The Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) by Alexander Zephyr (ch.2 in "Akiva and Ephraim")
The Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 A.C.) did not start spontaneously and unexpectedly. It is not a secret that Emperor Hadrian and his administration by forbidding Jews to perform circumcision which they viewed as a bodily mutilation; by planning to built a temple dedicated to Jupiter on the very site of the Second Temple; by issuing the Roman coin in 132 CE inscribed Aelia Capitolina instead of Jerusalem, - by all of these actions, in fact, accelerated the Revolt. Cassius Dio states in the Historia Romana LXIX 12.1 that the cause of the Bar Kokhba revolt was Hadrian's construction of Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem and the construction of a temple to Jupiter on the Temple mount.
The Jewish leaders carefully and secretly had been planning this Revolt for more than fifteen years, trying to avoid the mistakes of the First Jewish Revolt fifty years earlier, when the Second Temple had been destroyed in 70 CE by the victorious Roman general Titus. The Jews built up hideouts in caves, accumulated weapons, organized guerilla forces and even began (after 123 CE) launching surprise attacks against the Romans.
Whereas in the previous uprising of 66-70 CE the Sanhedrin and the rabbis of Judaea had not supported the rebels or had remained neutral, in the Bar Kokhba Revolt the majority of the Sages of the Sanhedrin, the office of the Nasi, the Academy of Yavneh andÂ most of the rabbis actively welcomed and participated in the rebellion. They recognized messianic qualitiesÂ in the personality of the national hero Bar Kokhba. After the widely respected spiritual leader of the Jewish nation, R. Akiva, had proclaimed him to be The Messiah, anointed King of Israel, all the rabbis enthusiastically accepted him as the Messiah sent by God. The Talmudic stories mention that Bar Kokhba intended to free Jerusalem and establish the independence of Judaea. He was then going to build the Third Temple as proof that he was the Messiah according to Scripture but his effort fell short due to Roman pressure and internal dissent.
Bar Kokhba was the military commander, the organizer and builder of the army of the freedom fighters. R. Akiva and his most prominent disciples were the spiritual- political leaders responsible primarily for consolidation, unification, and strengthening the spiritual confidence of the rebels as to the Divine approbation of the war and faith in the victorious Messiah. They were also preoccupied with the collection of Â money, supplies, communication with the Diaspora and recruiting new fighters from abroad.
This is how the Jewish Encyclopedia in the Article 'Bar Kokhba and Bar Kokhba War' describes the situation before the Revolt:
Even after R. Joshua ben Hanahiah succeeded in preventing the Jewish Revolt, the Jews remained quiet only on the surface; in reality, for over fifteen years they prepared for a struggle against Rome. The weapons that the Romans had ordered to be made by them they intentionally constructed poorly, so that they might keep them when rejected and returned to them. They converted the caves in the mountains into hiding-places and fortifications, which they connected by subterranean passages (Roman historian Dio Cassius, lxix. 12).
Although R. Akiva's role in the Jewish Revolt has not been precisely determined by historians, (as the official version of Judaism maintains), we think that he was actively involved as a religious and political leader of the Jewish nation. Since Judea had lost its independence and suffered humiliation in the First Jewish-Roman War (The Great Jewish Revolt, 66-70 CE), there had not been a King or any other civilian authority for decades. The office of Nasi, usually occupied by the rabbis, was the recognized religious and spiritual authority. The Nasi was alsoÂ President of the Sanhedrin and acknowledged by the Romans as Patriarch of the Jews. This post had been empty since 120 CE.Â Rabban Gamaliel II of Yavneh had held the title from 80 to 118 CE, followed by Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah from 118 to120 CE. During the years of the Bar Kokhba Revolt the office of Nasi remained vacant. R. Akiva, the wisest scholar of the Mishnah, with all his qualifications, should have had this office, but the Sages constantly held back from voting to promote him to be President of the Sanhedrin due to Rabbi Akiva having come from a family of converts.Â From having been a poor, semi-literate shepherd, Rabbi Akiba had progressed to become one of Judaism's greatest scholars. His lack of pedigree however had held him back from being appointed as Nasi, leader of the Sanhedrin.Â Â Â Â Â Â
Â The People of Judea looked to the Sages of the Talmud for spiritual guidance and the direction of everyday affairs. Generally, the Romans did not interfere in the internal life of subjected communities, as long as they were able to exercise full external political control of the Provinces and collect taxes. The Sages were respected and enjoyed privileges as leaders of the people. Of course, they did not have an army or police, but it was not really necessary because people listened to them and voluntarily responded to their decisions as to the voice of God.
Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary Sages had known the political situation in Palestine and were well aware of the mood and feelings of the Judeans. It was a unique time in the history of the Jewish People. Sad memories remained from the First Revolt and destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, followed by death, slavery and exile (66-70 CE). There had also been a more recent war (110-118 CE) against the Romans led by two brothers, Pappius and Lulianus.Â This too had ended in a bloody massacre of Jews in the city of Lydd. All these memories, contrary to Roman expectations, had not broken the will and spirit of the Judeans to continue their fight for freedom and independence. When Pappius and Lulianus were asked by their Roman executioners, "Why does your God not save you as He did the three youths in Nebuchadnezzar's time?" they replied, "We are probably not worthy of such a miracle" (Ta'an. 18b). Immediately after this war, the Emperor Trajan was assassinated and succeeded by Hadrian.Â Â Â Â Â
Winds of hope for liberty and restoration of the glorious past Kingdom of David and Solomon, for the rebuilding of the Third Temple, (which was promised by Emperor Hadrian), for the arrival of the Messiah, who would defeat Roman oppressors and establish the glorious Kingdom of God in love and justice, had filled the hearts and minds of a new generation of Judeans. As in the wars and revolts of the past, there were many religious extremists and fanatics, radical fundamentalists, 'hot heads', zealots and terrorists with ever-present sectarian hatred and rivalry. Rumors of the imminent arrival of the Messiah and subsequent Redemption were on the lips of every Jew. Judaea reminds us of a powder keg ready to explode at any moment.
Not all the rabbis were supportive of the Revolt against the Romans. It is of interest to know that the father of R. Shimon, Yochai, who was held in great esteem and respect among the Jewish People, was a peaceful man and a bitter opponent of the Revolt led by Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba against Rome.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â In Rabbinical Literature, there are stories about Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, a leading Sage of the Talmud, a key founder of Rabbinical Judaism who had eye-witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple, along with the deaths of Jews and the humiliation of the Jewish Nation that had resulted from the First Rebellion against the Romans in 66-70 CE. His teacher was the great Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai who has been called â€˜The Father of Wisdom and the Father of Generations [of Scholars]â€™. After the death of Gamaliel II, Rabbi Joshua became President of the Rabbinical Council in the academy at Yavneh. In all his activities and decisions, he upheld the liberal views and principals of the school of Hillel and his teacher Johanan ben Zakkai from who he had inherited tolerance and a love for peace. On a few occasions, when the politico-religion situation was ready to explode and the Jews were on the edge of revolt, Rabbi Joshua had cooled the people off and persuaded them to lay down their arms. This great scholar had a peaceful character and was greatly respected even among his strongest opponents.
Why is it that in those turbulent times of political, social, and religious turmoil in Judaea R. Joshua ben Hananiah could influence religious zealots to hold peace and stay away out of military confrontations with mighty Rome, whereas his student, R. Akiva, who after his death became the influential spiritual leader of the Jewish People, did not? On the contrary, R. Akiva was actively involved in politics, in the Bar Kokhba revolt (especially in preparation of it), and acknowledged the dictator and killer, Bar Kokhba,Â as the Jewish Messiah! Where was the spirit of Wisdom and Righteousness of Bar-Kokhba as messiah, when he did not even hide the fact that he did not trust in God but relied on his own power in the battle against the Romans, asking God 'neither assist nor discourage us'? Could it be a true characteristic of the Messiah, who supposedly was sent by God, not to trust Him? That is why Talmud calls him 'Bar- Koziba' which means 'The Son of the Liar'.
