presence and asked him: 'What did the Cuthean tell you?'

He answered: 'I do not know what he whispered in my ear, nor did I hear anything, because I was standing in prayer and am unaware what he said.'

Bar Kozeba flew into a rage, kicked him with his foot and killed him. A heavenly voice issued forth and proclaimed: 'Woe to the worthless shepherd that leaveth the flock! The sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right arm!'[8]

It was intimated to him, 'Thou hast paralyzed the arm of Israel and blinded their right eye; therefore shall thy arm wither and thy right arm grow dim!'

Forthwith the sins [of the people] caused Bethar to be captured. Bar Kozeba was slain and his head taken to Hadrian. He asked: 'Who killed him?'

A Cuthean said to him: 'I killed him.'

'Bring his body to me,' he ordered.

He went and and found a snake encircling its neck. So Hadrian, when told of this, exclaimed: 'If his God had not slain him, who could have overcome him?' [9]

And there was applied to him the verse: Except their rock had given them over.[10]

 

Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

There were two brothers in Kefar Haruba, who did not allow any Roman to pass there, because they killed him. They said: 'The conclusion of the whole matter is that we must take Hadrian's crown and set it upon our own head.'

They heard that the Romans were coming towards them; and when they set out against them, an old man met them and said: 'May the Creator be your help against them!'

They retorted: 'Let him neither help nor discourage us!'

Their sins immediately caused them to be slain. Their heads were brought to Hadrian, who asked: 'Who killed them?'

A Cuthean replied: 'I slew him.'

And the emperor ordered him to fetch their bodies.

He went and and found a snake encircling their necks. So Hadrian, when told of this, exclaimed: 'If their God had not slain them, who could have overcome them?'

And there was applied to him the verse: Except their rock [Kefar] had given them over.[10]
 



Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

Rabbi Jonathan said: The voice is the voice of Jacob [11] - the voice of distress caused by the emperor Hadrian, who slew eighty thousand myriads of human beings at Bethar.


Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

They slew the inhabitants until the horses waded in blood up to the nostrils, and the blood rolled along stones (with the size of 284 liters) and flowed into the sea, staining it for a distance of six kilometers. (In case you think that Bethar is close to the sea: was it not in fact sixty kilometers distant from it?)

Now Hadrian possessed a large vineyard 46 kilometers square, as far as from Tiberias to Sepphoris, and they surrounded it with a fence consisting of the slain of Bethar. And it was decreed that they should not be buried, until a certain emperor arose and ordered their interment.

Rabbi Huna said: 'On the day when the slain of Bethar were allowed burial [12], the benediction Who art kind and dealest kindly was instituted - Who art kind because the bodies did not putrefy, and dealest kindly because they were allowed burial.'
 



Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.24

Rabbi Johanan said: 'The brains of three hundred children were dashed upon one stone, and three hundred baskets of capsules of phylacteries were found in Bethar, each capsule having a capacity of 2130 liters.'

Rabbi Gamaliel said: 'There were five hundred schools in Bethar, and the smallest of them had no less than three hundred children. They used to say: "If the enemy comes against us, with these styluses we will go out and stab them." When, however, the people's sins did cause the enemy to come, they enwrapped each pupil in his book and burnt him, so that I alone was left.' He affected to himself the verse: Mine eye affecteth my soul, because of all the daughters of my city.[13]






Note 1:
Numbers 24.17.

Note 2:
It is not known what this means. Probably it is a sign of loyalty.

Note 3:
Psalms 60.12

Note 4:
Quoted above. The remark that Bar Kochba would catch the missiles from the enemy's catapults on one of his knees and hurl them back, may refer to the Jews reusing Roman catapults missiles. This would suggest that the Jews knew how to built their own artillery.

Note5:
He is also mentioned in other texts and coins have been found, showing that he was chosen as high priest.

Note 6:
Eleazar's prayer made it impossible to take Bethar's defenses.

Note 7:
A pejorative word to describe a Samarian or a Samaritan. The inhabitants of Samaria were allowed to serve in the Roman auxiliary troops.

Note 8:
Zechariah 11.17.

Note 9:
The words may be authentic, but it is likelier that Hadrian was referring to other people (see next story or go here). In oral tradition, it is not uncommon that famous acts or words 'cluster' around the greatest hero.

Note 10:
Deuteronomy 32.30.

Note 11:
Genesis 27.22.

Note 12:
By the emperor Antoninus Pius (Digests 48.8.11).

Note 13:
Lamentations 3.51. The 'daughters' are the inhabitants of Bethar.





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