The birth of Lag Ba'omer

The Zionist movement rehabilitated a failed messiah into Shimon Bar Kochba, rebel hero.

bonfire 88 (photo credit: )
bonfire 88
(photo credit: )
In 1961, Israeli archeologist and statesman Yigael Yadin made an amazing discovery in the Judean desert near Ein Gedi. Yadin and his team of excavators discovered, in a canyon crevice, letters signed by Simon Bar Kosiba. Bar Kosiba describes himself in the correspondence as the leader of an independent Jewish nation that overthrew the might of the Roman Empire for three years, from 132 to 135 CE. The discovery shed light on the history of the rebellion, providing missing pieces of information on the insurrection led by the man who is better known today as "Bar Kochba."
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Last night, on Lag Ba'Omer eve, Jews built bonfires partly to mark the three-year revolt against Rome and the exploits of Bar Kochba, the last leader of the a sovereign Israel before the rise of the Zionist movement in the modern epoch. Little is known about the origins of the rebellion led by Simon Bar Kosiba. According to Ancient Roman historian Dio Cassius, the Jewish uprising against Rome was ignited by the provocative plan of the Emperor Hadrian to raise a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount and convert the city into a Roman colony. Other ancient sources cite Hadrian's plan to outlaw circumcision - in a general ban on any form of self-mutilation, as perceived by the emperor - as the cause of the revolt. The Jewish forces held out against the might of the Roman Empire until the fall of the last rebel stronghold, at Betar in 135. The revolt was no minor affair. Hadrian summoned legions from as far away as Britain to crush the rebellion. Archeologists have unearthed coins minted during the rebellion that indicate Jewish control of the holy city of Jerusalem during the years of the struggle. The letters found by Yadin 45 years ago only reinforce the image of Bar Kochba as a brave military leader who demanded the utmost in obedience from his troops. TALMUDIC SOURCES say that Rabbi Akiva, the greatest scholar of the ancient Jewish world, believed that Bar Kosiba was the Messiah who would overthrow foreign domination in Judea and rebuild the Temple. The rabbi gave Bar Kosiba the name "Bar Kochba" or "son of the star," based on a messianic allusion to the biblical verse "A star shall go forth out of Jacob." Forgotten is the response of one Rabbi Yohanan Ben Torta to Akiva. Upon hearing that Akiva had dubbed the military leader "King Messiah," Rabbi Yohanan said: "Akiva, grass will rise from your cheeks and the son of David will not yet have come." While Bar Kosiba had popular support, there were those who called him not "Bar Kochba," but "Bar Kozev" - "the son of a liar" (from the Hebrew word kazav). In rabbinic tradition, the fall of the last of Bar Kosiba's strongholds at Betar occurred on the Ninth of Av. While Roman historian Dio Cassius exaggerates the destruction wrought by the Roman forces in putting down the rebellion, there is no doubt that the devastation merited the rabbinic inclusion of the fall of Betar into the same category of national disaster as the destruction of the Temples. A FURTHER investigation into the rabbinic attitude to Bar Kochba reveals great ambiguity. On the one hand, the leader of the rebellion mustered an army of battle-hardened rebels who had to prove their dedication by amputating a finger or uprooting a tree while on horseback. Yet rabbinic legend claimed that when Bar Kochba went into battle he did not invoke God's help, as the forces of Judah Maccabee had done centuries earlier. Furthermore, the rabbis blamed the fall of Betar on Bar Kochba's execution of Eleazar of Modi'in, a rabbi who supported the rebellion but was accused of being a traitor to the cause by the rebellion's leader. Even in medieval rabbinic sources Bar Kokhba is never referred to by the messianic name given to him by Rabbi Akiva, but as Bar Kosiba or Ben Kosiba. Maimonides, writing in his classic work the Mishna Torah, states that rabbi Akiva and "all the contemporary sages regarded [Ben Kosiba] as the king messiah, until he was killed for the sins which he had committed." IN OUR own epoch the centuries-old rabbinic critique has been replaced by a much different perception. The Zionist movement rehabilitated Simon Bar Kosiba, failed messiah, and converted him into Simon Bar Kochba, rebel hero. Lag Ba'Omer, a minor Jewish holiday rooted in the legend of the cessation of a plague that killed the students of Rabbi Akiva, became a celebration of the last chapter of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. No longer did Jews associate Bar Kochba with the devastation of a hopeless rebellion fueled by a messianic fantasy that a small group of Jews could overthrow an all-powerful empire. Rather, Bar Kochba was the forerunner of the heroes of the modern Zionist movement and State of Israel. Although Bar Kochba himself signed his letters as "Bar Kosiba," the latter name has been expunged from the collective memory of the Jewish people. Today we celebrate the man's heroism as a national icon, forgetting that his rebellion was crushed in a national catastrophe. WHILE WE should certainly celebrate the Bar Kochba revolt as a heroic attempt to establish an independent Jewish state in the face of overwhelming odds - that is, indeed, the story of modern Zionism - we should not just discount a long-standing perception of the rebellion's leader. Rabbi Akiva, despite his best intentions, his fervent love of the Jewish people, and his death as a martyr at the hands of Rome, was, in the end, tragically mistaken. Bar Kosiba was not the messiah, and the Roman Empire would not be defeated in an apocalyptic final battle. The rabbis of Yavneh and Usha realized that continuous rebellion against overwhelming odds would spell the doom of the Jewish people. Rather than fight an empire in defiance, they negotiated with Rome in accommodation. By doing so, they saved the Jewish people and Judaism. The Zionist movement has done the Jewish people a great service by resurrecting "Bar Kochba" as a rebel hero. For more than a century the Bar Kochba rebellion has served as a model for the modern fighters for Jewish sovereignty in Israel. But we, as Jews, should never forget the sobering rabbinic criticism of "Bar Kosiba," a reminder that glorious as military might and the messianic ideal are, together they can spell disaster for the Jewish people. Let us celebrate Bar Kochba's spirit today. But, on the Ninth of Av, let us remember how his dream died in destruction and led to utter defeat and centuries of exile. The writer is a lecturer in Jewish history in the adult education programs at Broward Community College and Nova Southeastern University, both in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.