The warrior we remember on Lag B’Omer
1. Shimon bar Kokhba led a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in the years 132-135 CE.
2. Let’s start with his name. We know his first name, Shimon, from coins minted at the time of the revolt. Likely, his surname was initially Bar Koseva. It is thought that this was changed, perhaps by Rabbi Akiva, to bar Kokhba at the time of the revolt. Messianic hopes were high then, and it was said he descended, as was required by Jewish tradition, from the Davidic line. The reconfigured name read “son of a star,” a reference to the prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab.” Later, when the revolt went down to stupendous failure, he was called bar Koziba, meaning “son of disappointment.” Each change required the substitution of just one letter.
3. For three years he led the revolt as warrior and as executive (Nasi, or prince) of an independent Jewish state. As a leader he was strict and punctilious. It is said that he required his soldiers to cut of a finger as a kind of initiation rite. When he went into battle, he is said to have asked God for neither assistance nor discouragement, saying, “There is no need for You to assist us, but do not embarrass us either.” Letters written in his name during the war show not only his focus on the smallest issues of camp life, but also on issues relating to Jewish observance, including Shabbat, tithes and holidays. Archaeologist Yigael Yadin says that he also tried to revive Hebrew (Aramaic was the language spoken at that time) as the official language of his realm.
4. The rebellion broke out when the emperor Hadrian, who had initially been somewhat welcoming to the Jews, took increasingly hard measures against them, appointing rulers who ravaged the population, interdicting religious practices such as circumcision, and starting to build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the destroyed Temple.
5. At first, success was rapid. Bar Kokhba’s forces, including Jews and non-Jews, overran some fifty strongholds in Judea and 985 undefended towns and villages. Hadrian sent stronger troops to fight the insurgents, and the Jews defeated them, too. Coins were minted with Bar Kokhba’s name and slogans such as “the freedom of Israel.”
6. More Roman legions were dispatched to Judea, and rather than waging open war, they set siege to the Jewish fortresses and villages, utilizing a scorched-earth policy that weakened the bodies and the will of the inhabitants. The tide of war turned, yet the Romans continued to take heavy casualties, too.
7. Bar Kokhba’s headquarters in Bethar also housed the Sanhedrin. It was the vital center of the nation and a military stronghold strategically located on a mountain ridge overlooking the road to Jerusalem. Here, after a bitter siege, the final battle was fought. When the Romans conquered the stronghold, they killed every Jew there, sparing just one youth, Simeon ben Gamliel.
8. It was reported by the Roman consul and historian Cassius Dio (135-236 CE) that 580,000 Jews were killed in the war, not counting those who died of famine, disease and fire. More were sold into slavery. The Romans plowed Jerusalem with a yoke of oxen, then built on its site the city of Aelia Capitolina, where Jews were not permitted. Judea, Galilee and Samaria were reconstituted as a single province, Syria Palaestina. Persecution of the Jews, and prohibition of religious practices, continued at an even higher pitch until the end of Hadrian’s reign in 138 CE.
9. Bar Kokhba has been the subject of some twenty works of music and literature over the last century and a half, in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, Hungarian and Danish.
10. Why Lag B’Omer? In modern times, Zionism connected Bar Kokhba with heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, and today in Israel the holiday continues to symbolize the Jewish fighting spirit.