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History Crash Course #38: Exile

History Crash Course #38: Exile

The Romans sought to extinguish Jewish presence in Jerusalem by renaming Israel to Palestine.


No people had revolted more or caused the Romans greater manpower or material losses than the Jews. But they had done so at a great price to themselves as well.

The Roman historian Dio Cassius writes that over half a million Jews died in the fighting. Even if this figure is exaggerated, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Jews did die and the country was laid low.

The Jewish challenge to Rome that had begun in 66 CE had lasted almost 70 years. How such a comparatively small group could take on the might of Rome over and over again and for so long is hard to fathom. But perhaps the answer lies in the reason behind the conflict.

It was not so much a fight over territory or property, as it was a fight over the very way of life. Monotheism and the laws of the Torah were so deeply ingrained in the Jews that any attempt to separate the people from the essence of Judaism was seen as the death of the very soul of the nation.

The Jews found reserves in themselves beyond normal human boundaries, like a mother who is capable of superhuman feats of strength to defend the life of her child.

In the end the Jews were crushed. And the Romans did everything in their power to make sure that they would stay crushed. They wanted to make sure that no Jew was ever in a position to rally his brethren again.

Their solution: separate the Jews from their land.


As part of this policy of erasing the Jewish presence from Israel, Hadrian leveled Jerusalem and on top of the rubble rebuilt the pagan city he had planned, which he named Aelia Capitolina-Aelia in honor of his own name, Pulbius Aelius Hadrianus, and Capitolina in honor of the god Jupiter , whose temple was located on the Capitolene hill in Rome.

Through the heart of the city, he built a columned esplanade called the Cardo.

(Today, the excavated Cardo, albeit in its later 6th Century C.E. Byzantine form, stands in the Old City of Jerusalem as a reminder of that time.)

Whatever Jews remained in the area were strictly forbidden to enter Aelia Capitolina. The only day that Jews were permitted to enter the city was the 9th of Av, so that they could be reminded of their greatest disaster and weep over the ruins of the Temple, of which nothing remained, save some of the retaining walls surrounding the Temple Mount. (The Kotel -- a section of the Western Wall that was dubbed the "Wailing Wall" -- was the only piece of those retaining walls that Jews could access for hundreds of years. And this is where they came and wept and prayed.)

For the first time since King David made it Israel's capital a thousand years earlier, Jerusalem was empty of Jews. It's ironic that the first city in history to be made intentionally and completely Juden rein, "Jew free," (to borrow a term later used by the Nazis) was their very own Jerusalem.

But that was not all.

To further squelch any nationalistic feeling, Hadrian renamed the land Philistia (Palestine) after the Philistines, an extinct people who once occupied the Mediterranean coastal area and who were some of the bitterest enemies of the Jews described in the Bible.

This name survived in Christian writings, to be resurrected in 1917, after World War I, when the British took over the Middle East, having conquered the Ottoman Empire. They named the lands east and west of the Jordan River - including the country of Jordan which the British created in 1923 -- the Palestine Mandate. It is from this time that the Arabs living in this area get the name Palestinians. (Of course, at that time the Jews living in the Palestine Mandate were called Palestinians too.)


The Roman plan sought not only to separate Jews from the land of Israel, it also sought to separate them from Judaism.

Writes historian Rabbi Berel Wein in his Echoes of Glory (p. 217):

"Their [Roman] plan was to eliminate the scholars and sages of Israel, who were, after all, the true leaders of the Jews, and to forbid the practice of Judaism, the lifeblood of Israel, thus guaranteeing the Jews' demise as a counter-force to Roman culture and hegemony. The Sabbath, circumcision, public study and teaching of Torah, as well as observances of all Jewish ritual and customs, were forbidden."

One of the great rabbis of the time who simply refused to abide by these decrees was Rabbi Akiva. Although many rabbis did likewise and were killed by the Romans for their acts of disobedience, Rabbi Akiva deserves special mention because of his stature in the Jewish world and the particular way he met his death.

It is fascinating to note that Rabbi Akiva did not even begin to study Torah until age 40. Until that time he had been an uneducated shepherd. But then he fell in love, and his beloved Rachel said she would marry him only if he studied Torah. At first he thought the task impossible, but then he saw a stone that had been hollowed out by dripping water. He said: "If water, which is soft, can hollow out a stone, which is hard, how much more would the words of the Torah, which are hard, be able to cut through and make an impression on my heart, which is soft."

Thus he began his studies and in a short period of time was considered one of the wisest men of Israel. Students from all over flocked to learn from him, and at one point, he was reported to head a chain of schools totaling 24,000 students.

