Rabbi Akiva and the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans

By Gideon

“Among the many great figures in Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva arguably represents a combination of everything that is heroic about the Jewish people more than anyone else. At the least, he is one of the most beloved figures in Jewish history, a person whose influence and stature is a source of inspiration throughout all of the ages. Whatever one says about Rabbi Akiva one can never say enough. The Talmud (Menachos 29a) compares him favorably to Moses, which is the ultimate compliment in the Jewish lexicon. He is the national hero of the Jewish people for all time.” [jewishhistory.org]

Rabbi Akiva (approximately 50 CE-135 CE) is one of the leading figures in the Mishna and Talmud and one of the heroic figures in all of Jewish history. Rabbi Akiva greatly influenced the preservation of Judaism as a religion and as a nation after the destruction of the temple and the exile. He was also a founder of rabbinic Judaism.  He is considered to continue Moses’ work in delivering the Torah and its laws  to the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Akiva came from a family of converts. As a child he witnessed the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. He lived most of his life under the occupying Roman rule. He was a humble person, an optimist , and believed in the redemption of Israel. He lived in the period of early Christianity, when Judaism was in competition with the new religion.

His teaching includes  anchoring the status of the Jewish people as the Chosen People. Among his famous sayings are “Beloved are Israel, for they were called children of G-d.” and  “Beloved are Israel, for unto them was given the desirable Torah.” His lack of pedigree held him back from being appointed the nassi — the leader of the Sanhedrin.

Rabbi Akiva is considered to be the greatest Tanna (teacher) of his time, and one of the greatest of all times. Tannaim (Scholars of the Mishnah, the earliest written form of the Oral Torah). Rabbi Akiva is mentioned in the  Babylonian Talmud 1,500  times. He is responsible for the giant project of the Oral Torah (the Talmud) , a tradition explaining what the scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the laws. He linked each traditional practice to a basis in the biblical text, and systematized the material that later became the Mishnah.  

According to Jewish tradition, the Oral Torah was given to Israel in Mount Sinai together with the written Torah. However, under Rabbi Akiva’s leadership, the Oral Torah was published as a collection of written documents, so it could be preserved and remembered. The Talmud is full  with his teachings and laws. One of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous saying is “Love your fellow as yourself “, which he considered  to be  a great principle of the Torah.

For the first forty years of his life, Rabbi Akiva grew up a simple shepherd near Jerusalem, working for Kalba Savua, a wealthy  Jew from Jerusalem (so named because anyone who entered his house hungry like a dog, kalba, went out satiated, savua).  Akiva became chief shepherd for Kalba Savuah. His inspiration to study Torah came from his wife, Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua. Rachel, who was so impressed with his character that she consented to marry him — on the condition that he would devote himself to Torah study. Rachel loved Rabbi Akiva and sent him away to study at the yeshiva of the great Rabbi Eliezer. Her father, angry over the marriage, disowned them both. As a result of it, Rabi Akiva and Rachel were very poor for many years.

The Talmud states that Rabbi Akiva left home for about 12 years in this endeavor. He returned home with 12,000 disciples. He said: “If I had my wish, I would stay another 12 years at the academy.” He returned to the school for another 12-year period. When he returned home after that period, he was escorted by as many as 24,000 disciples. By this time, he was a popular and revered Torah scholar. Kalba Savua reinstated Rachel and Rabbi Akiva into his largesse and good graces. Akiva studied under Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua and among his foremost disciples were Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Simeon.

