The Jewish revolt led by Bar Kochba in 132 AD was not the work of a single radical revolutionary, but rather the inevitable result of years of promises not kept to the Jews and laws which suppressed the basis of Jews as a nation.
To understand the reason for Bar Kochba’s Revolt, one must go back many years before the war. Prior to Hadrian, an emperor by the name of Trajan ruled the Roman empire. Due to the rebellion of the Jews in the Diaspora to the east and the west of them, Trajan sent a great general to be governor of the Jews in Palestine in order to keep them from rebelling. This general was well-known for the harshness with which he treated people and his name was Tineius Rufus. He was the general who put down the uprising of the Jews in Parthia.
Because of Rufus’s reputation for severity towards the Jews, any thought of rebellion against Rome was uprooted in the Jews in Palestine at that time. However, Trajan had promised the Jews that he would rebuild the asenv,hc and the Jews assumed that this also meant to rebuild Jerusalem. The Pagans in Palestine did not want the asenv,hc to be rebuilt because they thought that it would be the rebirth of the Jewish nation. Additionally, Trajan died and was succeeded by Hadrian, leaving the Jews unsure if Hadrian would keep the promise that Trajan once made.
Hadrian wanted to go to Jerusalem to see what he was rebuilding before starting construction. When he arrived, he was awed by the sight of a once-desolate and fruitful city in ruins and immediately wanted to start reconstruction. However, the Jews were surprised and disappointed to discover that Hadrian wanted to rebuild Jerusalem not as a city for the Jews to restart in, but as a Pagan city sanctified to the Pagan God Jupiter. He was going to put an altar where the Jews’ asenv,hc once stood, and Hadrian was to be the high priest. What once was called Jerusalem would now be called Aelia Capitolina, which was a mockery to the Jews.
The Jews waited sixty years from the destruction of the Second asenv,hc for Rome to restore it to them. They held themselves back from rebelling with their neighboring Jews in the Diaspora because they held onto and believed that Trajan’s promise would be kept. Furthermore, Hadrian later made a prohibition of circumcision. Consequently, the Jews saw in Hadrian another Antiochus Epiphanes, and where there was an Antiochus, a Maccabee was bound to arise. The Jews had to revolt.
The Romans had either banned or mocked some of the most important beliefs in Judaism by now. If they did not revolt against the Romans, they would have died in a spiritual sense. Even if the Romans didn’t kill them, they would not really be Jewish anymore because circumcision was the physical difference between them as Jews and a basic premise of their Jewish beliefs. Their only choice was to gain their independence. Rabbi Akiva, a great scholar of his day, also once believed in Trajan’s promise.
He had also been led astray. Therefore, the great Rabbi helped organize thousands of soldiers to fight for the independence and welfare of the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva also picked a man named Shimon Bar Kochba to lead his army. Rabbi Akiva was sure that Bar Kochba would turn out to be “A second Judah the Maccabee.” Rabbi Akiva was so sure of this that he called Bar Kochba the jhan. His name alone was a reference to him being the jhan, as his name Bar Kochba means “Son of a Star” from the word Kochab, which means star.
There was also a sentence in the Torah which stated, “A star has come forth from David.” Both times a star is mentioned, this is a direct referral to him being the jhan. Bar Kochba had to make sure his army was ferocious and unstoppable. To ensure that his army only consisted of the strongest warriors, he said that only men who would bite a finger off his right hand would merit to be in his army. Two hundred thousand people passed this test.
The Rabbis objected to this manner of testing Jews, saying to Bar Kochba, “How long are you going to turn Jews into ohnun hkgc?” This means, “How long will you turn Jews into warriors with imperfection (a missing finger)?” Nonetheless, Bar Kochba could think of no other way to test the Jews. So the Rabbis suggested that anybody who can uproot a Cedar of Lebanon while riding past it on a horse would be deserving to enter Bar Kochba’s army. Two hundred thousand more people passed this test. After recruiting several others, Bar Kochba had an enormous and ferocious army of about 580,000 people. Bar Kochba was so confident in his army that before each battle, he would say to God, “Ribbono Shel Olam! Do not help us, do not hinder us!” What Bar Kochba basically meant was, “Let nature run its course, we do not need your help.”
