By Larry Fine
When Israelis hear the word "Beitar" they think of one of two things: soccer and a city near Bethlehem. To secular Israelis, Beitar is the name of a popular soccer team; to religious Israelis, Beitar is the name of a modern city populated with religious Jews. Across the road from modern Beitar sits the Arab town of Batir, which according to some opinions is the real site of the ancient Beitar.
Ancient Beitar was a city that was destroyed fifty-two years after the destruction of Jerusalem. It was a fortress-city located southwest of Jerusalem and was captured and destroyed by the Roman General Severus after a difficult two and a half year siege.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. the cruel and tyrannical emperor Hadrian began a tough policy of persecution of the Jews. He built a city, Aelia, on the site of Jerusalem, forbade circumcision, and other major fundamental concepts required by the Torah. In addition, he embarked on a Hellenization process hoping to bring the Jews in line with the Roman Empire and its values.
Shimon bar Koziba was a great military mind and leader and was able to raise the faith in the downtrodden Jewish masses that they could regain once more control over the land of Israel. Rabbi Akiba called him bar Kochba, meaning 'the star'. He was imbued with belief in a divine mission to redeem his people from the Roman overlords. He used guerilla tactics to fight the Romans and met with much success. Although the Jewish followers of bar Kochba were not as well trained as the Romans, they possessed a strong motivation to retake control of their land and of their lives. Amazingly bar Kochba and his men were able to triumph over the cruel governor of the Judean province, Tinius Rufus and recapture the fallen Jerusalem.
Pagan temples and buildings were quickly razed and an altar to the Jewish G-d was quickly built to give thanks to G-d for his divine help. At this time all of the Jews rallied around bar Kochba. The Roman emperor realized that something had to be done to stop the open revolt from spreading. He called on his best general, Gaius Julius Severus from Britain, who together with a trained army of 35,000 men came to Israel to crush the rebellion.
Bar Kochba was too shrewd to meet Severus and his seasoned troops head on in open battle. The Romans desired this type of battle since they had a superior army in all respects. Instead bar Kochba hid and planned surprise attacks, with small engagements and tried to exhaust the Roman army.
This war was so important to the Romans that Emperor Hadrian came from Rome to supervise his troops. After many months of difficult and bitter fighting, Jerusalem was retaken. The Romans renamed the city Aelia Capitolina and refortified it. In the meantime, bar Kochba and his men fortified themselves in Beitar, a strong fortress built on the top of a rock mountain. The Jews had built subterranean passages which connected the city with the outside world. The Jews were able to bring sufficient food into the city from these tunnels to hold out against the siege of the Romans. Each time they tried to take the city, they were beaten off by bar Kochba and his followers. Severus tried to draw bar Kochba into the open but could not.
Legend tells us that at this time when Severus was contemplating withdrawal a Samaritan presented him with a plan. He knew that inside Beitar was the holy Rabbi Elazar HaModai who had been fasting since the siege of Beitar began and praying for divine help for all of the Jews. It was considered that in the merit of this holy Rabbi that bar Kochba and his men enjoyed their success. This Samaritan came to Rabbi Elazar, stood behind him and pretended to whisper something in his ear. When word spread that Rabbi Elazar had conversed with a Samaritan whose reputation as a hater of Israel was well known, Shimon bar Kochba became furious and demanded of Rabbi Elazar to know what was said. Rabbi Elazar HaModai denied a conversation since he was unaware of the Samaritan standing behind him while he was deeply involved in his prayers. Bar Kochba became so angry with him that he hit the elderly sage. Rabbi Elazar HaModai who was in a weakened state after so many days of fasting died.
From this point onwards, everything went wrong with the city of Beitar. The Romans stormed the city and successfully breached the walls. They overwhelmed the city and killed tens of thousands of Jews who hid in the fortified city. Tradition tells us that it was on the Ninth of Av, Tisha B'av, when the city fell and all inside were killed.
Thus ended the Jewish revolt against the Romans and began the great exile of nearly two thousand years from which we are just beginning to emerge.
from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine