The Eretz Israel Museum Bar Kokhba Exhibit has chosen to present the controversial Shimon Bar Kokhba in all the manners in which he was perceived in Jewish tradition. The Tannaim (Rabbinic sages) were divided, some supporting his rebellion, others not. For some he represented messianism for others tragedy. Christians, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, rejected Bar Kokhba. The Samaritans sided with the Romans. The center of Jewish learning moved to the Diaspora. The character of Bar Kokhba still raises a stormy argument among modern Israelis, and it seems that it still lives and battles within us even today.
- The leader of the three and a half year Jewish revolt against Rome between 132 and 135 C.E. inspired messianic hope for redemption.
- The defeat caused terrible losses to the Jewish cause.
- The modern formulators of Zionist memory and Jewish culture chose to present the character of the revolt’s leader as a hero to be admired, the result of his daring and love of freedom.
Reputedly of Davidic descent, he was hailed as the Messiah by the greatest rabbi of the time, Akiva ben Yosef, who also gave him the title Bar Kokhba (“Son of the Star”), a messianic allusion Num. 24:17 (“A star shall go forth from Jacob”). Bar Kokhba took the title nasi (“prince”) and The rebels took Jerusalem. The country was organized into administrative districts, that taxes were collected, coins were minted with the legend “Year 1 of the liberty of Jerusalem”and that governmental operations were carried out. Bar Kokhba revived the Hebrew language and make it the official language of the state.
Following the battle of Betar, the war was essentially over and Judaean independence was lost. Jewish war casualties are recorded as numbering 580,000, not including those who died of hunger and disease. Bar Kokhba was himself killed at Betar. The Romans plowed Jerusalem. Jews were sold into slavery in Egypt. Judaean settlements were not rebuilt. Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina and the Jews were forbidden to live there. Jews were permitted to enter only on the 9th of Av to mourn their losses in the revolt. Hadrian changed the country’s name from Judaea to Syria Palestina, which is commonly interpreted as an attempt to complete the disassociation with Judaea. Hadrian made anti-religious decrees forbidding Torah study, Sabbath observance, circumcision, Jewish courts, meetings in synagogues and other ritual practices. Many sages were martyred including Rabbi Akiva and the rest of the Asara Harugei Malchut (ten martyrs).
A Jewish attempt to defeat the Romans and to bring the messianic era had failed. As prayer had replaced sacrifice, Torah, in the form of the Mishnah, had now replaced messianism.
In 1952 and 1960–61 a number of Bar Kokhba’s letters to his lieutenants were discovered in the Cave of Letters in the Judaean Desert near the Red Sea.
Even his name is an enigma. His last name was probably originally Bar Koseva, which is either his father’s name or the name of a Judaean settlement. It was likely changed to Bar Kokhba during the revolt, as a reference to a verse in the Bible referring to the Messiah as a star (kokhav). After his defeat at the final battle of Betar (which housed both the Sanhedrin Jewish High Court and the home of the Nasi, he was called a disgraceful name Ben Koziva or Bar Kozevah (false or liar).
The Bar-Kokhba Revolt