For Shabbat Nachamu: After the Ninth of Av - A magnificent tragedy

The destruction of the 9th of Av was not the end. It was but the beginning of the night, awaiting the new dawn of redemption.

Daniel Pinner ,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Five disasters happened on the 9th of Av, says the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6).

It was the day, a year and four months after the Exodus, that G-d decreed that the generation which left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel, but would die in the desert as a consequence of the sin of the spies (Numbers 13:1-14:45).

Almost a thousand years later [1], in 586 B.C.E., it was the day that the Chaldeans (Babylonians) destroyed the First Holy Temple (2 Kings 25:8, Jeremiah 52:12).

In 70 C.E., it was the day that the Romans destroyed the Second Holy Temple.

In 135 C.E., it was the date that the Romans finally captured the city of Beitar, 10 km (6 miles) south-west of Jerusalem: this was the final fortress of the Bar Kochba Revolt, and its fall and capture was the final obliteration of Jewish independence.

And on the same day, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered that Jerusalem be ploughed under with salt, to guarantee that nothing would ever grow there again.

Let us elide the first two disasters: they’ve had their run, they’re finished. The generation which left Egypt lived out their lives in the desert, they died and were buried there, and their children entered the Land of Israel. The sin of the spies was over.

The First Temple was destroyed, the Jews were dragged into Babylonian exile, and 70 years later the next generation returned to Israel, rebuilt the Holy Temple, and eventually restored Jewish national independence and sovereignty to Israel.

The last three are still with us - how did they come about?

The Hasmonean Empire and its fall

We still live the consequences until today. Even though all are ultimately the consequences of the spies’ original sin, those last three influence us today far more directly.

Our Holy Temple, after 1,950 years, has still not been rebuilt, and the exile into which the Romans cast us still grips more than half the world’s Jews: our current exile is still called גָּלוּת רוֹמִי, the Roman Exile.

This is the time of year that we mourn our past losses and destructions – but it is also a time in history to recognise that we have begun to return to our Land, to see that dawn is beginning to break, the eastern horizon is already shining.

And so it is a time to look back on the disasters which Rome inflicted upon us in a new light, and to recognise the magnificence which those disasters concealed.

The year was 76 B.C.E., and Queen Sh’lom-Tziyyon (Salome Alexander) of the Hasmonean Dynasty ascended to the throne of Israel. She ruled Israel in accordance with Torah, the country was peaceful and prosperous, and G-d was showering His bounty on the Land.

But all good things come to an end, and her death in 67 B.C.E. was beginning of the end of Jewish independence in Israel. She left two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, both of whom claimed the Israeli Throne.

The result was a civil war which raged for four years, in which some 20,000 Jews were killed. But the majority of Jews were soon sickened by both sides, disillusioned with the monarchy and the Hasmonean Dynasty, and wanted to return to a genuine Torah-state, presided over by uncorrupted Kohanim (Priests).

Of these three sides, Hyrcanus forged an alliance with Rome. Subsequently Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) marched into Israel with some 50,000 troops, and defeated Aristobulus at the cost of some 12,000 Jewish lives. Jerusalem capitulated on Yom Kippur 3699 (63 B.C.E.), and Pompey installed Hyrcanus (who was after all a legitimate claimant to the Jewish throne) as King of Israel.

After four bloody and wearying years, the civil war was over at last.

But the price was horrendous: Hyrcanus was a vassal king, subservient to Rome, reigning over Israel at the point of Roman swords. And even though Judea (the terms Judea and Israel can be used interchangeably in this context) was nominally still a Jewish kingdom, it was in fact a province in the Roman Empire, with only limited local autonomy.

The inexorable descent into destruction had begun.

For a century, Judea continued as a vassal-state in the Roman Empire. This nominally Jewish kingdom was ruled by corrupt kings, some Jewish, some Roman, most of them a mixture of the two. Nevertheless, it would take the Romans some 200 years, and immense expenditure in blood and treasure, to vanquish Israel, defeat the Jews, and transform their ancestral homeland into an uncontested Roman province.

The Holy Temple still functioned, presided over by the Kohanim, who, too, were under Roman control, most of them Tzedukkim (Sadducees), corrupt heretics more beholden to their own privileges, wealth, and Roman patronage than to G-d, the Jewish Nation, and the sanctity of the Holy Temple in which they officiated.

Nevertheless, the Holy Temple functioned and Jewish life in Judea flourished.

Still, the country was not generally peaceful. Even during the reign of Hyrcanus (63 – 40 B.C.E.) there were foreign enemies, and a substantial proportion of the indigenous Jewish population of Israel (it is impossible to gauge just how many) were sufficiently disgruntled with the Roman-imposed monarchy for the threat of revolt to be ever-present.

From about 53 B.C.E. and for the next several years, Hyrcanus relied heavily on Cassius Longinus, the quaestor of Crassus, the undisputed Roman ruler of Syria, to lend his tough troops to keep the Judean population subjugated.

Rome was becoming increasingly unstable, Roman rule in Israel was weakening, and this only encouraged the revolutionary tendencies among the population, leading to periodic Roman persecution.

The last Hasmonean king was Matityahu, often known by his Roman name Antigonus (reigned 40-37 B.C.E.). His reign came to an abrupt and ignominious end when the Roman Governor of Syrian and Cilicia, General Gaius Sosius, in alliance with Herod, attacked Jerusalem, besieged the city, invaded and massacred the Jews therein, and deposed Matityahu.

Sosius arrested King Matityahu, took him to Antioch (in modern-day Turkey, near Antakya), and had him executed by beheading.

Herod, Agrippa, rebellion

The Hasmonean Dynasty was ended, Judea was a fully Roman province, and the subsequent king was Herod.

There was still an uneasy balance of terror, tyranny, and Jewish revanchist nationalism. For the most part, neither side dared assert their claims too vigorously, for fear of provoking too violent a response from the other side.

The final king of Judea was Agrippas (usually called Herod Agrippa in English), born in 11 or 10 B.C.E. His father was Aristobulus IV, son of Herod and Mariamne, and his mother was Berenice, daughter of Costobar the Edomite and Salome, sister of Herod.

Agrippas ascended the throne of Judea in 37 C.E. He was more Roman than Jewish by birth, by ancestry, by education, and by ideology. But upon becoming king of Judea he gave his Jewish side dominance, reigning as much as he could in accordance with Torah-law.

Commensurate with this, even though he had been appointed by Rome, he defied the Romans directly, defending and reinforcing the Jewish identity of Judea.

This made him wildly popular among the masses in Israel – and dangerously subversive to the Romans. However, the Romans didn’t dare depose him, for fear of provoking a mass Jewish revolt.

It was during Agrippas’ reign that the emperor Caligula, who frequently portrayed himself as a god, demanded that a statue of himself be erected in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, fearing the likely violent Jewish response to such an outrage, delayed implementing this decree.

Agrippas eventually persuaded Caligula how dangerous this could be, and had him repeal the decree.

But when Agrippa died in 44 C.E., the Romans abolished the Jewish monarchy entirely and instead appointed procurators to rule Judæa (the Latinised spelling).

Jewish insurrection began almost immediately, flaring up into revolt for the first time on the fourth day of Pesach, 18th Nissan 3808 (48 C.E.), under the rule of the third procurator, Ventidius Cumanus.

He had decreed that Roman soldiers be stationed in and around the Holy Temple whenever more than 6 Jews gathered there (which in practice meant almost constantly). And on this day, a Roman soldier decided to have a little sport.

As the Jews were worshipping, bringing the Festival Sacrifices, he turned his back on them, lifted his tunic, and “mooned” them, making the sort of noises through his lips that most of us grew out of by the time we were ten.

The Jews, outraged at this desecration, spontaneously attacked the Roman garrison. This swiftly escalated into a country-wide uprising, the first major Jewish revolt against Roman occupation – indescribably brave, but ultimately hopeless.

Josephus Flavius (Antiquities of the Jews, XX:5:3 and Wars of the Jews, II:12:3-7) estimates 20,000 Jews killed in the initial melee, while Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, Book 20 chapter 5) puts their number at 30,000.

This was only the beginning.

Two years later a Roman official, Stephanus, was attacked and robbed near Jerusalem, and the Romans inflicted reprisals on all the villages around. One of the soldiers found a Torah-scroll, and ripped it apart while berating the Jewish villagers.