"Since Rabbi Joshua died (131 CE), good counsel has ceased in Israel" (Baraita, Sotah, end). The wise men of the Talmud knew very well what they were talking about. They knew that a new generation of the Sages under the leadership of R. Akiva did not possess the peacemaking abilities and 'loving kindness' of R. Joshua who had loved and respected even his strongest opponents and deservedly was praised as a peace lover not only among the Judeans but by the Romans as well. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (118-138 CE), had reneged on his promise to rebuild God's Temple for the Jews in Jerusalem and, instead, was going to build a Temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. [This was actually built in 131 CE and was one of the reasons that caused the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome.] A huge crowd gathered and started to weep and shout against the Romans. The people were on the verge of taking weapons in their hands and revolting. Then, R. Joshua rose and spoke to the Judeans:
Â "A lion while eating found that a bone had stuck in his throat. He roared out that whosoever would remove the bone out of his throat, would be rewarded. A stork came and thrust his long bill into the lion's throat and drew forth the bone. The stork said, 'Give me my reward'. 'Your reward,' said the lion, 'is that you will be able henceforth to boast that you are the only creature whose head was in the lion's mouth and came out alive.'"Â
'So it is with us', explained R. Joshua, 'it is enough that we have emerged without harm from a decree by the Emperor.'
In other words, be happy and satisfied with the fact, concluded R. Joshua, that the Romans have allowed us to return to the Holy Land after the disastrous events of our uprising in 66-70 CE and let us be alive and in peace with them and worship the God of Israel, who will look after us and restore us to our previous glory, when He will send the Messiah, son of David. The Jews calmed down, laid their weapons aside and went to their homes (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 64).
In the opinion of the Sages, it was the influence of Rabbi Joshua and his peacemaking abilities among the people of Judaea that had prevented a third armed rebellion against the Roman Empire during the years of his life.
There is another story recorded in the Mishnah, Eduyos 7:7 that Rabban Gamliel the Elder (son of Hillel's son Rabban Shimon), the Nasi of the Sanhedrin, went to Damascus to complain to the proconsul Vitellius about the bloody incidents and cruelties of Pontius Pilate,Â the Procurator of Judaea. These Acts of aggression against the Jewish People by the officials of Pontius PilateÂ could easily have ignited popular uprisings throughout the country. As a result of the peacemaking mission ofÂ Rabban Gamliel and his ability to calm the people of Judaea, Pontius Pilate was removed from office and the rebellion was prevented.
Shortly after the death of R. Joshua, a new generation of Sages under the leadership of R. Akiva, who had been the most prominent student of R. Joshua, abandoned the peaceful traditional teachings of R. Hillel, R. Johanan ben Zakkai, R Eliezar, and R. Joshua. They enthusiastically greeted the military leader of the Revolt, Bar Kokhba, who was declared by R. Akiva to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah, son of David, the King of Israel.
R. Akiva was heavily involved in preparations for the Revolt because he was convinced that a military struggle against the Romans would finally bring victory to the Jews over their oppressors, liberate their nation, and establish an independent Kingdom of Judaea with its own King, the Messiah son of David. He definitely was not a peace maker like his predecessor and mentor, Rabbi Joshua. Being the most influential spiritual leader of the nation, R. Akiva did not uphold the principal of his teacher R. Eleazar ben Hyrcanus, 'I teach only what I learned from my teacher great R. Johanan ben Zakkai'. All his enormous knowledge and energy were directed to achieving liberty and independence for his people through armed struggle against bitterly hated Rome.
It may be alarming to many that a Rabbi as well known and respected as Rabbi Akiva would rule that the Ten Tribes will not return. Professor Klausner in his work 'The Messianic Idea in Israel', page 474 points out a compelling reason as to why Rabbi Akiva may have taken this position. He states:
"R. Akiva held his opinion because he had proclaimed Bar-Kochba as Messiah and was expecting the redemption of Israel through him, while the remnants of the Ten Tribes at that time had not yet returned to Palestine and had no intention of doing so. The latter fact may have been discovered by R. Akiva on his long journeys to Gaul, Africa, Arabia, and particularly Media, to which the Ten Tribes had been exiled according to Scripture (II Kings 17:6). Therefore he was forced to oppose the opinion that the Ten Tribes must return in the Messianic age".
Seems, the teachings of God's prophets and Sages about the Messiah and the Messianic Time, its guidelines, signs, and conditions had been overlooked or had not been carefully considered.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The 'Lost' Ten Tribes were not found and nobody was even looking for them, since R. Akiva officially declared that they had disappeared for ever and would never come back. Any student of the Bible knows that the first main priority of the Messiah will be the reunification of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and ingathering them into the Promised Land. Acknowledgement of the Ten Tribes, their reunification with the rest of the House of Israel and returning to the Promised Land for redemption by the Almighty, and the restoration of the Kingdom of David and his throne (Isaiah 11:12; 27:11; Ezekiel 37:21; 39:28; Micah 4:7; 7:12), are all premises emphatically prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, and explained in the Talmud and Rabbinical Literature as necessary for the Advent of the Messiah, son of David.
The Rambam (Maimonides) thought that the Torah associates the Redemption with the ingathering of exiles more than any of the other signs: 'Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors' (Deuteronomy 30:3-5). This is the most important task of the Messiah! As soon as the ingathering of exiles takes place, the Messiah will proceed with victorious Messianic Wars and the other goals outlined below.
In any event, the purpose of the Messiah coming, the task of the Redemption and perfection of this World should be accomplished before his death. At the least,
Victorious wars will be fought at the beginning of the Messianic AgeÂ (Zechariah 9:5-6; 12:6; 14:9-12; Isaiah 11:13-14; 17:1; 34:5, 8; 60:18; Obadiah 1:18; Ezekiel 25:12-17; Jeremiah 48 and 49; Zephaniah 2:8-11).
There will be a reunification with, and ingathering of the Twelve Tribes (Isaiah 11:12; 27:11; Ezekiel 37:21; 39:28) in the re-established Biblical borders Land of Israel (Numbers 34:13; Ezekiel 45:1);
A rebuilding of the Temple and renewal of the sacrificial services (Micah 4:1-2; Isaiah 2:2-3; 56:6-7; 60:7; Malachi 3:4; Zechariah 14:20-21).
The rest of the tasks, such as turning all peoples to worship the one God of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 14:2; 30:8, 10; Jeremiah 31:32; Ezekiel 11:19-20; Exodus 19:5-6; Zechariah 8:23); abolishing wars forever and bringing Peace and Justice to the World might be accomplished later (Micah 4:2-4; Hosea 2:20; Isaiah 32:16-18; Jeremiah 33:9; Psalms 86:9).
Whosoever fulfills these goals will have been legally qualified by Scripture to be the real Messiah. According to Maimonides, the Messiah does not have to perform signs, wonders or miracles. If any anointed King of Israel will do everything listed above, we shall be able to surely say: This man is the Messiah anointed by God!
The Judeans as a nation were not totally repentant and righteous. Neither were they totally evil and sinful. They were not ready, 'not ripe' for God's Redemption. The prophesied time for the Messianic Age had not come yet. There was no arrival of the Prophet Elijah who is supposed to appear before the Messiah to 'turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers' (Malachi 4:5-6). The internal situation in Judaea was not even close to that described in the Talmud as the birth pangs of the Messiah.
"In the Footsteps of Moshiach (the Messiah) insolence will increase and honor dwindle. The vine will yield its fruit abundantly but wine will be expensive. The government will turn to heresy and there will be none to offer them reproof, the meeting places will be used for immorality, the Galilee will be destroyed, the Gavlan (cities along the border of Israel) desolated, and the dwellers on the border will wander about from town to town without anyone to take pity on them, the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking, youths will put old men to shame, the old will stand up in the presence of the young, a son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man's enemies will be the members of his household, the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog , a son will not feel ashamed before his father, so upon whom is it for us to rely? Upon our Father who is in Heaven" (Talmud, Sotah 49b).
Also in the oldest Midrash Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 32 and Yalkut Mechiri, Psalms 177 there is a prediction that the children of Ishmael in the future will initiate chaotic wars against Israel and bring much harder and more devastating disasters upon the Israelites than the previous two. This is the time when the Messiah from the House of David will be revealed.
