Beyond Tragedy: Wine, Blood, and Beitar

When the Romans destroyed Beitar, the last stronghold of the Jewish people in Israel on the beginning on the 9th of Av, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were slaughtered. Hadrian used their bodies to make a tall wall around his sizable vineyard. Miraculously these bodies did not rot and were eventually buried. Furthermore, the Sages teach that the vineyards of the gentiles did not need to be fertilized for seven years because the blood of the Jews provided sufficiently through the earth. In a tragedy of such magnitude, why is such an emphasis being placed on vineyards?

To understand this anomaly, it is necessary to explain another enigmatic teaching of the Sages. The Talmud states:

Because of the door of a lady’s carriage, Beitar was destroyed. In Beitar it was the custom that when a boy was born, a cedar was planted, and when a girl was born a tornisa (another kind of cedar tree) was planted. When a young couple would marry they would cut each of their trees and make a wedding canopy from their trees together. One day, Caesar’s daughter was passing by and her carriage door broke. Her servants cut down a cedar to repair the carriage. The people of Beitar attacked and beat them. The servants told Caesar that the Jews were rebelling against him, and he waged a war against them. (Gittin 57a)

Cedars are mighty, deeply rooted trees. The joining of these trees by the wedding canopy symbolized the power of unity that was desired for the new couple; a house built with strength. Furthermore, these trees represented the inhabitants of Beitar, a powerful, glorious community, deeply rooted in their connection to G-d, from which they drew their strength.

They epitomized the Torah’s teaching that a person is a tree of the field (Devarim, 20:19);more specifically an upside-down tree (Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, Ch. 7). Just as a tree’s roots are down below, firmly planted in the ground, man’s root is from above, in his soul that comes from the highest of places. When a tree’s roots are healthy and robust, the tree grows strong and full as it receives all the nutrients that are necessary to express its potential. The same is true of man. When he is firmly connected to his source above, the result is a stronghold of spirit that expresses a strength that is uncommon. That was the greatness of Beitar and the basis of their power.

For this reason, when the Romans cut down a cedar, it was about much more than just chopping down a tree. It was symbolic that the nation of Edom — their spiritual antithesis and age-old nemesis — was challenging the very source of might that their lives were based upon (Rome is descended from Edom, the descendant of Esau).

Edom, which means red, derives its name from the reddish complexion of Esau, associated with a proclivity for bloodshed, and from Esau’s demand of Jacob, “Pour down my throat from this red dish that you have made.” Edom represents the lowest, most animalistic qualities of man. He stands in direct contradistinction to the type of person represented by Jacob and personified by his offspring in Beitar; a being rooted in the higher worlds, deeply connected to the Source of all life. The Battle between Rome and Beitar was a fight over the essential pillar of the world: physicality or spirituality.

When Hadrian killed the inhabitants of Beitar, he used their bodies as a wall for his vineyard. He was saying that neither their bodies nor their blood, had any more significance than being a means to protect his wine production and to enable his ability to experience lowly, drunken physicality. According to his worldview, physical pleasure was man’s key aspiration.

This is in direct contradiction to the Torah’s teaching that blood possesses a soul quality which is why it is even prohibited to consume the blood of an animal. Because of this, the Sages expressed the tragedy in terms of the blood of the people of Beitar becoming a means for the drunkenness of the gentiles who supplanted us, saving them the cost of fertilizer for seven years. What greater fall from grace could there be?

At the same time, the bodies of the people of Beitar, despite being left to rot but never decomposing, were eventually given a respectful burial. It seems that in the end, these bodies were more than just bodies, subject to the laws of physicality. To recognize this miracle, the blessing of “Ha’Tov V’Hameitiv” (the One who is good and does good) was added to our expression of thanksgiving in the Grace after Meals. It is significant that this is also the blessing made when a better quality wine is brought to the table during a meal. When we declare this blessing, we express that our eating and drinking possess a higher quality. Our physical experiences are about more than just our bodies.

On Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor, and refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, and wearing leather shoes. We take a step back from physicality and have an opportunity to reflect on the nature of our involvement in the world and whether or not it reflects our true nature as trees with roots above. By doing the inner work of realigning ourselves with who we really are and the glory that was once ours, may we soon be lifted to a place and a time beyond all tragedy.


About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport grew up in Great Neck, NY, the son of a famous surgeon and scientist; His six-month trip to Israel turned into a twenty-year career of study; Rabbi Rapaport received semicha ordination from Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood in 2002, taught in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem for six years, and lectured at a number of introductory programs to Judaism; More recently, his activities have included graduate work in Clinical Sociology, and several years of clinical practice in counseling; Rabbi Rapaport lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he works with individuals and groups, helping them discover and develop their unique talents and abilities; He is the author of the Jewish Art of Self-Discovery, available on Amazon