On Lag Ba'Omer, Israeli children light bonfires across Israel, supposedly in celebration of the heroic victory of Simon Bar Kochba over the Roman Empire. This is a modern-day contrivance - earlier generations weren’t inclined to celebrate what amounted to the destruction of Jewish life in Judea for over a millennium.
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While many view the Bar Kochba Revolt as a tale of heroism, - it is equally a case study in the folly of religious and nationalistic fanaticism. Either way, it is a seminal moment in Jewish history.
The late Second Temple Period and the century following the destruction of the Temple (from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE) were a time of apocalyptic fervor for the Jewish people. The lessons of Jewish history had taught – at least, so many believed - that God would intervene on the side of the Jews. Had God not ended the Babylonian Exile and restored the Jerusalem Temple? Had the prophets not promised that a messiah would come and lead the Jews to a new age of righteousness?
These expectations led to a steady stream of would-be messiahs. A partial list includes the Essenes’ Teacher of Righteousness, Hezekiah “the chief bandit,” Simon of Peraea, Athronges, Judas the Galilean, and most famously, Jesus of Nazareth.
Usually, the death of the charismatic leader by the Romans was held as proof that the would-be savior had not been a true messiah, though in some of these cases, followers continued to assert the slain leader's supernatural nature even after his death.
The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD did not allay these expectations, but according to the beliefs at the time, rather served to demonstrate that the time was nigh. And a new crop of would-be messiahs came about, of whom Menahem ben Hezekiah was the most famous, until Simon of Kosevah came along – the man who would become "Bar Kochba".
Son of a star
We know little personally about Simon-to-be-Bar Kochba, despite the fact that a number of his letters were discovered in 1960. These teach us that he was a strong-willed, charismatic leader, but not much else.
In 132 CE, Simon led a revolt against the Romans. It was not a spontaneous uprising - as the Great Revolt 70 years before had been - but rather a well-planned civil war fought in the Judean hills.
The Jews didn’t need much reason to revolt against their Roman overlords, but the immediate cause for this outbreak of violence seems to have been a pledge by Roman Emperor Hadrian to have the Temple rebuilt, only to change his mind - and order a temple to Jupiter be erected on the Temple Mount instead. Hadrian apparently also prohibited circumcision, never a popular measure among Jews. Banning it, that is.
This was an asymmetric conflict. Simon’s forces could not best the Roman legions in open battle, so they employed guerrilla tactics. The Jewish fighters would hide in the vast, complex tunnel system carved into the soft, chalky bedrock in the build-up to the war, emerge to ambush and raid the regular Roman army, then escape back into their underground labyrinths.
With the support of the Judean populace, Simon and his men succeeded in hitting the Romans hard and recapturing much of Judea.
Whether or not the Judean rebels were able to capture Jerusalem is disputed. In any case, their early success and the establishment of an independent Jewish state led many to proclaim Simon as the messiah.
That is how he got the name Bar Kochba - “son of a star” - a reference to a prophecy in the Book of Numbers: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth" (24:17). His letters however were signed with the name “Simon the Prince” (“HaNasi”).
The Romans: Not star-struck
The Romans responded with characteristic brutality, marshaling reinforcements from throughout the empire to crush the Jewish revolt.
The war ensuing was massive, even by the Roman scale of doing things: the Romans wielded 12 legions, probably close to 100,000 men, against the rebellious Jews.
Though not as well equipped or trained as the Romans, the Jews of Judea (there is some question whether Jews in the Galilee also participated) had a fighting force more than twice that size. The grueling war would last four brutal years, with massive casualties on both sides.
Eventually the Roman war machine ground down the Jewish resistance, systematically destroying the Jewish towns.
In 136 CE, the beleaguered rebels pulled back to a stronghold southwest of Jerusalem, called Betar.
That is where the revolt, and its leader Simon Bar Kochba, would meet their end.
After a siege, the Roman forces seized the stronghold and slaughtered all they found inside. According to rabbinic sources, the Roman war horses were nostril-deep in rebel blood.
Judea was completely devastated. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were put to the sword, and many more died of famine. Hundreds of towns were destroyed, never to arise anew. Those who survived were sold on the Roman slave market: they numbered so many that the price of a Jewish slave dropped to the price of a horse.
In fact, few Jews remained in Judea at all, and the Roman province was reconstituted into the new province "Syria Palaestina."
Bar Kochba's defeat would have a profound effect on the Jewish people.
Judea found itself practically depopulated of Jews, crushing any hope of Jewish independence for nearly 2,000 years. In fact, Jews in the Diaspora did not exactly celebrate Bar Kochba’s heroism: he was instead viewed as a progenitor of the calamity that caused all Jews to be displaced persons for millennia.
Only recently, with the advent of Zionism, had his memory been exhumed as a Jewish hero, a dogged freedom fighter who against all odds, founded a Jewish state. And he did achieve that. But not for very long.