In connection with prophesied future problems for Israel from Arab and Muslim countries, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis wrote:
"It is written that, before the coming of Messiah, we will have to contend with a fifth source of tribulation that will come from Yishmael , Â the Arabs -- who will inflict terrible suffering on the world and on our people. This teaching is reaffirmed by Rabbi Chaim Vital, the illustrious disciple of the Arizal, who wrote that before the final curtain falls upon the stage of history, Yishmael will inflict torture on our people in ways the world has never before seen. One need not have great powers of discernment to recognize the painful veracity of these predictions. Consider only the suicide bombers, the decapitations, the hijackings, the missiles, the rockets, and the constant, senseless brutal acts of terror".
R. Akiva mistakenly understood the time of Hadrianic persecutions, the darkest moment of Judean history, the woes and sorrows of the Jewish People as 'birth pangs of Mashiach', the imminent coming of the Messiah. For him this turbulent time, with its succession of troubles, evil decrees and the ruthlessness of Roman oppressors showed that the situation had reached 'the bottom of the pit', the Eve of Redemption and the Messianic Age. The Talmud says of the Messiah:
'When you see a generation ever dwindling, hope for him, when you see a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await him' (Sanhedrin 98a).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The time of the 'birth pangs of Mashiach' will affect not only the Jewish People but all nations of the World. Rabbi Yitzchak said: 'In the year that Melech HaMoshiach will be revealed, all the kings (leaders) of the nations will be struggling against each other. Our Sages taught: When HaMelech HaMoshiach [the King, the Messiah] will come, he will stand on the roof of the Beis HaMikdash [the Temple] and call out to the Jews, "Humble ones, the time for your redemption has come." (Yalkut Shimoni Remez Yishayahu 499).
Panic, chaos, confusion, wars and dramatic disasters will become the unbearable reality of the day. All the nations of the world will be trembling and shaking and falling on their faces. They will be seized by pains like labor pangs. In this outraged state of darkness and chaos the Jewish People will ask, 'What should we do? Where do we go?'
God answers them, "Why are you afraid? Do not be afraid, for the Time of your Redemption has arrived. Everything that I did, I did only for you. Nor will this redemption be like the first [from Egypt]... For the final redemption will not be followed by any further suffering or servitude to the nations."
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The first Exodus from Egypt eventually ended for the Ten Tribes of Israel with destruction and Assyrian captivity. The second Exodus from Babylon of the Jewish People also ended tragically with losing the independence of Judaea, Greco-Roman domination, destruction of the Second Temple and 2,000 years of Exile with unparalleled persecutions. Of the third return from the Exile, which started in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel as the first stage of the final Redemption, the Sages of the Talmud said, 'Humbles ones, the time of your Redemption has come. For the final Redemption will not be followed by any further suffering or servitude to the nations' (Yalkut Shimoni Remez Yishayahu 499).
Was the situation in the time of R. Akiva and Bar Kokhba, the Revolt 132-135 CE similar to what we just described? Not at all! The Roman Empire ruled the World with a fist of iron. Their tempered-in- battlefield, well discipline legions were stationed in the most strategically important parts of the Empire, ready to react on any attempt of the conquered nations to challenge the power of Imperial Rome. The Roman activities in building roads, amphitheaters, stadiums, and temples; and their tolerance in the internal affairs of the provinces and rule of law won the nations' favor. Sure, there were some wars and military skirmishes in various places, especially with the Parthian Empire, but they did not last long and often ended with peace treaties. The Emperor Hadrian in the interest of Rome had decided to re-establish his eastern borders up to the Euphrates, and willingly returned the disputed territories of Armenia and Mesopotamia to the Parthian kings. This helped to maintain peace with Parthia for at least half of century.
