Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Last Struggle for Liberty.

Bar Cochba.

Preparations for rebellion had been carefully planned for some years. Arms had been stored in caves. Akiba was the inspiration of the revolt, its Deborah, let us say. But who was to be its Barak? The times created the man. A hero appeared to lead the forces of Israel whom the multitude in admiration called Bar Cochba (son of a star). This title may have been suggested by the name of his birthplace, Koziba, but chiefly also because he was regarded by the enthusiasts as the long-looked-for Messiah. This man, of colossal strength and strategic resources, was going to make Rome feel the power of a scorned people. Reinforcements came fast to the banner of the supposed Messiah, scion of David's house, who was to throw off the yoke of Rome and restore the throne of Judah. Soon he had half a million men at his back.

The Roman governor, Tinnius Rufus, who is the Talmud's archetype of cruelty, fled with his garrison. In the first year of the war fifty fortresses and a thousand towns capitulated before the advancing arms of Bar Cochba; for the presence of the beloved Akiba gave confidence to all. We might say of him as was written of Moses, "When Akiba raised his hand, Israel prevailed."

Hadrian, who first slighted the insurrection, had soon reason to fear it. His best generals were dispatched to Judea only to be repulsed. Already Bar Cochba was having coins struck with his insignia. Alas the act was premature. King Ahab once said, "Let not him boast who putteth on his armor as he who taketh it off." In the meantime Roman prisoners of war were treated with great forbearance; indeed some heathens, impressed with the enthusiasm of the Jews, had joined their ranks.

General Severus.

Eventually, after Bar Cochba had held sway for two years without cavalry and had repulsed every Roman army, Hadrian, alarmed, summoned the great general, Julius Severus, from distant Britain. The Jewish focus of operations was at Bethar, south of Caesarea, and one mile from the Mediterranean, and fortifications had been placed north, west and east to hold control of the country. Jezreel commanded the centre.

Like Vespasian, the great general Severus, decided on siege rather than attack. So he steadily cut off supplies and provisions and also barbarously put to death all prisoners of war. There was no Josephus to give us vivid details of this campaign, so we only know its general result. The three great outlying fortresses on the frontier were first mastered. The next battle took place on the field of Jezreel. One by one the Jewish fortresses fell. The whole Judean army was now concentrated in Bethar where the decisive battle must be waged. It was the Jerusalem of this war. Severus resolved to starve it out. For one year the Jews bravely held out against the finest army of the age. At last some Romans found a way into Bethar through a subterranean passage which some Samaritans, it is said, betrayed. Then followed an awful carnage in which Roman horses "waded to the nostrils in Jewish blood." More than half a million souls were slain and thousands more perished by fire and hunger. Yet so great were also the Roman losses that Hadrian in his message of the campaign to the Roman senate, significantly omitted the formula, "I and the army are well."

In the year 135 Bethar fell and tradition places it on the same date so disastrous in Jewish annals—the 9th of Ab. The Roman soldiers kept up a war of extermination against the scattered bands that still held out. Many who had taken refuge in caves were brutally massacred. All the Jews throughout the Roman Empire were made to feel the weight of Hadrian's anger in heavy taxation. As though wantonly to mark its complete desolation, the plow was passed over Jerusalem. North of it was built a Roman city—Aelia Capitolina. On the Temple Mount was erected a shrine dedicated to Jupiter, with the vindictive purpose of obliterating the very name of Jerusalem. (And it was forgotten—for one hundred and fifty years.) No Jew dared enter that city under penalty of death. But all this was but preliminary to his real punishment of those who were called rebels only because they failed. Keener sighted than Vespasian, who blotted out the Nation but tolerated the Faith, Hadrian saw that there was only one way to crush the Jew; that was by crushing his religion. To that abortive purpose he now devoted himself with all the inhumanity of a Pharaoh. To the cruel but cowardly Tinnius Rufus, who had fled at the first alarm, that task was entrusted. Judaism was proscribed. Obedience to its Law was declared a capital crime. Should they commit physical or spiritual suicide was the dilemma that now faced Israel. Was ever a people reduced to such straits?

Law and Life.

A few were ready for ignoble acquiescence and called it submitting to the inevitable, forgetting that "inevitable" is an elastic term that varies with our moral determination. Meeting secretly in a garret, the Rabbis considered the momentous question of the religious policy of this critical hour. They decided that while this terrible decree lasted the people might disregard Jewish observances under duress, since the Law was given, not that they should die, but live by it. But fearing that their lenient proclamation might be mistakenly applied to the fundamentals of religion and morals, they made this safeguard: Even to save his life, no Jew must commit the sins of idolatry, adultery, or murder. This vitally important declaration, involving the all-compelling sanction of the second, sixth and seventh commandments, became an abiding principle in Judaism.

But many of the Rabbis themselves refused to take advantage of the leniency they were willing to grant to others, and determined to obey every injunction of Judaism. In particular they determined to teach the Law to their disciples, on which the continuance of the Jewish tradition depended—though they knew that death would be the penalty of discovery. Roman spies were everywhere ready to pounce upon any who committed the "crime" of fulfilling the precepts of Judaism in obedience to the dictates of conscience. Some were only fined, but others were put to death with tortures too cruel to tell.


There were ten famous martyrs among the teachers of the Law. One of these, Chananyah ben Teradion, had the scroll of the Law he was expounding, wound round him and was burnt in its flames—wet wool being placed on his heart to prolong his agony. His executioner, inspired by such lofty example of faith and courage, sought death with him on the same pyre.

Another, Rabbi Judah ben Baba, gathered some of his disciples about him in a lonely spot, to ordain them as rabbis by the rite of Semicha, already explained. Roman soldiers discovered him. He bade his pupils fly. They refused to obey until he pointed out that having learnt from him important decisions of the Law, it was their duty to live and teach them to others. Later they found him pierced with three hundred lances.

Rabbi Akiba was among the martyrs and would not avail himself of the temporary suspension of the ceremonial Law. Reproached for exposing his life by teaching the Law he answered in a parable that has since become famous, that of "The Fox and the Fishes." Seeing the frightened fish swimming from nets set to entrap them, a crafty fox on the bank called out, "Come up on land and escape the snares of the sea." "Nay," advised the counsellor among the fish, "far wiser will it be to remain in the water, your native element, even though made perilous by the nets of men." Was not Judaism the native element of the Jew?

Soon this noble teacher was seized and cast into prison. Rufus ordered him to be flayed to death by iron pincers. But religion cannot be killed in that way. In the midst of his agonies, a seraphic smile illuminated his face. "Daily," said he, "I have recited the Shema, 'Love God with heart and soul and might,' and now I understand its last phrase—'with all thy might,'—that is even though He ask thy life; here I give Him my life." With this wondrous recital of Israel's prayer, this sweet soul, whose opinions may have brought him some opponents, but whose character all loved, passed away. His parable of "The Fox and the Fishes" contained a profound truth exemplified in himself; for, dying in his native element, the Law, he lives immortally in the Jewish heart; aye, through the inspiration of his death and that of others like him, does Israel abide to-day. Here was another application of the "suffering servant" in Isaiah's fifty-third chapter.

Thus ended Israel's last struggle for liberty. It severed, too, the last link that yet united the Jewish Christians to the parent Jewish body. For they said, "Why hold further relation with a community completely crushed and discredited in the eyes of all the world?" They believed that Judaism's collapse and disappearance was at hand.


Rome first despised the Judean revolt and then had to send its greatest general to quell it. Compare the similar experience of Britain with the Boers.

Theme for discussion:—What degree of pain or peril justifies disregard of ceremonial law?