Chapter One of "Akiva and Ephraim" by Alexander Zephyr.
There are some hints in Rabbinical sources concerning the characteristics and personality of Bar Kokhba who was the military leader of the Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire. He was known as a man of tremendous physical strength with the ability to uproot a tree while riding a horse or haul back the stone thrown by a Roman catapult.
'And what did Bar Kokhba use to do? On one of his legs, he used to catch the ballista- balls fired from the enemy's catapults and throw them back, killing many men' (Talmud, Lamentation Rabbah 2:2).
One source presents him as a charismatic, highly intelligent personality, faithful to God and obedient to the Laws of the Torah. From another source he emerges as a self-confident and decisive but temperamental leader, a man of great vigor and valor.
His initial considerable military success on the battlefield against the Romans and his personality attracted many rabbis and scholars. These included the most celebrated Sage of the time, R. Akiva, and his numerous disciples. The people of Judaea also accepted him with all their heart and soul as the natural leader of the Revolt against the Romans. It was hoped he would lead them to liberty and independence.
On the other hand, as revealed in the Talmud, we hear that during the organizing of the army of freedom fighters, Bar Kokhba required that any man who wished to join had to cut off his little finger as a token of devotion to the cause of the Revolt. This was to show strength and bravery. It was, however, in direct contradiction to the Law of Torah which prohibits self- mutilation. On this account, the rabbis objected to the practice. Another example of cruelty occurred in the city of Bethar. This was the headquarters of Bar Kokhba's army where the Sanhedrin and majority of the Sages of Academy of Yavneh had found a safe haven under protection of the rebels. The Talmudic story reveals that Bar Kokhba was not only a brutal dictator but also a cruel man and murderer. He unjustly personally killed his old uncle, the righteous Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin, the disciple of Johanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Eleazar happened to be one of the wise men of Israel (if not the only one left!) who had opposed military Revolt against the Romans. He had not accepted Bar Kokhba as the prophesied Jewish Messiah. Rabbi Eleazar was falsely accused by a Samaritan of conspiring to surrender the city of Bethar to the Romans. As soon as Bar Kokhba killed R. Eleazar, a voice from heaven issued forth and proclaimed, 'Woe to the worthless shepherd that leaves the flock! The sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right eye' (Zechariah 11:17).
On that same day, on August 9, 135 CE, the Romans attacked and breached the walls of Bethar. They killed Bar Kokhba and massacred practically the entire population of the city. The Talmud explains that the sins of the people caused Bethar to be captured.
Â Men, women, and children were slain. Small children and infants were picked up by their feet and their heads dashed against large rocks. It was said that the Roman legionaries wrapped Jewish infants in Torah Scrolls - the Jews' sacred texts - and burned them alive. The Midrash claims that on a single large rock three hundred infants were killed this way. The rock became covered with spilled brains. When the Roman Calvary crossed the river of the city on horseback during the assault, their horses waded up to their nostrils in the blood-red water. As a matter of fact, the first genocidal Holocaust in Jewish history happened not during WWII 1939-1945 under Hitler but in the time of Emperor Hadrian two thousand years beforehand during the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132-135 CE. Almost one million Jews of Judaea were wiped out by the Romans sword without mercy in a manner reminiscent of the Nazi atrocities during the Final Solution.
When Bar Kokhba's head was brought to Hadrian, he asked, 'Who killed him?' A Samaritans answered, 'I killed him'.
'Bring his body to me, ordered the Emperor. When he saw the body with a snake encircling his neck, Hadrian exclaimed, 'If his God had not slain him, who could have overcome him? As it is written, Unless their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had surrendered them (Deuteronomy 32:30; Jerusalem Talmud Ta'anit 4:5, Midrash Rabbah Â Eicha 2:4).
There is another story in the Talmud describing the death of Bar Kokhba at the hands of the rabbis.
"Bar Koziba reigned two and a half years, and then said to the Rabbis, 'I am the Messiah.' They answered, 'Of Messiah it is written that he smells and judges; let us see whether he [Bar Koziba] can do so.' When they saw that he was unable to judge by the scent, they slew him" (Talmud - Sanhedrin 93b).
The fact that the Romans with eighty to a hundred thousand troops had managed to defeat the three hundred and fifty to four hundred thousand fighters of Bar Kokhba army, speaks for itself.
Ironically, the Emperor Hadrian, the bloody prosecutor of the Jewish People, drank himself to death on July 10, 138 A.D., just three years after the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The death of Hadrian was a significant relief for the surviving Jewish communities. His successor, Emperor Antonius Pius (138-161 CE), was a good, peaceful man, who promoted arts and sciences, and built temples, theaters, and mausoleums. His style of government was highly praised by his contemporaries and by later generations. He is regarded as one of the 'Five Good Emperors' in Roman history. Accounts of the Talmud say that the Emperor Antonius Pius was a friend of Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was very wealthy and well accepted in Rome. The Emperor consulted R. Judah on various worldly and spiritual matters. According to the Talmud, the relationship between the Roman Emperor and the wise Prince of the Jews was very close and friendly.
Indeed, the God of Israel was not with Bar Kokhba, R. Akiva, his multitude of disciples, and the majority of the Judeans who had been seduced and enticed by their leaders to take part in a doomed uprising against the Romans. Most of them paid the ultimate price for their actionsÂ -Â death.
The main reasons of their catastrophic defeat, from the Perspective of Scripture are:
The God of Israel was not with the rebels because it was not a Holy War. The 'Lost' Ten Tribes had not been found. That generation of Judeans did not repent of their sins: Therefore did not merit to be redeemed by the Almighty. Bar Kokhba was not chosen by God as the Messiah son of David, the anointed King of Israel. It was not the prophesized Messianic Time.
In other words, the attempted declaration about Bar Kokhba being Messiah was premature. It was ahead of the appointed time. Similarly, a large number of Ephraimites in the time of Moses before the Exodus from Egypt miscalculated the time of the Deliverance by thirty years (I Chronicles 7:20-21; Psalms 78:9). They attempted to leave and were killed by the Philistines. In both cases the events ended with a disastrous defeat and slaughter.
This was another example of disobedience and acting without God's approval,
'"But Moses said, 'Why do you disobey the Lord's command? It will not succeed. Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that you be not smitten before your enemies.' But they presumed to go up to the hill top. Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country, and struck and defeated them" (Numbers 14:40-45).
Not many realize what grave consequences for the Jewish nation the rebellion of Bar Kokhba (with the blessing of R. Akiva) had had:Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â -A catastrophic defeat with 800,000 Jews killed; 50 fortresses and 985 villages demolished. The rest of the Jews were sold into slavery and exiled to the 'lands of their enemies'. The scholars of Judaea were executed, the sacred Torah scrolls burnt. The Torah was prohibited. Jerusalem was plough up in fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 3:12, "Zion will be plowed like a field". The Jewish municipality of Jerusalem was replaced by a Roman pagan city, 'Aelia Capitolina'. The names of 'Judaea' and 'Israel' were wiped out and the name 'Syria Palaestina substituted.
The destruction of Jerusalem can be called the Jewish tragedy extraordinaire. It claimed millions of lives and unleashed a 2,000 year torrent of crusades, pogroms, jihads and holocausts. Arguably, it is the worst thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. The death of the Torah's scholars alone is a global tragedy, because 'Torah scholars increase peace in the World' (Berachot 64a; Psalm 122), says Rabbi Reuven Subar.
The Emperor Hadrian realized that to eliminate the Jewish rebellious spirit it was not enough to kill most of the Jews. He would need to also destroy the root of their beliefs and strength, i.e. Judaism. That is why, after the crushing Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Emperor issued decrees that outlawed Judaism. Violators were immediately sentenced to cruel death.
Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem.
'Jews were thereafter strictly forbidden even to set foot on the land around Jerusalem' (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History iv.6).
2,000 years of Exile and unspeakable suffering had begun. The consequences of the failed rebellion of the House of Judah have been felt up till now. Hadrian unleashed a reign of most fearsome religious persecution that was unmatched in the history of the Jewish nation.
"Every anti-Semitic outbreak for which Jews suffered since that day of the tragic defeat, every pogrom, massacre, crusade, Holocaust, and banishment that took the toll of so many millions during the two thousand year long and bitter night of exile, wandering and persecution, must be traced directly to the failure of Bar Kochba -- but ultimately to the failure of the students of Rabbi Akiva", wrote Rabbi Pinchas Stolper.
The character of this war had definitely been a politico-Messianic one. The defeat of Bar Kochba marked the end of any sort of Jewish autonomy in the Jewish homeland until the twentieth century.
What we know for certain is that a spiritual leader of the caliber of R. Akiva together with the respected Sages of the Sanhedrin and the Academy of Yavneh could have prevented (instead of exacerbating) the tragic results of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. They had had an enormous influence and authority among the extremely religious Jewish population of Judaea. Without their support, as Avodah Posting says, 'The revolt's apparent organizational and logistical success would not have been possible'
There is, however, a famous saying of R. Akiva, 'Everything Hashem does is for the good.Â Gam zu l'tovah. Didn't I tell you that everything that Hashem does is for the best?" (Gomoro Brochos 60b).
Who knows, how the course of Jewish (and the World) history would have gone if the catastrophic Revolt of Bar Kokhba had been prevented?
Bar Kokhba had not been a man of God. He had relied on his own pride and power. He showed arrogance against Heaven. He managed to assemble a 350,000-400,000 strong army of fighters against the total force of twelve Roman legions, who numbered 60,000 - 120,000 soldiers. Despite this, he lost the war because he was an illegitimate Messiah and the war was not according to the will of God. When he led his army to battle, the rabbis would bless the soldiers saying, 'May the God of Israel help them'. They were acting as if it was a war sanctioned by God Himself, a description of which we find in Scripture:
"When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. So it shall be, when you are on the verge of battle that the priest shall approach and speak to the people. And he shall say to them, Hear, O Israel: Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart be faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you" (Deuteronomy 20:1-4).
This is what we call 'The War of God'.
To this the rebels of Bar Kokhba would answer that, God can neither be of value nor of harm. He will not assist nor weaken. This was a pure denial of the authority of the Almighty and His Divine Power. A saying attributed to Bar Kokhba before he commenced battle against the Romans is:
'O Lord God of Host, do not stand at our right hand, nor be against us, for You, O God, have abandoned us. We ourselves shall be victorious over the enemy'.
How could the Messiah, who is supposed to have great knowledge and the spirit of God, speak in such a manner?Â How could he say, 'God, You need not bother to help us. Just do not help our enemies'?!
In the Jerusalem Talmud there are comments that Bar Kokhba kept repeating the verse from Psalms 60:12: 'You have rejected us, O God; God, You do not march with our armies'.
The historian Eusebius wrote that Bar Kokhba persecuted the Christians and killed them if they refused to help him fight against the Roman troops. Almost all of the Christians at that time were Jews.
This is the man R. Akiva called the King Messiah. The original name of Bar Kokhba is said to have been Bar Koziba. Rabbi Akiva changed it to Bar Kokhba. The meaning of Kokhba is 'a star' and Rabbi Akiva explained the name to refer to a messianic prophecy, 'A Star shall come out of Jacob' (Numbers 24:17).