With his army, Bar Kochba started his attack. Instead of having an attack of Bar Kochba’s army to all of Palestine at once, he captured Palestine a little at a time. He would take over fortress after fortress, city after city. Pretty soon, Bar Kochba had overthrown all of Palestine for the Jews.
The Jews were once again independent. In Jerusalem, an altar to the Jewish God was placed on the place where the magnificent asenv, hc once stood. Also, the building of a wall around Jerusalem had begun. Despite this new joy brought to the Jews, Bar Kochba knew that the Romans were planning a counterattack, so he kept training his army.
In fact, Bar Kochba was right. Hadrian had brought a world-renowned general all the way from Britain to lead his army against the Jews. The Roman army, along with aiding pagan armies, went to launch their counterattack against Bar Kochba. The Roman army, much like Bar Kochba’s army, didn’t attack them with one big battle. They reconquered Palestine one town at a time.
They defeated little bands of rebels independently defending their cities. The Romans took back the Galil, Yehuda, and eventually the Roman army forced Bar Kochba into a small fortified city in Jerusalem called Betar. It was said that Betar was impenetrable. Every day of the Roman siege around Betar, a man named Rabbi Elazar Hamodai prayed to God that they should live another day. Rabbi Elazar prayed to God every day, “Do not sit in judgment today.
One day, a Kussi snuck into the city. He pretended to whisper into Rabbi Elazarsear’s ear. When Bar Kochba heard about this, he questioned Rabbi Elazar and asked him what the Kussi had said. When Rabbi Elazar replied that nothing was said to him, Bar Kochba kicked him, and he immediately died. Shortly after Rabbi Elazar’s death, on the Ninth of Av, Betar fell.
The Ninth of Av was a mournful day for the Jews as it marked the destruction of the first and second Temples. The fall of Betar was due to three main events. First, the siege of Betar left the Jews inside the city starving and exhausted. Second, a spy from Betar told the Romans a secret way to enter the city. Third, perhaps Bar Kochba was not the real protector of the Jews; Rabbi Elazar was. He was a righteous man who prayed for the welfare of the Jews and himself every day. On the battlefield, about half a million Jews were found dead, while the rest were either sold as slaves, hid in caves, or fled to other countries. Bar Kochba was found dead on the front, strangled by a huge serpent, not killed by a Roman.
After Bar Kochba’s defeat and death, the Jews renamed him Bar Koziva, “Son of deceit,” from Bar Kochba, which symbolized him being the “Son of a Star.” Hadrian realized that the Jews would never see Rome as their mother country, but as tyrants who controlled them. He finished the construction of the city for Jupiter called Aelia Capitolina where Jerusalem once stood. The Jews exiled from Jerusalem were forbidden to go near the city. Every year on the Ninth of Av, the Jews bribed their way into the city to mourn over the city that was once the center of their religion. Hadrian issued several prohibitions against Judaism, including forbidding circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and making and keeping a Jewish calendar.
Not having a Jewish calendar was a harsh punishment as it prevented the Jews from fixating on Jewish holidays and keeping them. Hadrian also prohibited studying and teaching Judaism. In short, Hadrian prohibited Judaism, and the Jews had no other alternative but to fight and revolt against the Romans. Although the revolt yielded disastrous results, Bar Kochba tried to help. He was a great general with a magnificent army. If anyone of lesser talent had been the general over the Jewish army and led the revolt, it would have been even worse. Therefore, Bar Kochba was good for the Jews. He gave hope to the Jews and gave them a taste of independence and what it feels like to fight for what you believe in.
He was the inevitable result of years of suppression. The Jews had no choice but to revolt. Even if Bar Kochba did not exist, a revolt would have still occurred, maybe with a different date and a different leader, but a revolt was inescapable.
- Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961), pages 180-185, 199-201, 204-205, 212, 380.
- Rabbi Dr. Raphael Posner (ed.), Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Jerusalem LTD., 1982), s.v. Bar Kokhba, pages 106-107.
- Suri Cohen, “Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach,” 1996 (?), School Booklet, Shevach High School, New York, pages 13-18.
- Naomi Ben-Asher and Hayim Leaf, The Junior Jewish Encyclopedia (New York City: Sheng Old Publishers Inc., 1967), s.v. Bar Kokhba, Simeon, page 535.
- Encyclopedia International (Canada: Grolier Inc., 1972), s.v. Bar Cocheba or Bar Kokba, page 386.