By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moav, the foundation of all children of Seth” (Bamidbar 24:17).
“Rabbi Akiva extrapolated from the verse: “A star rises from Jacob” — Kozba rises from Jacob. When Rabbi Akiva would see the son of Kozba, he would say: ‘This is the King Messiah’” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4e).
The verse “A star rises from Jacob” in this parashah connects us to the three weeks leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple. Here we will discuss a different destruction that took place 62 years following the Second Temple’s destruction.
In Talmudic sources on Bar Kozba or Bar Koziba (the name “Bar Kochba” does not appear in Talmudic literature) this figure is described on the one hand as enjoying the support of the Torah giant of the generation, Rabbi Akiva, who tied the above verse to his name. On the other hand, Bar Kochba is quoted as telling G-d, as it were, “Don’t help us and don’t hinder us” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 24a). He is also charged by Chazal with murdering his uncle, Rabi Elazar HaModa’i, whose prayers protected the Jews of the besieged Beitar, by kicking him to death.
In contrast to the Great Rebellion, which was recorded in detail with mostly reliable accounts by Josephus Flavius, one of the top-ranking officials in the rebellion, for nearly 2,000 years the Bar Kochva Revolt was all but unknown. The sparse references in Talmudic literature, which often seem contradictory, indicate that the revolt was led by a person whose first name was unknown; others even doubted his very existence.
The Murabba’at Letters: Bar Kochba’s Religious Observance
Findings in the Wadi Murabba’at in the Judean Desert and elsewhere, from the mid-20th century, drastically changed our understanding of the period. These findings indicate that there indeed was a person named Shimon ben Kosiba, his last name apparently after the city in which he lived in the Judean region. It also seems that he was a forceful leader (some would call authoritarian) who enforced strict discipline among his lieutenants. He also meticulously observed the laws of Shabbat, the four species, and even the land-dependent mitzvot, ensuring that his soldiers observed these laws even during the turbulent times of the revolt and in the years leading up to it. Papyrus 24 from the Murabba’at mentions leasing fields until right before the shemitah year (during shemitah there is no point in leasing a field, since it is forbidden to work the field). On the same document, at the bottom of each column, it cites four kor (produce unit) of tithes from the produce of the leased property (thank you to Dr. Doron Sar Avi for the reference). That is, they also were also meticulous about tithing. Note that the second year of the revolt was, indeed, a shemitah year.
From this we see that Bar Kochba was certainly a religious Jew; he was not a secular leader, as he is often portrayed today. If so, we need to understand why he failed. Why did this revolt, in which the Romans suffered heavy losses, not bring the ultimate redemption, as was the hope of Rabbi Akiva and other Torah giants of the time? (See Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:3.)
The Purpose Of Mashiach: Not Only Mitzvah Observance
These archeological findings help us further understand Bar Kochba’s mistake, hinted at by Chazal. Mashiach will not necessarily work miracles, as the Rambam teaches us in Hilchot Melachim, but he certainly is supposed to reveal Hashem’s kingship in the world. If he does not understand this, then he completely misses the point, no matter how meticulous his mitzvah observance is. When Bar Kochba tells G-d not to get involved in battle, he missed a critical point. It’s not only that nothing is possible without G-d’s help; that’s obvious. The issue here is that G-d wants to join our ranks, because that way the Jews’ victory becomes His victory, so to speak. This is precisely our mission in this world: to reveal G-d’s involvement. A particular war could not become the war of Mashiach if G-d is not involved — this is an oxymoron, since this is the goal of the war.
“Nechemia of Tekoa brought challah loaves from Bet Tar and they were rejected” (Mishnah Challah 4:10).
“On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that our forefathers would not enter the Land of Israel, and the First and Second Temples were destroyed, Beitar was captured, and the City was plowed over …” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)
These two mentions of Beitar in the Mishnah do not refer to the same place. The Beitar in tractate Challah is outside of the Land of Israel, apparently situated in the Sidon region of Lebanon. Ben Zion Segel maintains that the hometown of Nitai of Tekoa (in the Galilee, identified with Khirbet Shema, near Meron) was close to this Beitar. However, Beitar is considered outside of Israel, since it is outside the borders of olei Bavel. Since one cannot bring terumah (the same applies for challah) from outside of Israel, the kohanim of Tekoa did not accept his challot that he brought from Beitar. In Southern Lebanon, east of Sidon, there is to this day a village called Batir.
Another village by this name was undoubtedly in the Land of Israel, as it is situated several kilometers south of West Jerusalem, at the heart of Judea. Next to the Arab village Batir is a site that the locals call Khirbet al-Yahud (“ruin of the Jews”), situated on the mountainside, surrounded on three sides by the Nahal Refa’im. This site, not thoroughly excavated, is Bar Kochba’s Beitar.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.