The Incredible Mystery Surrounding Bar Kochba Coins From Ancient Second Temple Era

Twice in Jewish history, tyrants tried to abolish Torah observance and the Jews rose up in revolt. The first was the uprising of Matityahu and his sons, and the second was the Great Revolt of Bar Kochba.

Why did one rebellion culminate in triumph while the other spiraled into catastrophe?

What factors set them apart, leading to vastly divergent outcomes?

How did the Bar Kochba Revolt initially surge with remarkable success only to descend into a devastation arguably surpassing the Churban?

Let’s take a little detour from Kabbalah and learn some history. After all, history is simply a reflection of what is happening in the spiritual worlds and we can all learn a lot from it for our Avodat Hashem.

I realize there are no clear-cut answers and one simply cannot attribute one cause to any consequence. Nevertheless, there are many lessons to be found here.

And so, without further delay…

Bar Kochba’s Domain

The Bar Kochba Revolt erupted in response to Emperor Hadrian’s installation of an idol in Jerusalem and his prohibition of circumcision, Torah study, and Shabbat observance.

The renowned “Roman History” penned by the Roman senator Cassius Dio recounts events from a century prior to his time:

“In Jerusalem, Hadrian established a new city on the ruins of the old one, naming it Aelia Capitolina. On the former temple site, he erected a new temple dedicated to Jupiter. This sparked a significant and protracted conflict, as the Jewish populace found it intolerable for foreign cultures to settle in their city and foreign religious practices to take root. While Hadrian remained nearby, stationed in Egypt and later in Syria, the Jews remained relatively subdued, albeit intentionally producing subpar weapons for the Romans, hoping they would be rejected and thus made available for their own use. However, once Hadrian moved farther away, they openly rebelled.”

Probably not Bar Kochba, but still a very interesting painting

Cassius contends that initially, the Jews refrained from direct confrontation with the Roman army, instead employing guerrilla tactics:

“They did not dare engage the Romans openly on the battlefield. Instead, they seized strategic positions in the countryside, fortifying them with mines and walls to serve as refuges when under pressure. They also constructed underground passages, puncturing them intermittently to allow air and light. Initially, the Romans paid little heed to these actions. However, as unrest spread throughout Judea, with Jews displaying overt hostility through both covert and overt means, the situation escalated. Furthermore, various external groups joined the rebellion, motivated by potential gains, stirring up widespread attention and concern.”

Empowered to confront the Romans openly, the Jewish resistance achieved decisive victories in battle, culminating in the seizure of Jerusalem by 3892/132. Asserting their newfound autonomy, they initiated coin production for a span of two and a half years. Coins minted during the initial two years bear the inscription “1st” or “2nd year of the redemption of Israel (or Jerusalem),” while those from the third year are inscribed with “for the freedom of Jerusalem.” These coins have become so abundant that they are nowadays readily available on the market, fetching a few hundred or thousand dollars each (check here)

In contrast to the pre-Destruction era when Jews operated their own mint, these coins are predominantly repurposed Roman currency, modified with unique inscriptions. They commonly feature imagery associated with the Holy Temple, such as the Holy of Holies, musical instruments like lyres and trumpets, oil vessels, and palm trees with seven branches, likely symbolizing the Menorah. Another prevalent motif found on these coins is that of the arba minim from Sukkot.

The Yerushalmi (Taanis 4:5) recounts a debate regarding Bar Kochba’s Messianic status:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai relayed the teaching of Rabbi Akiva, my master, who interpreted, ‘A star shall come out of Jacob,’ to mean ‘a koziva [Bar Kochba’s name, Aramaic for star] shall come out of Jacob.’ Whenever Rabbi Akiva saw Bar Koziva, he proclaimed, ‘This is the Messiah, the king!’ Rabbi Yochanan ben Torsa retorted, ‘May grass sprout from your cheeks, yet the son of David may not [necessarily have] come.'”

As the Romans escalated their efforts, Bar Kochba’s military prospects dwindled. Rome, at the pinnacle of its power, deployed its most skilled generals against the rebellion. Foremost among them was Julius Severus, dispatched from Britain, where he held governorship, to quell the Jewish insurgency. Severus wisely avoided direct confrontations, instead employing tactics to isolate and weaken small groups of rebels through superior numbers and strategic maneuvering.

Through starvation and containment, albeit gradually and with relatively little risk, Severus managed to suppress, exhaust, and ultimately eradicate the resistance.

Why was Bar Kochba beaten?

Despite the Romans’ overwhelming military might, Bar Kochba’s victory could have been assured had Hashem sided with him, much like the Maccabees’ triumph over the Greeks. So why did divine support seem to vanish from this cause? Our sages seem to present two explanations.

In his “Laws of Kings,” the Rambam asserts: “Do not assume that the Messiah must perform miracles or introduce novelties to the world, or even raise the dead. This is not the case, as evidenced by Rabbi Akiva, a great sage of the Mishnah, who supported Bar Kochba, considering him the Messiah. Neither Rabbi Akiva nor his contemporaries demanded miraculous proof from Bar Kochba.” However, the Rambam lists stringent criteria in Halacha 4 that disqualify false messiahs throughout history.

