Jerusalem Talmud Ta’anit 4:6 (68d-69a): Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba
The Jerusalem Talmud gives evidence of the inner Rabbinic debate over the messianic status of Bar Kokhba. Unable to understand his defeat after the initial success of the rebellion, the Rabbis attributed it to the killing of Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin. The passage also indicates the terrible death and destruction that the revolt brought in its wake.
Rabbi Yohanan said, “At Hadrian’s command, they killed 800,000 in Betar….”
Hadrian besieged Betar for three and a half years. 147 Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin used to sit on sackcloth and ashes and pray every day, saying, “Master of the Universe! Do not sit in judgment today, do not sit in judgment today.” 148
Hadrian wanted to go to him. 149 One Samaritan said to him, “Do not go, for I will go and see what can be done to deliver the city to you.”
[The Samaritan] went through the city’s drain pipe. He went and found Rabbi Eleazer of Modiin standing and praying. He pretended to whisper in his ear. The people of the city saw him and brought him to Ben Koziba. They said to [Ben Koziba], “We saw this old man conversing with your uncle.” 150
[Ben Koziba] said to [the Samaritan], “What did you say to him, and what did he [Rabbi Eleazer of Modiin] say to you?”
He said to him, “If I tell you, the king will kill me, and if I do not tell you, you will kill me. I prefer that the king should kill me, and not you.” [The Samaritan continued and] said to him, “He [Rabbi Eleazer of Modiin] said to me, ‘I will surrender the city.’’’
[Ben Koziba] went to Rabbi Eleazer of Modiin, [and] said to him,
“What did that Samaritan tell you?”
[Rabbi Eleazer] said to him, “Nothing.”
[Ben Koziba] said, “What did you say to [the Samaritan]?”
[Rabbi Eleazer] said to him, “Nothing.”
[Bar Koziba] gave [Rabbi Eleazer] one kick and he killed him. Immediately, a heavenly voice went forth saying: “‘Woe to the worthless shepherd who abandons his flock! Let a sword descend upon his arm and his right eye. His arm will wither and his right eye will be blinded’ (Zech. 11:17). You have killed Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin, the arm of Israel and their right eye. Thus, your arm will wither, and your right eye will be blinded.” Immediately, Betar was captured and Ben Koziba was killed.
They brought his head to Hadrian. [Hadrian] said, “Who killed him?”
One Samaritan said to him, “I killed him.”
[Hadrian] said, “Show me his corpse.”
He looked at the corpse and found a serpent coiled around it.
[Hadrian] said, “If God had not killed him, who would have been able to kill him?” He applied to him the verse, “Unless their Rock had sold them, and God had given them over” (Deut. 32:30).
The [Romans] went on killing [Jews] until a horse was sunk in blood up to its nose. And the blood was turning over forty-se’ah boulders, until the blood flowed forty Roman miles into the sea….
They said that the brains of 300 children were found on one rock.
They found 300 baskets of tefillin each of nine se’ahs. And some say nine baskets, each weighing three se’ahs.
It was taught: Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel says, “[There were] 500 schools in Betar and the smallest of them had no fewer than 500 children. [The children] used to say, ‘If the enemy comes upon us, we will go out against them with our quills and poke out their eyes.’ And as a result of the sins [of Israel, the Romans] wrapped each one in his book, and they burned them. From all of them none remained but me.” He applied to himself the verse, “My eyes have caused me grief from all the daughters of my city” (Lam. 3:51). The evil Hadrian had a large vineyard, eighteen Roman miles by eighteen Roman miles, the dimension of the distance from Tiberias to Sepphoris. They surrounded it with a wall made of the victims of Betar as high as a man and his extended arms. And he did not decree that they may be buried until a different king arose and decreed that they might be buried.
147. Betar was the last rebel stronghold to resist Roman conquest.
148. For if God sat in judgment, the Romans would be victorious and Betar would be destroyed.
149. To Rabbi Eleazar to stop him from praying to prevent the destruction of Betar.
150. Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin was Bar Kokhba’s uncle.