Meanwhile, these Messianic signs we are talking about, were almost the same as in the time of the First Great Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE, and, as previously, rebellion against the Roman Empire led to catastrophic defeat and slaughter.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â R. Akiva better than anybody else may have known these conditions. As the greatest Sage of his time, the pillar of the Oral Law, the most influential and famous among his contemporaries, R. Akiva ought to have known the signs and the times of the coming of the Messiah. Rabbi Akiva is portrayed as a Sage who was able to gaze at the innermost divine secrets of the Torah, secrets so powerful that similarly great Sages could not enter the Pardes (Paradise) and leave unharmed. As a result, because Rabbi Akiva was able to enter and exit the Pardes in peace. He not only acquired a unique knowledge of the divine, but he also developed a profound sense of how to understand the world. As the Midrash remarks, "Things that were not revealed to Moshe were revealed to Rabbi Akiva" (Yalkut Shimoni, Yishayahu 452).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â R. Tarfon also said, "Akiva, of you Scripture says, 'The thing that is hid, bringeth he forth to light' [Job 28:11] - things concealed from men, [you] R. Akiva brought forth to light.
The Talmud elevates the image and personality of R. Akiva. As the Midrash remarks, "Things that were not revealed to Moshe were revealed to Rabbi Akiva" (Yalkut Shimoni, Yishayahu 452). R. Akiva is pictured as the 'brightest star in our large constellation of Rabbis'.
Or take a look at the story recorded in the Talmud, Melachot 29b:
#God said to Moses: 'There is a man who will arise many generations in the future; his name is Akiva ben Yosef. He will interpret mound upon mound of halachot (laws) from each and every marking'.
'Master of the Universe, show him to me', asked Moses.
God said, 'Turn around'. Moses went and sat in the eighth row of students in R. Akiva's class, and had no idea what they were saying'.#
This implies that even Moses did not understand the Torah he received from God on Mount Sinai compared to the Torah that was being taught in the Academy of R. Akiva.
We think that there is no wise man in the whole history of Israel who could excel Moses in greatness as a Prophet or as a Teacher of Judaism! Rambam (Maimonides) in his 13 Principals of Faith expressed the belief that Moses' prophecies are true and that he was the greatest of the prophets. Incidentally, the numerical value of 'Moshe Rabbeinu' is 613, the exact numbers of mitzvoth Moses received from God. If other prophets communicated with God by means of miraculous visions and nightly dreams, Moses is the only Prophet who ever knew God 'face to face', to whom God spoke directly! (Deuteronomy 34:10; Numbers 12:6-8). To prevent people from worshiping Moses, (which is a form of idolatry), God left his grave unmarked (Deuteronomy 34:6).
Was not R. Akiva, being the 'Head of the Sages' and the man, who 'achieved the highest level of understanding that a human in this world is capable of', familiar with the teachings of the Tanakh and the Sages of the Messiah and the Messianic Age; with the signs, conditions, and goals preceding to the advent of the Messiah, during his reign and after it?!Â His own acceptance of the tragic mistake he made by acknowledging the wrong man to be God's chosen Messiah, clearly gives the answer on just these posited questions! Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta sarcastically said to him, 'Akiva, grass will grow on your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.' The confidence of this Rabbi, without any doubt, was based on the teaching of Scripture concerning the advent of the Messiah and the Messianic Times.
We have no doubt that R. Akiva had sincerely thought that it was the Messianic Time, that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah who will be victorious over the Romans and bring the Jewish People freedom and independence. As a truly devoted patriot and nationalistic Jew, he believed that God's People were spiritually ready for Redemption and there was nothing in the world that could stop them from achieving their goals. To realize his dream, it needed an organized army of brave and determined Jewish fighters, who loved the God of Israel, were enlightened by knowledge of the Divine Torah and were ready to die for this cause or achieve victory.
Why was R. Akiva so certain that redemption was at hand? Maimonides, the leading Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, looked to the Talmud when he wrote that Israel will be redeemed only if it repents. In other words, redemption will occur only if Israel deserves to be redeemed. This notion that redemption depends on the worthiness of the Jewish people allows us, perhaps, to suggest that R. Akiva's belief that the Messianic Era was at hand reflected his optimism regarding the spiritual state of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the acrimony that marked internal Jewish relations prior to the Temple's destruction existed, to some extent, according to the Talmud, in R. Akiva's time as well. Indeed, the death of legions of R. Akiva's disciples is attributed, above all, to their own moral failings, wrote R. Meir Soloveitchik in Rabbi Akivas Optimism.
