“From Shimon bar Kosiba, Prince over Israel, Shalom! ” These words written at the beginning of a papyrus document in the second century CE, and discovered in a cave in the Judean desert by Yigael Yadin in 1960, electrified the Jewish nation. The State of Israel’s media interrupted scheduled broadcasting and extensively covered the story for days on end. Yadin was granted an audience with the President of Israel, Yitzchak ben Tzvi, where he dramatically announced:
Your Excellency, I am honoured to be able to tell you that we have discovered fifteen dispatches written or dictated by the last president of ancient Israel 1800 years ago.
Who was this Bar Kosiba? Why did this discovery create so much excitement? As incredible as it sounds, after the crushing defeat of the Great Revolt, with the fall of Masada in 73 CE, the Jews rose up in revolt against the Romans again in the Land of Israel within sixty years. The second revolt was the Bar Kokhba Revolt that was fought in the years 132-135/6 CE, culminating in the defeat of Bar Kokhba himself at the Judean fortress of Betar and vicious anti-Jewish legislation promulgated by Hadrian (117-138 CE). The crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt effectively ended the armed Jewish struggle for a free and independent homeland for almost two millennia.
The figure of Bar Kokhba remained shrouded in mystery and myth until the dramatic discoveries of Yigal Yadin in the Judean Desert in 1959/60. These discoveries finally provided scholars with a more concrete portrait of the leader of the last great Jewish revolt of antiquity and his followers.
In addition to many everyday artifacts that were uncovered by Yadin, the piece de resistance was a bundle of papyrus and wooden documents written or dictated by Bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt, himself. Even the name of the leader was unclear until these documents were read. The documents allowed scholars a glimpse at the multi-faceted personality of this charismatic Jewish leader.
The 15 Bar Kokhba letters reveal a leader who was passionate about his cause and his religion. In one of the letters, despite the fact that he is fighting a rearguard action and is desperately short of men and supplies, he does not request weapons or food, instead he asks for the Arba Minim (biblical four species) to be sent to his camp to celebrate Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles):
Shimon to Yehuda bar Menashe to Qiryath Arabaya: I have sent you two donkeys that you shall send two men with them to Yehonathan bar Be’ayan and to Masabala, in order that they shall pack and send palm branches (lulavim) and citrons (etrogim) towards you to the camps. And you, from your place, send others who will bring you myrtles (hadassim) and willows (aravim). See that they are tithed and send them to the camp. Be well.”
Even in the final desperate moments of the revolt Bar Kokhba wanted to remind his followers what they were fighting for. The freedom to, in the words of Israel’s national anthem, “To be a free people in our land.”
Despite Roman historians and the rabbinic tradition’s tendency to gloss over the revolt, early Zionism eagerly seized on the story as proof that Jews, when faced with persecution, were capable of fighting for their dignity and self-respect. “Max Nordau (1849-1923), an early popular Zionist leader, writing an essay about “muscle-Jews,” stated that: “Bar Kokhba was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.” Many Zionist sports clubs that sprang up in the inter-war years in Europe were named Bar Kokhba, in honour of the legendary hero who symbolised the “New Jew,” the antithesis of the weak Diaspora Jew, constantly fleeing persecution, as portrayed scornfully by Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) in his epic poem, “In the City of Slaughter.”
The story of the Bar Kokhba revolt came to symbolize the hope that, as the Jews returned to their homeland, they would be able to regain their honour by reclaiming their land, their language and the ability to defend themselves. Yigal Yadin, who as a representative of the new Jewish State and a general in the new Jewish army, symbolically uncovered the words of the last Jewish general in Israel, almost as if they had been waiting to be reclaimed by their spiritual descendants, wrote:
It was centuries of persecution of the Jews and their yearning for national rehabilitation that turned Bar Kokhba into a people’s hero, an elusive figure who they clung to because he had demonstrated, and was the last to demonstrate, that Jews could fight to win Jewish and political independence.
That is why it is relevant and important as Jews celebrate Sukkot in the State of Israel and throughout the world to have Bar Kokhba as a role-model of the importance of freedom in our land.
The above article contains extracts from my latest book published by Koren, “Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 536 BCE-136 CE.”