The Talmud (Nedarim 50a-b) said that during the course of his life Rabbi Akiva became wealthy from three different sources. The first was from his father-in-law, Kalba Savuah. The second was from a shipwreck. There had been a large treasure hidden in the front part of the ship and when it washed up on shore Rabbi Akiva found it. The third source of his wealth came from his third wife. After Rachel died, he married the widow of the Roman procurator, Turnus Rufus (“Turnus” meaning “Tyrannus”), who was brutal to the Jews. Nevertheless, his wife had a different soul and after he died she converted to Judaism. Rabbi Akiva eventually married her, and she brought with her the wealth of Turnus Rufus.”  [jewishhistory.org]

When Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known to us as Hadrian, took the reigns of power in 117 CE, at least at first he was tolerant toward the Jews. He even talked of allowing the Jews to rebuilt the Temple, a proposal that was met with virulent opposition from the Hellenists. However, Hadrian changed his attitude to one of outright hostility toward the Jews. Hadrian formulated a plan to transform Jerusalem into a pagan city-state on the Greek polis model with a shrine to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple. This attempt of conciliation between Judaism and Hellenism, however, foundered when faced with strict Jewish monotheism. Therefore, the fact that the Romans appear to have been surprised by the outbreak of the uprising.

“Nothing could be worse in Jewish eyes than to take the holiest spot in the Jewish world and to put a temple to a Roman god on it. This was the ultimate affront. As bad as this was, the real cause of the revolt seems to have been Hadrian’s attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Selucid Greek Empire 300 years earlier by trying to destroy Judaism. Specifically he targeted Sabbath observance, circumcision, the laws of family purity and the teaching of Torah. An attack against such fundamental commandments of Judaism was bound to trigger a revolt-which it did.” [aish.com]

Jewish outrage at his actions led to one of the single greatest revolts of the Roman Era. Simon Bar Kosiba led the uprising, which began in full force in 132 CE. Bar Kosiba’s success caused many to believe ― among them Rabbi Akiva, that he could be the Messiah. He was nicknamed “Bar Kochba” or “Son of Star,” an allusion to a verse in the Book of Numbers (24:17): “there shall come a star out of Jacob.” This star is understood to refer to the Messiah.

Rabbi Akiva supported the failed rebellion of Bar Kochba against Roman rule. He saw Bar Kochba messianic potential and opportunity. Bar Kochba ― who was a man of tremendous leadership abilities ― managed to unite the entire Jewish people around him. Jewish accounts describe him as a man of tremendous physical strength. However, the rebellion failed and Rabbi Akiva admitted his error.

The outbreak and initial success of the rebellion took the Romans by surprise. The rebels incorporated combined tactics to fight the Roman Army. According to some historians Bar Kokhba’s army utilized guerrilla warfare, engaging Romans in surprise locations and inflicting heavy casualties with sneak attacks. Others, however claim that Bar Kokhba actually preferred direct engagement due to his superiority in numbers, and only after several painful defeats in the fields, the Romans decided to evade direct fighting and instead employ the tactic of siege on Jewish centers, taking them one by one. With the slow advance of the Roman Army and cut supplies, the rebels engaged in long-term defense tactics.

The defense system of Judean towns and villages was based mainly on hideout caves, which were created in large numbers almost in every population center. Many houses utilized underground hideouts, where Judean rebels hoped to withstand Roman superiority by narrowness of the passages and even surprise attacks from underground. The cave systems were often interconnected into large systems, used not only as hideouts for the rebels, but also for storage and refuge for their families. The hideout systems were widely incorporated in Judean hills, the Judean desert, northern Negev, and to some degree also in Galilee, Samaria and Jordan Valley. Some 350 hideout systems have been mapped within ruins of 140 Jewish villages in those areas as of July 2015. 

Following a series of setbacks, Hadrian called his general Sextus Julius Severus from Britain, and troops were brought from as far as the Danube. The size of the Roman army amassed against the rebels was much larger than that commanded by Titus sixty years earlier – nearly one third of the Roman army took place in the campaign against Bar Kokhba. It is estimated that forces from 12 Legions participated in Severus’ final campaign.

Bar Kochba became arrogant. He saw himself winning. He heard people calling him the Messiah. Certainly, if Rabbi Akiva thought so, then he had the potential to be Israel’s Ultimate Leader. He also became corrupted by his power and even beat his uncle, the great Rabbi Elazar HaModai, to death, having accepted false accusations that he was a Roman spy. Because of these faults he began to lose battles and was forced into retreat and guerrilla warfare. 