Maimonides, based on Scripture, concluded that Israel will be redeemed only if they repent and be worthy, then God will send the Messiah. R. Akiva simply misjudged his generation which, according to the Talmud, was not ready for Gods Redemption. The gathering of the 12 Tribes is a Divine priority of the Messiah (Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; Ezekiel 37:21; 39:27; Zechariah 10:10; Micah 7:12 and many more). Should not the Prophet Elijah come before the advent of the Messiah? (Malachi 4:5).
Shortly before Judaea exploded in massive armed revolt, R. Akiva, seems to have realized that the rebels in their behavior happened to be not that perfect and spiritually uplifted towards each other. They did not meet requirements of the Torah. There was no spiritual unity, no brotherly love, and no respect towards each other. These imperfections were especially manifested in the aftermath of the few initial military victories over Roman legions, the conquest of Jerusalem, and the establishing of Judaeas independence. Jews thought that the war was over and the taste of victory made them behave arrogantly. This kind of attitude is well described in the Bible, as it written, By my strength and my valor I did this (Deut. 8:17).
They showed no respect and love to their fellow man. Each leader claimed his own great credits and merits in the Rebellion and, of course, all of this ended in sectarian rivalry and baseless hatreds, which, according to the Talmud, led to catastrophic defeat and dramatic consequences.
At this point of rebellion R. Akiva decided to strengthen the morale of the soldiers and fix their behavior and attitude by lifting it up to the highest level of spirituality required by the Torah for Gods redemption. He knew that the war was far from over and that the Romans would regroup and attack the rebels with more legions and more sophisticated forces. For this reason he sent his learned spiritual army of 24,000 disciples to join the armed forces of Bar Kokhba. The Torah scholars were supposed to cement the fighting spirit of the rebels, enlighten them with knowledge of God and His Torah, cause them to irrevocably believe in the Messiah, his victories in war, and the coming of a Messianic Age of freedom, justice, and peace.
In Communist Russia there was an institute of 'commissars' or 'politruks' who were send by the Communist Party to the Red Army with the purpose of strengthening discipline, consolidating unity, and reinforcing the fighting spirit of the soldiers. They would fulfill their tasks by ideologically 'brain washing' the soldiers to follow the 'sacred' and 'noble' cause of the Party. On many occasions they were to show personal examples of love, brotherhood, and heroism, and often sacrificed their own lives for a 'bright Communist future of Humanity'. This was their purpose in life and their inspiration.
The 24,000 disciples of R. Akiva who were sent to join the army of Bar Kokhba had a parallel mission. The difference was only that the God of Israel was supposed to be their love, life, and inspiration. They miserably failed in their mission and paid for their sinful behavior by death from the Roman sword. R. Akiba admitted that his 'disciples died only because they begrudged one another the knowledge of Torah'. The students had become envious, jealous of the Torah achievements of their peers, and bitter and angry at the success of their fellows. They had developed feelings of ill will. They coveted that which belonged to others.
Rabbi Pinchas Stolper when he speaks of the disciples of R. Akiva shares this opinion:
'These outstanding scholars would become the real "army" of the Jewish people, a spiritual and moral force that would bring Torah to the entire world, overcoming anguish, suffering, and the cruel boot of the corrupt Roman Empire. They would soon inaugurate a new era of peace, righteousness, and justice, an era in which "the Knowledge of G-d would cover the earth as water covers the seas' (The Mystery of Lag Ba'Omer).
On top of all this, R. Akiva also was an experienced politician who travelled a lot around different countries. He had even gone to Rome with the co-presidents of the Sanhedrin, R. Gamaliel, R. Eleazar, and R. Joshua to plead the case of Palestinian Jews before the Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE). This was the so-called 'Journey of the Elders' 95-96 CE. He had witnessed the strength and might of the Roman Empire. He knew that there were zero chances for the Jews to fight and succeed without God of Israel on their side in a rebellion to achieve freedom and independence for Judaea.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â As R. Riskin writes, 'Indeed, R. Akiva put his ideas and ideals into practice by spearheading the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome (app. 135 CE) for the avowed purpose of Israel's liberation of Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Holy Temple'.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Rabbi Akiva misjudged the political situation in the Roman-ruled world and particularly in his own country of Judaea. There was no unity among the rebels. They were to exhibit baseless hatred, evil speech, arrogance, egoism, sectarian rivalry, lack of respect and no honor towards one other. 'A man's pride brings him down' (Proverbs 29:23).