This almost provoked another large-scale rebellion, which Ventidius Cumanus narrowly avoided by sentencing the soldier to death.

The Great Revolt - and Josephus Flavius

And so life in Judæa continued, punctured by frequent uprisings and mini-revolts, until the first major Jewish revolt in 66 C.E. – the revolt which led to the destruction of the Holy Temple.

Gessius Florus was appointed procurator in 64 C.E., and from the beginning was hostile to the Jews. After two years of mounting tensions, the final outrage which triggered the Great Revolt was Florus’ plundering the Treasury of the Holy Temple, demanding 17 talents, equal to the value of 1 metric ton (2,200 lbs) of gold.

Some Jews, with archetypal Jewish humour, went around Jerusalem with baskets collecting gifts for Florus, portraying him as a beggar in need of charity. This sarcasm is eminently understandable; but Florus, infuriated by this humiliation, sent a detachment of soldiers to plunder Jerusalem and wreak bloody vengeance upon the Jews there.

It was the 16th of Iyyar 66 C.E. – and Judæa was ignited, and it would take the Romans seven years to quench the raging inferno.

Within days, the Jews of Jerusalem rose in such fury that they drove the Romans out, restoring full Jewish sovereign independence to the city.

One of the first changes that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) Elazar ben Chananiah instituted was to stop the daily sacrifice for the Emperor in Rome; this was an open declaration of revolution against Rome.

And from there, the Jewish revolt spread rapidly.

All over the country, the Roman army was being defeated by Jewish forces – primarily the Kanna’im (the Zealots), commanded by Yochanan ben Levi from Gush Halav (the last town in the Galilee to hold out against the Romans), Shimon bar Giora, and Elazar ben Shimon (not to be confused with the Tanna Elazar bar Shimon, the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

Responsible for defending the Galilee was the 30-year-old Yosef Ben Matityahu. He chose Kfar Akko, 11 km (7 miles) north-east of Akko (Acre), as the centre of his resistance, built up fortifications there, and (with suitable modesty) renamed the town Yosef after himself.

(Today the town is called Yasif – an Arab corruption of Yosef – and is entirely Arab-inhabited.)

When the Romans attacked, his soldiers fought bravely. Yosef Ben Matityahu himself meekly surrendered, switched sides, betrayed his soldiers and fellow-commanders, and joined the Roman forces against his fellow-Jews.

He also Latinised his name, and is now universally known as Josephus Flavius.

In charge of defending Jerusalem were Yosef Ben Gurion (who was killed in action in 68) and the Kohen Gadol Chananiah.

Against them, surrounding and besieging Jerusalem, were four Roman legions – the Fifth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth to the west, and the Tenth on the Mount of Olives to the east. These legions were commanded by Titus, who nine years later would become Emperor of Rome, and his lieutenant, the renegade Jew Tiberius Julius Alexander.

This standoff lasted for four years, with Titus determined to break the stalemate and conquer Jerusalem.

Titus breaks the stalemate

In 70, Titus employed a stratagem that was quite likely suggested by the Jewish traitor Tiberius: he allowed Jewish pilgrims to enter Jerusalem unhindered to celebrate Pesach and bring their Paschal sacrifices, then sealed the exits. The overcrowding was untenable, the city’s infrastructure was unable to cater to such a swollen population, and food and water supplies were rapidly depleted.

Titus then sent the other renegade Jew and Roman sycophant, the historian Josephus Flavius, to negotiate a truce with the Jewish commanders. They rebuffed him, shooting him with an arrow and wounding him (no doubt one of the reasons that Josephus’ account of the war is so viciously biased against the Jewish defenders).

The Roman forces subsequently began closing in on Jerusalem, breaching the recently-built Third (outer) Wall about five weeks after Pesach, and the Second Wall a week later. They then attacked the First (innermost) Wall and the Antonia Fortress (on the north-west corner of the Temple Mount), and were repulsed by the Jewish defenders who successfully defended the heart of Jerusalem on 28th Iyyar (the same date that Israel would liberate Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation in the Six Day War.)

Titus regrouped his legions, built a siege wall, and launched a renewed attack some seven weeks later, breaching the First Wall and capturing the Antonia Fortress on the 17th of Tammuz.

