History Crash Course #38: Exile
No people had revolted more or caused the Romans greater manpower or material losses than the Jews. But they had done so at a great price to themselves as well.
The Roman historian Dio Cassius writes that over half a million Jews died in the fighting. Even if this figure is exaggerated, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Jews did die and the country was laid low.
The Jewish challenge to Rome that had begun in 66 CE had lasted almost 70 years. How such a comparatively small group could take on the might of Rome over and over again and for so long is hard to fathom. But perhaps the answer lies in the reason behind the conflict.
It was not so much a fight over territory or property, as it was a fight over the very way of life. Monotheism and the laws of the Torah were so deeply ingrained in the Jews that any attempt to separate the people from the essence of Judaism was seen as the death of the very soul of the nation.
The Jews found reserves in themselves beyond normal human boundaries, like a mother who is capable of superhuman feats of strength to defend the life of her child.
In the end the Jews were crushed. And the Romans did everything in their power to make sure that they would stay crushed. They wanted to make sure that no Jew was ever in a position to rally his brethren again.
Their solution: separate the Jews from their land.
As part of this policy of erasing the Jewish presence from Israel, Hadrian leveled Jerusalem and on top of the rubble rebuilt the pagan city he had planned, which he named Aelia Capitolina-Aelia in honor of his own name, Pulbius Aelius Hadrianus, and Capitolina in honor of the god Jupiter , whose temple was located on the Capitolene hill in Rome.
Through the heart of the city, he built a columned esplanade called the Cardo.
(Today, the excavated Cardo, albeit in its later 6th Century C.E. Byzantine form, stands in the Old City of Jerusalem as a reminder of that time.)
Whatever Jews remained in the area were strictly forbidden to enter Aelia Capitolina. The only day that Jews were permitted to enter the city was the 9th of Av, so that they could be reminded of their greatest disaster and weep over the ruins of the Temple, of which nothing remained, save some of the retaining walls surrounding the Temple Mount. (The Kotel — a section of the Western Wall that was dubbed the “Wailing Wall” — was the only piece of those retaining walls that Jews could access for hundreds of years. And this is where they came and wept and prayed.)
For the first time since King David made it Israel’s capital a thousand years earlier, Jerusalem was empty of Jews. It’s ironic that the first city in history to be made intentionally and completelyJuden rein, “Jew free,” (to borrow a term later used by the Nazis) was their very own Jerusalem.
But that was not all.
To further squelch any nationalistic feeling, Hadrian renamed the land Philistia (Palestine) after the Philistines, an extinct people who once occupied the Mediterranean coastal area and who were some of the bitterest enemies of the Jews described in the Bible.
This name survived in Christian writings, to be resurrected in 1917, after World War I, when the British took over the Middle East, having conquered the Ottoman Empire. They named the lands east and west of the Jordan River – including the country of Jordan which the British created in 1923 — the Palestine Mandate. It is from this time that the Arabs living in this area get the name Palestinians. (Of course, at that time the Jews living in the Palestine Mandate were called Palestinians too.)
The Roman plan sought not only to separate Jews from the land of Israel, it also sought to separate them from Judaism.
Writes historian Rabbi Berel Wein in his Echoes of Glory (p. 217):
“Their [Roman] plan was to eliminate the scholars and sages of Israel, who were, after all, the true leaders of the Jews, and to forbid the practice of Judaism, the lifeblood of Israel, thus guaranteeing the Jews’ demise as a counter-force to Roman culture and hegemony. The Sabbath, circumcision, public study and teaching of Torah, as well as observances of all Jewish ritual and customs, were forbidden.”
One of the great rabbis of the time who simply refused to abide by these decrees was Rabbi Akiva. Although many rabbis did likewise and were killed by the Romans for their acts of disobedience, Rabbi Akiva deserves special mention because of his stature in the Jewish world and the particular way he met his death.
It is fascinating to note that Rabbi Akiva did not even begin to study Torah until age 40. Until that time he had been an uneducated shepherd. But then he fell in love, and his beloved Rachel said she would marry him only if he studied Torah. At first he thought the task impossible, but then he saw a stone that had been hollowed out by dripping water. He said: “If water, which is soft, can hollow out a stone, which is hard, how much more would the words of the Torah, which are hard, be able to cut through and make an impression on my heart, which is soft.”
Thus he began his studies and in a short period of time was considered one of the wisest men of Israel. Students from all over flocked to learn from him, and at one point, he was reported to head a chain of schools totaling 24,000 students.
The Talmud abounds with stories about Rabbi Akiva. One of the most famous is the story of four great sages who entered pardes, the “orchard” — that is they engaged in mystical meditative techniques and ascended into realms of Divine consciousness. Of the four, three met terrible fates as a result of their mystical foray — one died, another went insane, and the third became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “entered in peace and emerged in peace.”See: Talmud: Ketubot 62b-63a; Nedarim 50a; Chagigah 15b-16a
A person like Rabbi Akiva, who lived on such a high spiritual level and who possessed an uncompromising dedication to Torah, could not be silenced by Roman decrees.
When the Romans learned that Rabbi Akiva was openly teaching Torah they decided to make a public example of his punishment.
They arrested him and probably took him to the hippodrome in Caesarea where on (or around) Yom Kippur in 136 CE, they staged a prolonged torture of the great sage. This horrible spectacle included having Rabbi Akiva’s skin flayed with iron combs.
Rabbi Akiva, along with many other great Rabbis, went to his death, sanctifying God’s name, with the words of the Shema on his lips: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”See Talmud: Brachot 61b. The account of the execution of- Rabbi Akiva’s spirit exemplified the spirit of the sages who against the greatest odds sought to keep Judaism alive. We shall see next how they succeeded.