The Mystery of Lag B'Omer and the Stiff Necked People
By Larry Domnitch
It is presumed that much of the theme of Lag BaOmer centers on the Bar Kochba revolt, (132-135 ACE) since the events of Lag BaOmer appear to coincide with that era. Rabbi Akiva, the pre-eminent rabbinic leader of that generation supported the revolt. He went so far as to proclaim that Bar Kochba's military prowess was so awesome that he had possessed the qualifications of being the messiah. His students, twenty-four thousand in total, took part in the revolt. The Talmud states that on the thirty third day of the Omer (between Passover and Shavuot), a plague that had taken thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students had ceased. The Talmud states that they were smitten by a plague because they did not accord each other proper respect. (Yevamot 62b)
So much about Lag BaOmer and the BarKochba revolt itself is left to speculation. It is a time shrouded in mystery since there is an absence of any detailed accounts. What was the nature of the plague that struck Rabbi Akiva's students? Could it have been a disease, or defeat in battle? An eighth century Rabbinic Sage, Shrira Goan, called it a "Shmada" implying a 'destruction' of some kind. Perhaps it was the massive casualties suffered by Rabbi Akiva's students in the latter days of the revolt as the Romans were vanquishing Judea?
Questions about the Bar Kochba revolt also abound. Why did the Jews, after suffering two devastating losses to Rome within the past sixty years rise up once again? During each revolt, multitudes of Jews perhaps millions were massacred. The consequences of armed revolt were no mystery to the Jews. Clearly, Rabbi Akiva's proclamation had some impact but stillthe questions remain.
In 118 ACE. Hadrian succeeded Trajan as emperor of Rome. Unlike his predecessor, who was a brutal antagonist of the Jews, Hadrian initially appeared to display a leniency towards the people of Judea, yet there was an inherit danger of a leader who was a devout Hellenist. In time he might seek to force Hellenistic ideals and values upon the Jews. Would he, as Antiochus Epiphanies two hundred and fifty years earlier, outlaw Jewish practices in Judea and provoke confrontation? Indeed, over time it seems he too became the Jews bitter antagonist.
The Roman historian Dio Cassius states that Hadrian had transformed Jerusalem into a pagan colony renaming it 'Aelia Capitalina'. An act that would no doubt affront the Judeans. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 64) similarly states that Hadrian had reneged upon an earlier promise to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Another possible cause for the revolt was stated in Historia Augusta by its anonymous author that at the time, the Jews were forbidden to practice circumcision. While Hadrian had already announced a ban on circumcision throughout the empire, he was no doubt aware of the implication of such a ban upon the Jews as well.
It is conceivable that the Jews of Judea again stood up to the mighty Roman Empire because Hadrian's policies had threatened the very life of the Jewish community of Judea, and they saw no other alternative.
There seem to have been initial victories by Bar Kochba. Heavy losses were inflicted upon Roman forces; its best legions under Julius Severus had to be sent from Britain to Judea. Talmudic and Roman sources allude to the fact that Bar Kochba had initially taken back Jerusalem. Furthermore, there is a coin minted by Bar Kochba over the course of the first 2 years of the revolt at the time that read, "For the freedom of Jerusalem."
It also seems that remarkable victories eventually became tragic defeats as Dio Cassius records that Severus laid siege to town after town in Judea cutting off supplies. Entire communities were wiped out by famine as a result. Dio Cassius also records that 580,000 Jewish men were lost in the fighting. Judea was vanquished.
Since it was disrespect for one another that caused the demise of Rabbi Akiva's students, no doubt they should have learned the lessons from the prior era of the destruction of the Second Temple. Why was the Temple destroyed? The Talmud asks, and answers that it was because of hatred between Jews; slander, dissention, and infighting. Events such as Kamtza Bar Kamtza mentioned in the Talmud, who spread false reports about his Jewish brethren to the Romans out of personal affront, or the burning of store houses by Zealots during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Even the original entry into Jerusalem in 63BCE by the Roman General Pompey was the result internal dispute by the last remaining Hasmonean rulers, Hykanus and Aristobolous-descendants of the original Maccabees. Rabbi Akiva's students were certainly well aware of this.
Yet they stubbornly engaged in the same destructive practices. Even the revolt's heroic leader was not only guilty of these charges but of murder as well. The Midrash speaks of Bar Kochba who killed his uncle, the sainted sage, Rabbi Eliezer of Modiin for mistakenly suspecting him of discussing surrender with the Romans.
It was that stiff necked characterization of the Jews; the persistence to maintain bad habits that lead to destruction. Yet, it is this trait of stubbornness that is also the secret to the Jews survival. Other nations would have waned under intimidation of Hadrian. But the Jews would not be crushed. They were determined at any cost to fight for their survival as Jews.
If Hadrian sought to create a pagan Roman colony in Judea, the Jews would spare no qualms in their fierce attempts to preserve their heritage. Inherit in their flaws, was also the source of their strength. Hence, the cessation of the plague, as well as its' inherit message that the Jews may suffer terrible defeats but they will go on. In its mystery, the message of Lag BaOmer is clear.
In Lag BaOmer, we see defeat and victory. On Chanukah the miraculous oil which burned for eight days, served notice to G-d's supervision over the miraculous events of that time. On Lag BaOmer, the cessation of a plague served as proof that despite the Bar Kochba wars' bitter consequences, ultimately, the most formidable powers on Earth might wither over time, but Jewish fortitude will survive and prevail.
Larry Domnitch is the author of, "The Cantonists; The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar", recently released by Devora Publishing.
from the May 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine