It is 1,880 years since Shimon Bar Kokhba’s independent Jewish state collapsed under the weight of Roman military might. Hero or villain, Shimon bar Kokhba still exerts a strong pull on the imagination of Israelis who are either spellbound by the deeds of the iconic “muscle Jew” who challenged the might of Rome, or repelled by his violent rebellion that resulted in 1,800 years of Jewish exile.
By Richard Mather
Shimon Bar Koseva was the leader of the final Judean revolt against the Roman empire. Known as a man of great physical strength, his rebellion won the support of many rabbis. His early military successes prompted Rabbi Akiva to confer upon Bar Koseva the title of Messiah, and gave him the surname Bar Kokhba, which is Aramaic for “Son of the Star.” This is from the messianic verse in Numbers 24:17: “There shall step forth a star [kokab] out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab.”
Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome began in 132 CE when Emperor Hadrian announced plans to outlaw circumcision and build a pagan temple on the Temple Mount. Bar Kokhba amassed an army of between 200,000 and 350,000 men, a huge fighting force that included a number of sympathetic gentiles. However, local Christians refused to take part in the rebellion because they did not recognise the messianic title that had been given to Bar Kokhba.
Bar Kokhba reconquered the Galilee and then forced the Romans out of Jerusalem. The initial success of the rebellion was so great that the Judeans declared an independent state. For many Jews, this was proof that Rabbi Akiva was right – that the era of redemption had arrived and Bar Kokhba was indeed the Messiah. Coins minted during the rebellion indicate Jewish control of Jerusalem during the war. Bar Kokhba issued coins stamped “Freedom of Jerusalem.”
According to Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Bar Kokhba tried to make Hebrew the official language of the Jews, which was a foretaste of the secular Hebrew revival in the early twentieth century.
Notwithstanding Rabbi Akiva’s blessing, it is not clear whether Bar Kokhba actually believed he was the Messiah. He did, however, refer to himself as HaNasi (“the prince”) but this may have been because he was the military leader of the Jews. What is known is that Bar-Kokhba was a religious Jew. He tithed, and observed the Sabbath and the festivals. In one of his letters, he talks excitedly about the celebration of Sukkot.
Unfortunately, the Jewish state lasted a mere three years. Alarmed by the scale and success of the Jewish rebellion, Emperor Hadrian amassed a massive army of Roman soldiers from across the empire. After losing many of their strongholds, Bar Kokhba and his supporters withdrew to the fortress of Betar, which came under siege in the summer of 135 CE. According to Jewish tradition, the fortress was destroyed by the Romans on Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and the Second Jewish Temples. It is understood that Bar Kokhba died in battle, although some of his fighters continued to fight for several more months.
The Romans carried out a genocide in Judea, executing leading members of the Sanhedrin, massacring around half a million Jews, and selling others into slavery. Many Jews died of famine and disease. Jewish and Christian holy places were desecrated. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Israel, Emperor Hadrian changed the name of the Jewish homeland to Syria Palaestina, and he issued decrees that outlawed Judaism. Under Hadrian’s rule, to teach Torah was to commit a crime.
In the decades and centuries following his death, Bar Kokhba was viewed as a bringer of calamity and exile. Rabbinical writers subsequent to Rabbi Akiva did not share his estimation of Bar Kokhba. Akiva’s disciple, Yose ben Halaphta, called him “Bar Koziba,” which is similar to his birth name of Koseva but also means “Son of the Lie” (kazab is a Hebrew word for “to lie”). More significantly, the Roman victory over Bar Kokhba altered Judaism forever. The rabbis came to realise that the survival of the Jewish religion would depend on books and traditions, not on violent resistance.
Despite rabbinical hostility towards Bar Kokhba, the rebirth of Israel has partly restored the reputation of the Jewish warrior. On Lag Ba’Omer, Israeli children light bonfires across Israel in celebration of the heroic victory of Bar Kokhba over the Romans.
Early Zionists such as Max Nordau viewed Bar Kokhba as proof that Jews are capable of fighting for their liberty and independence. In an essay about “Muscle-Jews,” he said that Bar Kokhba “was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.” While secular Zionists emphasise Bar Kokhba’s military exploits, others hail him as a harbinger of contemporary religious Zionism. After all, Bar Kokhba was a pious man who performed Jewish rituals and fought hard to stop the Roman desecration of Jerusalem.
But not everyone is convinced. Ha’aretz writer Yossi Sarid believes that the Jewish people have suffered because of individuals like Bar Kokhba: “To this day we have not succeeded in ridding ourselves of the punishment of false messiahs. We are comfortable with our hallucinations, with being captivated by them. Sometimes it seems that the movement for national liberation – now as then – includes a self-destruct mechanism.”
And former Mossad director general Shabtai Shavit is worried that some elements within Israeli society, namely the religious Zionist movement, is “galloping blindly in a time tunnel to the age of Bar Kokhba and his war on the Roman Empire. […] The result of that conflict was several centuries of national existence in the Land of Israel followed by 2,000 years of exile.”
In truth, Bar Kokhba was neither villain nor hero. It is true that his failed rebellion against the mighty Roman empire resulted in nearly two millennia of blood and exile – of pogroms, blood libels, massacres and genocide. Having said that, we should acknowledge Bar Kokhba’s influence on the modern Zionist imagination – the strong “muscle Jew” willing to fight for his (or her) independence. And hopefully we have learned from his failures. The State of Israel may be the heir to Bar Kokhba’s short-lived Judean state, but modern Israel is incomparably stronger. And it’s not just about strength, although having an arsenal of 115 nuclear warheads helps. Modern Israel is vibrant, diverse and democratic; it is a fully-functioning nation-state with a strong economy and robust political institutions. Unlike the Judean state of 132-135 CE, the modern State of Israel is a permanent fixture and the Roman exile of the Jews is over.