Part 1: Seeds of disaster
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).
-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 the next generation entered the Land of Israel.
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.
But the last three are still with us. 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 1,953 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.
Part 2: Sunset
Jewish independence in Israel began to decline when Queen Shlom-Tziyyon (Salome Alexander) of the Hasmonean Dynasty died in 67 B.C.E. She had ascended to the throne of Israel in 76 B.C.E., and 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 when she died her two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, both claimed the Israeli Throne.
The result was a civil war which raged for four years, in which some 20,000 Jews were killed.
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].
Eventually Hyrcanus forged an alliance with Rome; 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 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 Judæa (the terms Judæa 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 – though 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.
For a century there was 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 first major Jewish insurrection began on the fourth day of Pesach, 18th Nissan 48 C.E., under the rule of the third Roman 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.
Part 3: Fighting for independence
The next major Jewish revolt began in 66 – the revolt which led to the destruction of 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, 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 – and Judæa was ignited. Within days, the Jews of Jerusalem rose in such fury that they drove the Romans out, restoring full Jewish sovereign independence to the city.
The Kohen Gadol [High Priest] Elazar ben Chananiah immediately stopped the daily sacrifice for the Emperor in Rome, which was an open declaration of revolution against Rome.
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, who surrendered without even attempting to fight. He switched sides, began collaborating with the Romans against the Jews, and latinised his name to 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.
In 70, Titus employed a stratagem that was 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, and 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 soon 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.
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 than any other nation in the Empire.
An inspiring episode, indeed!
And even then, the Jews were not 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.
Part 4: Flash of light in the darkness
The military commander was Shimon Bar Kochba, and the spiritual leader was Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of all the Talmudic Sages. As an indication of how great Rabbi Akiva was, there is a principle that in any halakhic debate between Rabbi Akiva and any other singe authority, we invariably follow Rabbi Akiva’s ruling.
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. He began with two legions in 132, the Sixth and the Tenth; the Tenth Legion was the elite of the Roman Army – the Green Berets, the SAS, the Spetznaz, of Rome.
When these were unable to defeat the Jews, 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 entire 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, whose speciality was quashing local revolts, was destroyed; the IX (Hispana) Legion was so attritted that it never recovered its former power, never fought again, and was disbanded twenty-three years 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.
It was definitely not a defeat to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary: the Jews proved that they fought more fiercely, more determinedly, more courageously, more tenaciously than any other nation that Rome ever conquered and colonised.
It was a truly magnificent defeat.
Part 5: Towards dawn
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, the French Empire, Ottoman 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” .
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.
 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 Nazi Germany invade and defeat Britain. The confidential document with this quote is at http://filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/large/cab-65-13.pdf .