Model of Temple Mount
Model of Temple MountiStock

As these columns recently reported, the United Arab List has threatened to quit the Government if Jews are still allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.

To give them their due, they are faithfully representing their constituency who elected them to the Knesset, the Islamic Movement, allied with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The timing is significant:

It was on the day they said this, the fourth day of Pesach, 18th Nissan in the year 3808 (48 C.E.), that the first major Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation of Israel began. And it was sparked directly by Roman interference with Jewish prayer in the Holy Temple.

The last king of Judea was Agrippas, who had ascended the throne of Judea in 37 C.E. Judea was nominally a Jewish kingdom, but was actually a vassal-state completely subservient to Rome, and had been for a century past.

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

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

The third procurator, Ventidius Cumanus, 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 fourth day of Pesach, 1,974 years ago today, 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.

And so life in Judæa continued, punctured by frequent uprisings and mini-revolts, until the first major Jewish revolt in 3826 (66 C.E.) And that revolt, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Holy Temple, was also triggered by events which began in the Holy Temple.

Gessius Florus had been 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 a month after Pesach, on the 16th of Iyyar, 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.

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 (usually called John Gischala in English), Shimon bar Giora, and Elazar ben Shimon (not to be confused with the Tanna Elazar bar Shimon, the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

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.

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 another 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 (1,897 years to the day before Israel liberated 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 (2½ miles) west of the Dead Sea, whose defenders would hold out for another 3 years.

It had taken the entire might of the Roman Empire seven years to defeat the Jews. Defending their ancestral Land, the Jews fought more tenaciously for their sovereign independence than any other nation in the Empire.

Such is our national history in our Land.

Today, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett faces a terribly difficult decision, beginning – like those great Jewish revolts against Rome all those centuries ago – with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The next several days will tell us whether or not he is able to meet the standards which Jewish history and Jewish destiny demand of a leader in Israel.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.