Rediscovering the real Bar Kokhba

Yadin and his excavation team found letters in a canyon crevice signed by Simon Bar Kosiba.

Ein Gedi hike 311 (photo credit:
Ein Gedi hike 311
(photo credit:
Yigael Yadin, the prominent Israeli archeologist and statesman, made an extraordinary discovery in the Judean desert, near Ein Gedi, in 1961. Yadin and his excavation team found letters in a canyon crevice signed by Simon Bar Kosiba.
The letters confirm that Bar Kosiba was the leader of an independent Jewish state that rebelled against the Roman Empire for three years, from 132 to 135 CE.
Yadin’s discovery shed light on the history of the rebellion led by Bar Kosiba, providing missing pieces of information on the insurrection led by the man who is better known today as “Bar Kokhba.”
On the holiday of Lag Ba’omer, Jews in Israel build bonfires and conduct student field days to celebrate the revolt against Rome and the exploits of Bar Kokhba.
Bar Kokhba is especially important in Israel today because he was the last leader of a sovereign Jewish state in Israel before the rise of Zionism in the modern epoch.
We know little of the origins of the rebellion led by Simon Bar Kosiba. This is a great loss for historians today – there was no chronicler of the caliber of Josephus to record the second great ancient rebellion against Rome. We know much of the Great Revolt in 66-70 CE because the Jewish historian wrote his eyewitness account of the events in The Wars of the Jews.
Alas, Josephus was dead at the time of the second revolt led by Bar Kosiba. Ancient Roman historian Dio Cassius, one of the few sources we have on the second rebellion, states that the Jewish uprising against Rome was ignited by the provocative plan of Hadrian, the Roman emperor, to raise a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount and convert the former Jewish capital into a Roman colony.
According to other ancient sources, Hadrian’s plan to outlaw circumcision – in a general ban on any form of self-mutilation, as perceived by the emperor – was the cause for the revolt. The Jewish forces held out against the might of the Roman Empire for three years. The revolt was no minor skirmish – Hadrian summoned legions from Britain to crush it. Archeologists have discovered coins minted during the rebellion that indicate Jewish control of the holy city of Jerusalem during the years of war. The letters found by Yadin over 50 years ago reinforce the image of Bar Kokhba as an able military leader who demanded utmost obedience from his troops. But one letter, in particular, is fascinating for the insight it provides into Bar Kokhba’s life as a religious Jew.
BAR KOKHBA writes to one “Yehudah bar Menashe.”
The military leader has sent two donkeys to Yehonatan bar Be’ayan and to Masabala in order that they shall pack and send to the camp “palm branches and citrons.”
Bar Kokhba wants Yehudah to send others who will “bring you myrtles and willows.” His final words are an order to see that “they are tithed and send them to the camp.... Be well.”
Bar Kokhba is celebrating the waving of the four species as part of Succot! The military leader is not just a military leader, but a Jew of great faith. He takes time out from important strategic and political planning to celebrate the Jewish pilgrimage festival in his fortress at Beitar. Bar Kokhba is not just a forerunner of Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon – although he does share his heroism with them. Bar Kokhba is, in fact, much more of a “religious Zionist,” if one can actually call him a “Zionist.”
Zionism is a modern movement – but its roots in Jewish history and in the Hebrew Bible are deep. Bar Kokhba is a harbinger of the modern phenomenon of religious Zionism, especially as expressed by the genius of the movement, Abraham Isaac Kook.
This aspect of Bar Kohba’s career has been ignored by Zionists. The secular Zionist emphasis has solely been on Bar Kokhba’s military exploits. One example is great Zionist founder Max Nordau’s letter of June 1903 to the Bar Kokhba Gymnastic Club in Berlin. Nordau applauded the young Jews in the club for their athletic prowess – they were not the meek Jews in “the dimness of sunless houses” who pored over Talmudic tractates from morning to night. These young men were “going back to a glorious past” in which “Bar Kokhba was a hero who refused to know defeat.”
Nordau coined the term “muskeljuden” – “muscle Jews” – in praising the emphasis on their physical strength and their pride in defending themselves. No doubt Nordau was right – but not totally accurate.
Bar Kokhba did not just stand for a military prowess that was a forerunner of political Zionism. Bar Kokhba was a Jew who performed Jewish rituals, prayed to the God of Israel, and fought to stop the Roman desecration of Israel’s holiest city.
THE SECULARIZATION of Bar Kokhba’s life and exploits was necessary a century ago for a Zionist movement that had to emphasize the importance of military heroism and political sovereignty in the Land of Israel. But now, 65 years after Jews created an incredible Jewish state, we can start looking beyond ideology to seek out the real Bar Kokhba.
Bar Kosiba did not toil on a Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz.
He was not an underground fighter in the Irgun.
He was not a student at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav. Nor was he only a failed messiah condemned often in rabbinic literature for betraying “Torah-true” Jews. Bar Kokhba’s life should inspire us – and his failed rebellion should be a warning that messianic activism can often be a dangerous phenomenon. Let us move beyond our ideological conceptions of Bar Kokhba and discover the heroic and pious Jew behind the veneer of our preconceptions – and our misconceptions.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.