Zionism - Israeli Flag

Zionism and Israel - Encyclopedic Dictionary

Bar Kochba (Bar Kokhba) Definition

Zionism maps history biography definitions about issues Anti-Semitism inside Prisons books Kosher Jobs links contact


Bar Kochba - (Aramaic - "Son of a Star;' pronounced Bahr' Kokhbah'  ) Leader of the Jewish revolt in 132 AD against the Roman empire, whose real name may have been Shimon Bar Kosibah. The name Bar Kokhba, "Son of a Star," was given to him apparently in accordance with Num. 24:17 ("A star shall go forth from Jacob"), taken to refer to the messiah.  His story is one of glory and martyrdom, comparable to that of the Maccabees. Had the revolt succeeded, there is no doubt that he would have been revered as a great Jewish national hero.

Since the destruction of the temple, and the end of the first Jewish revolt in 73 CE, the Jews had attempted to accommodate themselves to Roman rule. However, bad government and attempts to curtail Jewish religious practices let to several revolts, including one in 115-117, which was apparently part of a general rising of Jews that occurred in several parts of the Roman Empire. Though that rebellion was put down, unrest continued and Hadrian, now emperor in place of Trajan, appointed Tinneius Rufus as governor. Rufus ruled roughly apparently, indulging in sexual and other abuses. Jewish guerilla forces were organized and came to be lead by "Bar Kochba" - apparently the pseudonym of Simon Bar Kosiba. The precipitating factor in the revolt was probably the prohibition of ritual circumcision by Hadrian (At this time, the Jews started a war because they were forbidden to mutilate their genitals. [Historia Augusta, Hadrian 14.2] ") . Hadrian  apparently had a homosexual relationship with a youth, Antinous, whom he adored. Antinous was drowned  when accompanying the emperor on a boating trip in the Nile, about 130. Hadrian deified him and erected statues to him all over the Empire. He considered circumcision to be mutilation. He also began to  build a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus. in place of the Jewish temple.

Notwithstanding the hopelessness of their cause, the Jews continued to organize guerilla forces and gather arms. They met in underground caverns, one of which can be seen in modern Beit Guvrin. These formations either had natural ventilation, or were pierced by small holes at the top. When Hadrian left the area in 132, the Jews revolted.  Apparently the building of the pagan temple had caused the tomb of Solomon to collapse, and this may have ignited the rebellion.

Bar Kokhba achieved considerable success at first. Rabbi Aqiva, the head of the Yeshiva at Yavne, is said to have declared that the successful Jewish commander was the Messiah. Rabbi Gershom and rabbi Aha and perhaps others agreed. Others remained skeptical. It is not at all clear that Bar Kokhba himself had any pretensions to be the Messiah. His attitude to religion is shown by the saying attributed to him, that while he did not ask for the help of God, he asked God to not stand in his way. His letters to subordinates and to potential allies survive. They show a matter-of-fact commander who was engaged in the business of organization. If he thought he was a Messiah, he wasn't telling anyone about it.

Bar Kochba Silver Shekel (or Denarius) -
The High Priest Elazar

The guerilla warfare won over the countryside, and perhaps the Jews controlled Jerusalem and they may have appointed a high priest. Bar Kokhba issued coins stamped "Year 1 of the Freedom of Jerusalem"," Year 2 of the Freedom of Jerusalem," (also "Freedom of Israel) but in Year 3, the coins were stamped "for the Freedom of Jerusalem."

Hadrian transferred Julius Severus, governor of Britain, to deal with the revolt. He also sent  Hadrianus Quintus Lollius Urbicus, former governor of Germany.  Three legions, parts of other legions (a legion consisted of about 5,000 men plus foreign "auxiliaries" often in the same number, who provided horsemen and bowmen, plus slaves and camp followers)  and several auxiliaries were brought into the fight. The legions were VI Ferrata,  X Fretensis and XXII Deiotariana. XXII Deiotariana was apparently annihilated, caught in a valley, perhaps near Beit Guvrin. It was replaced by other reinforcements,  including II Traiana Fortis. Eventually most of the guerilla forces were rounded up and made a last stand in Betar, near Jerusalem where they were besieged. Bar Kochba and most of the remaining defenders died of starvation some time in 136, traditionally on the 9th day of Av (August), a date that coincides with the destruction of the temple. Fighting continued even after the surrender of Betar. The revolt was a significant military struggle for the Romans. Hadrian, in writing to the Senate, omitted the usual greeting, "If you and your children are well, it is well; I and the legions are well."

The Bar Kokhba revolt was crushed ferociously. Jewish sources report people burned alive wrapped in Torah scrolls, and other tortured with "combs" Cassius Dio, writing a century later, reported that over 580,000 people were killed, possibly a gross exaggeration. Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem and large numbers of Jews were certainly killed or deported and enslaved. Archeologists have found mass graves at several locations. The Romans systematically desecrated every Jewish and Christian holy place in Jerusalem, erecting a pig, symbol of the Tenth legion, but an abomination to Jews, on the Temple mount.

The revolt, in the tradition of the Maccabees, was foredoomed. The Roman Empire was still near the zenith of its power. Hadrian's reign was untroubled by the chaos, poor administration and mediocre generalship that is described so well by Gibbon for later stages of the empire. A hundred years later, this revolt might have met with success.

From the discussion of Bar Kokhba in Talmudic literature, it is evident that he never had the support of all factions of the religious establishment. From his letters, found near the Dead Sea in 1960, it  seems probable that the revolt did not have unanimous support in the Galilee or from Christians. From the mode of battle and the fact that the troops could meet in relatively small underground caves, we can judge that numbers actually engaged in fighting revolt were probably small. It seems to have been confined mostly to a relatively small area in Judea. In Gaul, Caesar's legions had been known to wipe out hosts ten times as numerous as themselves in open battle. It is unlikely that this was the case in guerilla warfare.

The crushing of the revolt however, was not the end of the Jewish presence in Palestine by any means, nor the end of Jewish willingness to fight for freedom. Hadrian died in 138 and Antoninus Pious restored the rights of the Jews in large part, though these were apparently abridged again from the time of constantine.  Jews continued to live in what was now called "Palestine" and to enjoy a degree of autonomy at times, as under Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi. Jews were willing allies of the Sassanid Persians when they conquered Palestine briefly.

In a superstitious age, the failure of the  Bar Kokhba revolt was treated as an omen. Christian writers insisted that it was the punishment of Jews by God for crucifixion of Jesus. Later, St Eusebius insisted that God would prevent the rebuilding of Jerusalem by the Jews. Christians buttressed this doctrine with supposedly prodigies that occurred when the Jews attempted to rebuild the temple under the Emperor Julian (called "the apostate").

However, the Jews were the harshest critics of Bar Kokhba. A perhaps dubious tradition claimed that Bar Kochba had false Messianic pretensions, and insisted that the failure of Bar Kochba indicated the futility of Jewish self defense in general.  In support of this, his name or pseudonym was cited. It may be an allusion to a biblical phrase that hints at the coming of the Messiah. Moreover, he called himself "Nasi." it was claimed that "Nasi" is a reference to the Messiah, but in fact, "Nasi" is a title that was used to mean "head" - equivalent to "director." The head of a Yeshiva was called "Nasi" and the head of the Jewish community in Palestine was called "Nasi." He could scarcely have called himself anything else.

Below is the section of the History of Cassius Dio, written about 100 years later, concerning the revolt of Bar Kochba.

Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.12.1-14.3

At Jerusalem, Hadrian founded a city in place of the one that had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god, he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there. So long, indeed, as Hadrian was close by in Egypt and again in Syria, they remained quiet, save in so far as they purposely made of poor quality such weapons as they were called upon to furnish, in order that the Romans might reject them and they themselves might thus have the use of them. But when Hadrian went farther away, they openly revolted.

Indeed, they did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls,  that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light.

At first, the Romans took no account of them. Soon, however, all Judea had been stirred up, and the Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance, were gathering together, and giving evidence of great hostility to the Romans, partly by secret acts and partly by overt acts. Many outside nations, too, were joining them through eagerness for gain, and the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred up over the matter.

Then, indeed, Hadrian sent against them his best generals. First of these was Julius Severus, who was dispatched from Britain, where he was governor, against the Jews. Severus did not venture to attack his opponents in the open at any one point, in view of their numbers and their desperation, but by intercepting small groups, thanks to the number of his soldiers and his under-officers. By depriving them of food and shutting them up, he was able -rather slowly, to be sure, but with comparatively little danger- to crush, exhaust and exterminate them.

Very few of them in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out.

Thus nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities.

Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war. Therefore Hadrian, in writing to the Senate, did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors, 'If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the legions are in health.

Synonyms and alternate spellings:  Bar Kochba, Bar Kokhba, Bar Kosiba

Further Information:

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

Definitions of Zionism  General History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel   History of Israel and Zionism   Historical Source Documents of Israel and Zionism

Back to main page: https://zionism-israel.com Zionism and Israel Information Center

This site is a part of the Zionism and Israel on the Web Project


This work and individual entries are copyright 2005-6 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

ZioNation - Zionism-Israel Web Log    Zionism & Israel News  Israel: like this, as if Bible Bible Quotes History of Zionism Zionism FAQ Zionism Israel Center Maps of Israel Jew Israel Advocacy  Zionism and its Impact Israel Christian Zionism