And most important of all, - the God of Israel was not with them!
The Talmud and Rabbinical literature do not tell much, if anything, regarding what exact role R. Akiva played in the Revolt; when and how his relationship with Simon Bar Kokhba started; what made his decision to name this military commander the Messiah: There are no answers on many important questions concerning the political activities of R. Akiva and his disciples before and during the Jewish Revolt. We have to understand that for decades afterwards many of the Rabbis were still living in the Roman world and were subject to their rules and laws. In order to function and teach Torah in the synagogues and to keep Judaism alive, they would have tried to hide or minimize the actual role of influential religious leaders such as R. Akiva and his students in the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Romans. Hence, the Talmud speaks of a mysterious plague, 'askera', as the cause of death of the 24,000 disciples.
The only established official fact concerning his connection with Bar Kokhba is that this famous teacher and spiritual leader of the nation regarded a brave general and patriot as the promised Jewish Messiah (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit 4:6; 68d). He changed the name of Simon Bar Koziba to Simon 'Bar Kokhba' meaning 'Son of the Star', taking it from the verse in Numbers 24:17, 'There shall come a star out of Jacob.' This prophecy, indeed, is understood as pointing to a future Messiah. Rabbi Akiva undermined the arguments of the Sages of the Sanhedrin and the Academy in Yavneh. He disregarded the opinions of his closest disciples, failed to heed more signs and messages from God, but proclaimed the brave and successful General Bar-Kokhba as the Davidic Messiah. The purpose of this announcement was to arouse and mobilize the population of Judea in support of a rebellion against Rome. This decision, unwarranted by Scripture, drew the Jewish People right into the Roman slaughter.
"He who announces the Messianic time based on his calculation forfeits his own share in the future"(R. Jose, in Derek Ere Rabbah xi). These words of one of R. Akiva's five principal pupils could have been directly addressed to his renowned teacher!
Rabbi Jonathan ben Eleazar also curses those who predict the advent of the Messiah and estimate the end-times: 'Blasted be the bones of those who calculate the end' (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b).
'This is absolutely all there is in evidence of an active participation by Akiva in the revolution'. This seems an official attitude in Judaism about theÂ historical events of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and R. Akiva's mysterious involvement in it. Of course, we cannot accept this statement or any of the other similar versions of it because bit by bit, slowly but surely, we have found many links and hints which have helped us to draw a full picture of the personality of R. Akiva and his participation in the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Even the fact of declaring Bar Kokhba the Jewish Messiah needs more clarification and detail. Was Bar Kokhba anointed with the special oil prepared according to the directions of the Almighty (Exodus 30:22-32) in a manner of the Biblical description? This is how Scripture describes the anointing of the first King of Israel, Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, by the Prophet Samuel:Â
'Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it over Saul's head. He kissed Saul and said, 'I am doing this because the Lord has appointed you to be the ruler over Israel, His special possession' (1 Samuel 10:1).
How did R. Akiva determine that Bar Kokhba was the right man whom it had pleased God to choose as the Messiah? R. Akiva knew him only as a Jewish patriot and talented military commander who had had a few successful victories over Roman legions just before and during the uprising and had established an independent kingdom that lasted for two and a half years. [This success had caused many other rabbis to believe in him as the Messiah (Sanhedrin 97 b)].Â How had Rabbi Akiva figured that this person, pretending to be the Messiah, had established such a personal spiritual relationship with God that He had set him apart to accomplish a special divine mission? The Messiah of Scripture is supposed to be a righteous man with a highly developed spiritual status, with great virtues and understanding of the World of God. The 'spirit of the Lord' will be upon him, and he will have a 'fear of God' (Isaiah 11:2). Any man who is in possession of these qualities could have been the potential Messiah. They say that Bar Kokhba was not a false Messiah but the one who failed. It would seem to us that the personality and deeds of Bar Kokhba should have disqualified him from even being considered the Messiah in potential.