The Jews came very close to winning the war. However, ultimately the Roman succeeded. Hadrian’s army put down the rebellion in 135. The sages say they lost because they were too arrogant. Having tasted victory they adopted the attitude of , “by my strength and my valor I did this.” (Deut. 8:17)

The most famous battle took place in Beitar, a fortified city 10 km. southwest of Jerusalem. After losing many of their strongholds, Bar Kokhba and the remnants of his army withdrew to the fortress of Betar, which also subsequently came under siege in summer 135. The Fifth Macedonian Legion and the Eleventh Claudian Legion are said to have taken part in the siege of Betar. Hadrian prohibited the Jews from burying their dead. (They were eventually afforded burial when Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian as Roman Emperor.)

According to Jewish tradition, the fortress was breached and destroyed on the fast of Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the lunar month Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and the Second Jewish Temple. The horrendous scene after the city’s capture could be best described as a massacre. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that the number of dead in Betar was enormous, that the Romans “went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils. According to the Babylonian Talmud, after the war Hadrian continued the persecution of Jews. Following the fall of Betar, the Roman legions went on a rampage of systematic killing, eliminating all remaining Jewish villages in the region and seeking out the refugees. According to Cassius Dio, overall war operations in the land of Judea left some 580,000 Jews killed, and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed to the ground. 

Cassius Dio also claimed that “Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war. Therefore, Hadrian, in writing to the Senate, did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors: ‘If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the army are in health.'”   Legio XXII Deiotariana was disbanded after serious losses. In addition, some historians argue that Legio IX Hispanadisbandment in the mid-2nd century could also have been a result of this war.

According to a Rabbinic midrash, in addition to Bar Kokhba himself, the Romans executed eight leading members of the Sanhedrin: R. Akiva; R. Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R. Eliezer ben Shamua; R. Hanina ben Hakinai; R. Jeshbab the Scribe; R. Yehuda ben Dama; and R. Yehuda ben Baba.

Rabbi Akiva was executed by the Romans on the eve of Yom Kippur in the city of Caesarea.The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R. Akiva was flayed, R. Ishmael had the skin of his head pulled off slowly, and R. Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death. Even as they tortured him to death Rabbi Akiva recited the final words of a Jew, the great proclamation of faith in God and His oneness, “Hear, O Israel, God is our God; God is one.” When he passed away, the Rabbis said, “he left none like him”.

Hadrian sought to root out the nationalistic features within Judea’s Jewish communities, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions. He prohibited the Torah law and the Hebrew calendar, and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremonially burned on the Temple Mount. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina. By destroying the association of Jews to Judea and forbidding the practice of Jewish faith, Hadrian aimed to root out a nation that inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman Empire. Similarly, he re-established Jerusalem, but now as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it, except on the day of Tisha B’Av.

The Jews became a minority in Judea, remaining strong only in the Galilee, Bet Shean and the Golan. Hadrian’s death in 138 CE marked a significant relief to the surviving Jewish communities of Judea. Rabbinic Judaism had already become a portable religion, centered around synagogues. In the aftermath of the defeat of Bar Kochba, the consolidation of Jewish settlement in Palestine became of major concern to the rabbinate. The Sages endeavoured to halt Jewish migration into diaspora, and even banned emigration from Palestine, branding those who settled outside its borders as idolaters.


Quotes by Rabbi Akiva:

“A fence to wisdom is silence.”

“The Massorah (Tradition) is a fence to the Torah.”

“Vows (self-restraint) are a fence to a holy life.”

“Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d.”

“Everything is foreseen (by G-d), yet freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged with grace, yet all is according to the amount of work accomplished.”

“Whatever G-d does is for the best.”

Related Article:

The Jewish Revolts Against the Roman Empire

The Jewish Greek Wars

How Judaism was transformed after the destruction of the Temple





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