The Raavad raises objections, citing an explicit Gemara (Sanhedrin 93b) that interprets Isaiah 11:3 to suggest that the Messiah will possess the ability to discern guilt through the fear of Hashem. The Gemara recounts an incident during Bar Kochba’s reign: “Bar Kochba ruled for two and a half years. Claiming to be the Messiah, he was challenged by the rabbis to demonstrate his ability to discern guilt. When he failed, they executed him.”

Yet, the Kesef Mishna references a Midrash (Eicha Rabba 2) with a divergent account: “During a siege of Beitar by Caesar Hadrian for three and a half years, Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i continuously prayed for divine intervention, pleading, ‘Master of the Universe, delay judgment today!’ Eventually, Hadrian retreated.” The Midrash recounts how a deceitful individual falsely accused Rabbi Elazar, leading to his execution by Bar Kochba. Subsequently, Bar Kochba’s sins brought about his downfall, culminating in the fall of Beitar and his own demise at the hands of the Romans.

What were these sins?

The Midrash suggests it was the presumption of self-sufficiency in warfare, as evidenced by their declaration: “Hashem need not assist us as long as He refrains from harming us.” This attitude, the Midrash implies, led to their ultimate defeat.

(sadly this is more or less what we see nowadays)

Thus, our sages provide two explanations for Bar Kochba’s defeat: either due to his false Messianic claim or the arrogance of his followers in relying solely on their own prowess in battle, forsaking divine assistance. This stark contrast in reliance on divine intervention may be why Al Hanissim prayer emphasizes Hashem’s role in the Chanukah victory, underscoring the fundamental difference between Chanukah’s triumph and Bar Kochba’s downfall.

Cassius Dio paints a grim picture of the aftermath, reporting widespread devastation: “Very few survived; fifty significant outposts and nine hundred eighty-five villages were razed. The death toll reached five hundred eighty thousand from raids, battles, famine, disease, and fire. Judea lay desolate, a fate foretold by the collapse of Solomon’s tomb, followed by the invasion of wolves and hyenas.”

The Doros Harishonim adds that the true calamity occurred not during the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem alone but in the complete devastation of Judea following this war. This catastrophe forced Jewish leaders and scholars to relocate to the Galilee, seeking refuge from Roman persecution.

Cassius Dio acknowledges Roman losses, demonstrating the severity of the conflict. Hadrian’s correspondence with the Senate, devoid of the customary pleasantries, reflects the toll exacted on both sides.

DALL·E 2024 01 23 19.55.13 A watercolor painting showcasing a different angle of a book on a Shtender in an ancient empty Yeshiva. This perspective provides a more detailed vie

A historical irony

The subsequent persecution under Hadrian’s rule persisted until his demise. Ironically, it halted with his death due to the unexpected ascent of a new emperor who held a markedly different stance toward the Jewish people. Cassius Dio recounts a pivotal moment shortly before Hadrian’s passing in 3898/138 when he convened the Roman senators to designate his successor:

“Reclining on his couch, he addressed them thus: ‘Nature denied me the gift of a son, but through your legislative action, you have made it possible… I have chosen my successor, Antoninus. Though he may seem disinclined to wield power and distant from worldly affairs, I trust he will not disregard the responsibility bestowed upon him.'”

Some historians speculate that this Antoninus is the same Roman Emperor who forged a friendship with Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi and, according to the Yerushalmi (Megilla 1), secretly embraced Judaism. However, discrepancies arise as Chazal recount a tale wherein Antoninus’ mother swapped him with Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi as an infant to save the latter from death following an illicit circumcision.

Given that Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi was born on the day Rabbi Akiva passed away in 135 CE, it seems implausible for Antoninus, who ascended to power three years later, to have been an infant at that time. It’s more probable that Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi’s confidant was the subsequent emperor, the renowned philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

This, too, carries historical irony, as Hadrian’s appointment of Antoninus Pius as the next emperor was contingent upon Antoninus adopting Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as his successor. Thus, in one way or another, Hadrian orchestrated a period of respite for the Jewish people posthumously, affording Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi the opportunity to compile the Oral Torah.

As noted by the Doros Harishonim, “Only the enduring nation whose essence is Torah, intertwined with its very being, could endure such trials, rise from the depths, and revive—to become once again a beacon among nations.”

Some Kabbalistic lessons

In delving into the complex historical narrative surrounding the Bar Kochba Revolt and its aftermath, one cannot help but see the clear connection between divine providence and human agency. While we have our Tikkun to make, we can never forget that it’s Hashem who’s behind everything. The rise and fall of Bar Kochba’s aspirations, the shifting tides of fortune for the Jewish people, and the subsequent rise of a more sympathetic ruler bear the hallmarks of a much greater picture than we see at first sight.

It’s only when we look at it entirely that we can better understand, much like how we can only properly understand Kabbalah by looking at all its parts first.

We learn in the Zohar about the eternal bond between the Jewish people and the Torah, portraying Torah as the lifeblood that sustains and rejuvenates the nation throughout its tumultuous history. Despite the devastation wrought by the Bar Kochba Revolt and its aftermath, the eventual emergence from despair into renewed vitality reflects a deeper spiritual truth—that even in the darkest of times, the divine light within the Jewish soul remains unextinguished. This happened with the later emergence of the sages of the Talmud.

May we be zoche to uphold our tradition that has endured the hardships of history, receive guidance and protection from Hashem, and witness the building of the Third Holy Temple soon in our days, amen.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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