When The Judeans Revolted Against the Romans

English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said: “The pen is mightier than the sword.“ Whether or not that’s true, Jewish history shows that both can be invaluable weapons in the struggle to maintain religious life and national identity. Never was this more clear than in the period when the Romans dominated the Holy Land, when the Temple was destroyed, and — only a couple of generations later — another failed revolt and wave of persecutions decimated the ranks of the Sages, leaving the Jewish people with few teachers and dismal prospects for Jewish continuity.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. Which of the following was NOT a name of a Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation of Judea?
    • Great Revolt
    • Masada Siege
    • Bar Kochba Revolt
    • Julian Revolt 
  2. To which city did Yochanan Ben Zakai and the sages of his time flee, after leaving Jerusalem?
    • Ashdod
    • Yavneh
    • Ashkelon
    • Yerucham
  3. To punish Jews for the Bar Kochba revolt, how did Hadrian rename Judea in 135 CE?
    • Palestina
    • Jupiter
    • Canaan
    • Hadriana
  4. Name the wife of Rabbi Akiva
    • Sara
    • Rivka
    • Rachel
    • Leah
  5. For what did Bar Kochba fight?
    • Human rights for all
    • Jewish self-determination
    • Less Roman taxation
    • The right to study Torah
  1. During the period of the Second Temple, there were many Jewish sects including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and many other smaller groups. Judaism values diversity of thought (elu vi’elu) yet the Rabbis of Yavneh felt that having this type of multiple, conflicting groups was problematic for the Jewish people. When is diversity of thought good and when can it be dangerous? The Rabbis of Yavneh saw this as a huge weakness of the Jewish people and sought to end sectarianism. Why do you think they felt this way?
  2. Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva is described in the Talmud and Aggadah as an ideal Jewish wife who encouraged her husband to pursue Torah study and was willing to make personal sacrifices to achieve that goal. As the partner of one of the greatest Torah scholars in Jewish history, Rachel played a significant role in encouraging Akiva to pursue Torah study, as he was uneducated when they married. Her father, the wealthy Ben Kalba Savu’a, disowned her over her choice of husband and the couple lived in dire poverty. With Rachel’s blessing, Akiva left to study in a Torah academy for 24 years. He returned home a renowned scholar accompanied by 24,000 disciples.Upon seeing his son-in-law’s Torah scholarship, Ben Kalba Savu’a reconciled with him and gave him half his wealth. Later, Akiva had a special golden headband fashioned for Rachel, depicting the city of Jerusalem. Rachel’s final resting place is a tomb in Tiberias and it is a pilgrimage site for men and women. What characteristics do you think she displayed that draw people to pray by her tomb in Bethlehem as a righteous person to this day?
  3. What does the story of Rachel and Rabbi Akiva’s marriage teach us about the way the Talmud values Torah learning and the impact study of Hashem’s words can have on the world and relationships between men and women?
  4. As he was being tortured to death with iron combs for the “crime” of teaching Torah, the last words on the lips of Rabbi Akiva were Shema Yisrael. In “As a Driven Leaf,” Elisha ben Abuya is famous for the renunciation of his faith when he saw a son climb a tree to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach haken (sending away the mother bird) – about both of which the Torah promises “arichut yamim,” – a long life as a reward…Yet, the child dies. Elisha exclaims, “Where is the long life promised?” How do you explain these two different responses to the hidden hand of God in human affairs?