The Talmud abounds with stories about Rabbi Akiva. One of the most famous is the story of four great sages who entered pardes, the "orchard" -- that is they engaged in mystical meditative techniques and ascended into realms of Divine consciousness. Of the four, three met terrible fates as a result of their mystical foray -- one died, another went insane, and the third became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva "entered in peace and emerged in peace."(1)

A person like Rabbi Akiva, who lived on such a high spiritual level and who possessed an uncompromising dedication to Torah, could not be silenced by Roman decrees.

When the Romans learned that Rabbi Akiva was openly teaching Torah they decided to make a public example of his punishment.

They arrested him and probably took him to the hippodrome in Caesarea where on (or around) Yom Kippur in 136 CE, they staged a prolonged torture of the great sage. This horrible spectacle included having Rabbi Akiva's skin flayed with iron combs.

Rabbi Akiva, along with many other great Rabbis, went to his death, sanctifying God's name, with the words of the Shema on his lips: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."(2) Rabbi Akiva's spirit exemplified the spirit of the sages who against the greatest odds sought to keep Judaism alive. We shall see next how they succeeded.

1) See: Talmud: Ketubot 62b-63a; Nedarim 50a; Chagigah 15b-16a
2)See Talmud: Brachot 61b. The account of the execution of-

August 18, 2007

Article 38 of 68 in the series Jewish History

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Thomas Sebastian, August 27, 2007 5:49 AM

A Big Thank You

Dear Respected Rabbi
Although I have already commented on this article let me suppliment it with a few more thoughts Jewish struggle rather fight evince the truth that ideas or one may call it spritual reality exist Strangely any such ideas have their existance only in living them in lives and Jews have proved it the existance of supernatural in their very existance That is why I continue to say that the world is safe because of some
good Jews and Muslims

(10) Grace, August 20, 2007 8:50 AM

Torah learning

Never can Jews give up the study of Torah. Rabbi Akiva's spirit cannot be denied. The core of our thought and practice is in Torah, which came as a gift for all of humanity.We owe much to all the leaders from the past who share the gift to all who wish to learn.Thank you, Rabbi Spiro for these slear and inspiring lessons.

(9) Menashe Kaltmann, August 19, 2007 6:52 PM

The Greatness of R. Akiva!

Thank you yet again and R. Spiro for this very interesting article.

I love the stories about the greatness of Rabbi Akiva. They are so inspiring.
Some of them are:

-The fact that Akiva began learning Torah at the age of 40 yet became the greatest and most beloved Sage in Israel is fantastic. It shows one is never too old to learn; even people with no former background/education.

- The greatness of his wife Rachel who encourages him to learn Torah and even lets him go for ~22 years to become the greatness Sage of Israel. When R. Akiva arrives back home a throng of students and others accompany him and try and push a poor lady out of the way unbeknown to them; this is Rachel. Akiva tells them not to and honours her as the person responsible for letting him learn Torah.

-Kalva Sabau, Rachel's wealthy Father disowns Rachel when she annouces she is going to marry the simple shepherd Akiva. Kalba doesn't want Rachel to marry someone who is so ignorant of Torah. Rachel sees the greatness of the yet unlearnt Akiva and goes ahead and marries Akiva and encourages him to learn Torah. They live a life of extreme poverty.

Years later Kalba regrets his actions and goes to the great "Rabbi" to pour out his soul that he has disowned his daughter and son in law who knows no Torah. Unbeknown to Kalba he is talking to his son-in-law the now learnt and famous Rabbi Akiva!
The family becomes reconciled.

-The optimism of Rabbi Akiva on seeing the destruction of The Temple Mount and on seeing the foxes walking around The Holy of Holies. R. Akiva sees this as a clear sign the just like the prophecies of destruction were fulfilled so will Moshiach come and the prophecies of Divine Redemption will be fulfilled.

(8) Miss Manna, August 19, 2007 11:33 AM

Please bring us more!

Please bring us more!
About great inspiring sages like Rabbi Akiva who loved Hashem so much they would gladly die for "Emet" or truth!with there whole heart and strength, and they could not be silenced! This is our example we should follow. Knowing this stregthens my own faith and re confirms that im in the right place and with the wright people! and i agree that history repeats itself today, romans contiue to live our enemies, those who follow the pagan gods that are all around us those who hate God and his people and will stop at no end to try to completly distroy them. Gods word continues to shine here on aish and the words in the tanak are echoing, the words of King Solomn, to "fear God and keep his commands" Torah tells us to honor those who teach and know torah. These ones, "Heroes" must be honored, for I beleive that they have a special place in the world to come!Evey Jew and convert should have that same Love that they had! Let the light of truth shine for all the world to see, he is our God , not of the nations! THank you again. shalom!

(7) Duane Shinn, March 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Thanks for a wonderful newsletter!

Great info -- I have recommened your site and newsletter to lots of folks.

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