The city of Beitar was destroyed on account of a shaft of a litter. [How did this happen?] [In Beitar] it was customary that when a boy was born they would plant a cedar tree and when a girl was born they would plant a cypress tree. When they married, they would cut down [the two trees] and build a chupah (wedding canopy). One day the emperor’s daughter passed by. The shaft of the litter broke. They [her servants] chopped down a cedar [to fashion a replacement shaft] and brought it to her. [The people of Beitar] came, fell upon them, and beat them. [The servants] went and told the emperor: the Jews have rebelled against you. He went against them [in war].
The story above begins by recounting a charming tradition practiced in the city of Beitar and ends with a horrific account of the massacre of the Jews of Beitar by the Romans. How did a small matter mushroom into a massive catastrophe? Rabbis often tell the first part of the story (and only the first part!) when a bride and groom stand beneath their chupah. The image of planting trees for each child and combining them to construct their chupah is lovely. Unsurprisingly, the remainder of the story is not recounted under the chupah.
To understand this story, it is helpful to know the history of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.) and the significance of Beitar. Although the rebellion against Rome in the first century (66-70 C.E.) resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple and most of Jerusalem, and the devastation of the countryside, the hope of throwing off the Roman overlords persisted. Shimon bar Kokhba spearheaded a renewed attempt in the first half of the second century. Initially the revolt met with success. The spiritual mentor of the movement was no less than R. Akiba, the greatest scholar of his day. R. Akiba went so far as to declare Bar Kokhba the longed-for Jewish messiah. Prophecy had promised the messiah would restore Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Ultimately, the Roman forces crushed the revolt and both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds provide accounts of the massacre in Beitar in exquisitely gory detail.
The story suggests that the lovely tradition of planting trees when a child is born was a local custom, unique to Beitar. Therefore, the daughter of the Roman Emperor, who happened to be passing by, could not be expected to be aware of local custom. As befitting royalty, she traveled with an entourage of servants to bear her litter on two long shafts hoisted onto their shoulders. When one of the shafts broke, her servants sought a tree suitable to replace the broken shaft.
The people of Beitar took umbrage at this act, interpreting it as Roman hubris—or far worse. They responded with hostility and violence, setting on the entourage and beating the servants. The story is replete with potent symbolism. Perhaps the very presence of the Emperor’s daughter in the holy Land of Israel, inflamed the residents. Perhaps Romans chopping down a tree bespoke yet another Roman attempt to uproot Jews from their sacred land. Perhaps chopping down a tree designated for a child’s marriage canopy was seen as a Roman effort to destroy the next generation of Jews, the future of the Jewish people.
The Romans interpreted the response of the Jews to what for the Romans was undoubtedly an insignificant event as yet another attempt to revolt against Rome. Accordingly, they reported to the Roman emperor that the Jews were rebelling against Rome. The response was unsurprising: he launched a massive attack. Beitar was obliterated and, according to tradition, everyone was killed except one young boy: Shimon b. Gamliel, a direct descendant of Hillel, who grew up to be the Nasi of the Sanhedrin. Therein lies enormous symbolism: the Roman attempt to eradicate Judaism was undermined by the survival of the line of Hillel.
Jewish tradition has not been kind to Shimon bar Kokhba, who led a segment of the Jewish people down the road of disaster, bringing death to those in Beitar and widespread suffering to Jews throughout Judea. The Jerusalem Talmud dubbed him Bar Koziba, “son of a lie.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Given the migratory nature of our lives in the 21st century, the custom of planting trees when children are born and harvesting their wood to construct their chupah is charming but unrealistic. Many of us live far from where we were born. Do you know of another custom that merges the lives of a betrothed couple in a beautiful way, perhaps related to making the canopy of their chupah, or some other facet of the marriage ceremony? Can you imagine something you have not seen?
- The story, told concisely and simply, paints a profound picture of how even a small event can be magnified by misunderstanding and over-reaction, resulting in violence. The princess’s entourage felt entitled to make use of whatever they deemed necessary. Have you ever seen people misunderstand, misinterpret, and over-react to something said of done by another? Have you yourself ever done this? What was the result? How could this be avoided?
- R. Akiba’s identification of Bar Kokhba as the Messiah was an enormous contributing factor to the disaster. It legitimized and empowered Bar Kokhba, assuring him more influence and adherents. What is the responsibility of leaders in identifying whom to trust? How can we identify leaders we can rely on. What signs would suggest caution?