  1. Use a ready-made lesson plan on “When the Judeans Revolted Against the Romans” HERE.
  2. Masada or Yavneh – Which type of Jew are you? The people who called for martyrdom on Masada and the compromise at Yavneh represent two polar extremes in the Jewish tradition. One seeks to fight our enemies to the death, and the other seeks to compromise in order to salvage the imperfect remnant. Rabbis throughout the generations have asked why the Romans granted Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai’s wish to be granted autonomy in Yavneh. According to rabbinic tradition, he foretold the elevation of General Vespasian to the status of Emperor of the Roman Empire and was justly rewarded. While this tradition is no doubt flattering to the early rabbi, the likelihood is that he abandoned the Zealots in Jerusalem and surrendered covertly to the Romans and was placed in internal exile in the coastal city of Yavneh. Despite the greatness of Yavneh’s accomplishments in rehabilitating a Judaism without a Temple, ancient rabbis questioned why Yohanan did not request the Roman general to spare Jerusalem from being destroyed.Centuries later, many Zionist thinkers assessed Rabbi Yohanan’s surrender as being defeatist, passive and weak. These negative and condemnatory evaluations of this early rabbi ignore the great feat that he achieved.A request to save Jerusalem from the Romans ignored the reality that the Zealots in control of the rebellion were never going to surrender to Vespasian. They would never give up Jerusalem to the Roman invaders. Rabbi Yohanan was limited in the requests that he could make. Eli Kavon writes that “If he indeed made this request, it was the most sensible and responsible. Yavneh became the heir to Jerusalem. Saving the rabbinic elite insured the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. All the Zealots could offer was glorious death in the name of God and Israel. Masada, the last stronghold of the rebels, was a dead end, literally and historically. The rebels died as free men and women by choosing suicide. Perhaps this was heroic and an inspiration to modern Zionists—but Yavneh, quietly and without the drama of mass suicide, transformed Jewish life and faith. Only many centuries later did Masada emerge as a symbol of defiance and heroism.
    • If Jews again face oppression the likes which we experienced 2000 years ago, would you see yourself as more likely being in the Yavneh or Masada camp when the question of how to respond arises?
    • Give a short speech explaining the benefits and risks of both responses
  3. Survival Strategies: Values Clarification GameThis can be done in role-play as the Rabbis of Yavneh addressed by Yochanan ben Zakai, or it can be done by the educator/leader explaining the situation with no role play. Whoever is introducing the activity should open by explaining the great crisis of the Jewish world after the fall of the Temple.The group is asked to generate a list of suggestions for a new basis of Jewish life. What should Jewish life consist of, now that the great uniting symbols of the Temple in Jerusalem within a Jewish land no longer exist? The aim is to come up with a plan to save the Jewish world.The group should now be given a list of the following fifteen suggestions for Survival Strategies. They should be told that these ideas have been put forward for consideration by the sages. Their task is to hone the ideas into a practical survival plan for the Jewish People.
  4. Give your students our Kahoot on When the Judeans Revolted Against the Romans!
  1. The “Masada shall not fall again” mythology began well ahead of foremost Masada archaeologist Yigal Yadin’s excavations in the 1960s. “It is the late Israeli archaeologist Shmaryahu Gutman who deserves much of the credit for the creation of the Masada myth. From the 1930s onwards, Gutman took youth movements on treks to the site. Gutman was part of the first archaeological explorations and later involved Yadin. To this day, Masada often ranks as one of the top tourist sites in Israel. Given the tragedy that took place there, what do you think motivates so many people in modern times to visit this site of great suffering?
  2. For many years, members of the Israeli Defense Forces, upon commissioning, would travel to the ruins of Masada and declare the last line of Yizhak Lamdan’s famous 1927 poem: Matzadah lo shuv tipol!” -”Masada shall not fall again”. The rallying cry may seem akin to the story of the Alamo during the war for Texas’ independence from Mexico in the 1800s but the fortress has come to stand for the nation of Israel itself. When speaking before the Knesset in May 2008, former US President George W. Bush said, “Earlier today, I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: ‘Masada shall never fall again.’ Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side.” Of all the moments in Jewish history to highlight, why do you think President Bush chose the Masada story to articulate U.S. support for the modern State of Israel? To what fears of Jewish Israelis was he responding to in his speech?
  3. Historian Jodi Magness explains that “by the late 1980s the IDF ceased to hold its induction ceremonies at Masada. Nevertheless, Masada remains the second-most visited archaeological site in Israel, and in 2001, it became Israel’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. Although Masada has lost much of its relevance to Israelis as a national symbol, it still resonates with Diaspora Jews who make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain, where their guides relate the story of a small band of freedom fighters who made a heroic last stand against Rome.” Why do you think many diaspora Jews hold more reverence and give more significance to the Masada story that do Israeli Jews today?
  4. Much of this lesson was about community and the consequences when we tear ourselves apart over ideological differences. In an age of growing political divide exacerbated by social media, what do you feel we must learn from this episode in history about how to communicate with those with whom we strongly disagree?

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