And after three weeks of vicious, bloody fighting and desperate and heroic defence by Jewish forces, Titus’ Roman legions captured the rest of Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy Temple on the 9th of Av.

The Great Revolt was all but over. The Emperor Vespasian struck a series of coins imprinted “Judæa Capta‏”.


The sole remaining rebel holdout was Metzada (Masada) in the Judean Desert, 4 km (2 ½ miles) west of the Dead Sea.

The almost 1,000 men, women, and children besieged on the plateau atop of this mountain held out for another three years. After bringing in the crack Tenth Legion (of whom we will hear more) and several auxiliary units – some 9,000 warriors in all – and several thousand Jewish prisoner-slaves, the Romans finally defeated Metzada.

The Jews there avoided capture by committing mass suicide.

And in the year 81, the new Roman Emperor Domitian erected the Arch of Titus in Rome celebrating the Jews’ defeat.

But actually, even then, the Jews were not finally defeated. Minor conflicts and uprisings continued throughout the province of Judæa, until the last and greatest of them all, the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132.

The Bar Kochba Revolt

The military commander was Shimon Bar Kochba, and the spiritual leader was Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of all the Talmudic Sages.

They did something that no other nation in the history of the Roman Empire ever achieved: they revolted against Roman occupation, and kicked the European colonialist invaders out of their homeland.

For three years there was complete Jewish independence and sovereignty in Israel.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian, incensed and humiliated, brought his best general, Julius Severus, from Britannia to crush the Jewish rebellion. Beginning with just two legions in 132 (the Sixth and the Tenth, which was the elite of the Roman Army), he increased to 5 legions (80,000 soldiers) in 133, and eventually seven full legions, reinforced by cohorts of another 5 legions and 50 auxiliary units, in 134.

Seven full legions – when the entire Roman Imperial Army comprised just 28 legions! That is to say, more than one-fourth of the might of Rome, just to reconquer one single province of the Empire!

And the cost to Rome was almost unbearably high: the XXII (Deiotarana) Legion was destroyed; the IX (Hispana) Legion was so attritted that it never recovered its former power, never fought gain, and was disbanded a few decades later; and the crack X (Fretensis) Legion sustained heavier casualties than it had ever sustained in any previous battle, or would ever sustain again.

In 135, the Romans reconquered the entire country. The final stronghold of the Jewish rebels was Beitar, which the Romans captured on the 9th of Av, 65 years to the day after destroying the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The land of Israel

For the next 1,813 years, Israel would never see any independent state. It would pass from conqueror to conqueror, from empire to empire, from occupier to occupier. Countless other nations and cultures would attempt to settle in our Land, and all would fail.

No one else would ever succeed in establishing an independent state on Israeli soil. Many would try – Romans, Persian Sassanids, Arab Muslims, Egyptian Muslims, Mongols, European Christian Crusaders, Turks – and all would fail.

The country would remain bleak and inhospitable…until its native sons, the Children of Israel, would return to reclaim their ancestral heritage.

The great British wartime leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, once said: “Nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished” [2].

Israel went down fighting. And though Israel was defeated, it was a magnificent and inspiring defeat, a defeat which ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire.

And today, 2,000 years on, we, the Jewish Nation, are still here to commemorate our history; while the mighty empire which defeated us has long centuries since crumbled into the dust of history.

The destruction of the 9th of Av was not the end. It was but the beginning of the night, awaiting the new dawn of redemption.

And so Nachamu, nachamu ami - Be consoled, be consoled, My people (Isaiah 40)- is read the Shabbat after Tisha B'Av.


[1] Standard chronology dates the Babylonian conquest of Judea and destruction of the First Temple at 586 B.C.E. A surface reading of the Tanach dates it at 3338, or 422 B.C.E. This is not the place to attempt to resolve this 164-year discrepancy; only to note that it exists, and to note that there is no dispute over the sequence of events.

[2] Unlike so many Churchill quotations, this one is actually genuine. Churchill said this in a Cabinet meeting on 28th May 1940, when Nazi Germany had already vanquished Holland and Belgium, France was on the brink of surrender, Britain was fighting alone, and there was immense pressure on Churchill to capitulate to Germany and abandon the fight lest Germany win. The confidential document with this quote is at .