This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Notes from the Underground*

A tradition from the early Middle Ages links the morose character of the 'Omer period with the Talmudic passage that speaks of 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva's disciples who perished during this period.

Because Rabbi Akiva was known to be a supporter of the rebel leader Bar Kokhba, many modern interpreters have assumed that the events referred to are related to that historical episode, that the students were in fact soldiers in the rebellion of the years 132-135 C.E. that restored Jewish independence to Judea for three years, before it was savagely suppressed by the Romans. This opinion is maintained in spite of the fact that the Babylonian Talmud ascribes their deaths to a plague that was brought upon them as punishment for their lack of respect for one another.

It was not long ago that any reference to Bar Kokhba would have been looked upon with great skepticism by respectable historians. Our sources for the uprising were limited to a few disconnected and cryptic passages in the Talmud, a quote from the Roman historian Dio Cassio preserved in an unreliable anthology, and an occasional coin dated "to the liberation of Israel."

Yigael Yadin's dramatic excavation of Bar Kokhba's command post in the early 1960's, complete with its extensive archive of letters, documents and other archeological artifacts, have removed any remaining doubts about the reality of the rebellion and of its powerful leader, and of its deep impact on Jewish history and society.

The spades of Israeli archeologists have continued to uncover material that corroborates those ancient reports that were only recently dismissed as legendary exaggerations.

Probably the most dramatic of these reassessments has related to Dio Cassio's account that the Jewish rebels, realizing that they would be handicapped in any frontal confrontation with the Roman legions,

occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light.

This image of an intricate labyrinth of underground tunnels and bunkers, all of them meticulously prepared in the years preceding the insurrection, and under the very eyes of the Roman armies, was too fantastic to be given credence by respectable historians--that is, until such caves and tunnels began to be uncovered in archeological excavations. To date, more than three hundred such complexes have been identified.

Exploiting the many natural caves that typify the region's topography, and building upon the existing infrastructure of cisterns, wine- and oil-presses, storehouses and burial caves, the tunnel complexes were cut into rock and linked together by horizontal and vertical passages.

The prudent planners of the network provided it with shafts for ventilation, tanks for water, store-rooms for food and other necessities of a long sojourn underground. The caves were situated in villages and towns that were scattered throughout the Judean plains, particularly along the roads, where they served strategic functions in a guerilla war. The absence of natural light made them easy to conceal from the Romans. During the early stages of the rebellion from 132 to 134, when the Romans were on the defensive, it was possible for the Jews to expand the network extensively.

In spite of the initial insistence of some skeptics, upon their discovery, that the tunnels did not necessarily date from the Bar Kokhba era, several of them were found to contain coins and other remnants that link them precisely to those years. The numismatic evidence suggests that the Jews did not take refuge in the caves until the final year of the campaign, when the military tide had turned in favour of the Romans.

Another ancient tradition that has been reevaluated in the light of recent archeological discoveries has to do with an obscure law in the Mishnah that forbids the wearing of "nailed sandals" on the Sabbath. The Talmud traces the prohibition to a tragic occurrence that occurred "in the final days of the 'persecution' [sh'mad]," a standard rabbinic expression for the Bar Kokhba insurrection: A group of Jews who were hiding in a sealed off cave saw the tracks of a nailed sandal that inadvertently been worn backwards, and assumed that enemy soldiers had entered their cave. In the ensuing panic, which took place on a Saturday, "more people were killed than were killed by the enemy."

A variant of the story had it that it was the familiar scratching sound of the sandals' nail-heads on the ground outside the cave that had provoked to the hysteria, with its deadly consequences.

Indeed, the dreaded nailed sandal was often equated in ancient sources with the might of the Roman legionary, and the word kalgas, from the Latin caliga, became a synonym for a fierce soldier.

Nevertheless, the Talmudic rationale for the prohibition of wearing nailed sandals on the Sabbath was dismissed by most respectable scholars as too farfetched for serious consideration.

Here again, archeology has altered our perspectives on the matter.

On a mountainous ridge overlooking Jericho, a cave was excavated in 1986, and it soon became clear that it was one of those caves that had served as a refuge for Jews during the Bar Kokhba uprising. The cave also contained the remains of a nailed sandal that had evidently belonged to a Jewish revolutionary. The owner of the sandals apparently perished in the cave, along with more than thirty men and women of diverse ages.

This tragic episode, or one very much like it, might lie at the root of the halakhic prohibition against wearing the lethal footwear.

No doubt, the soil of Israel will continue to reveal many more secrets that will add meaning and relevance to our religious and historical traditions.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 11 2000, pp. 8-9

  • Bibliography:
    • Hanan Eshel, and David Amit. Refuge Caves of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Tel-Aviv: Eretz, The Israel Exploration Society, College of Judea and Samaria; C. G. Foundation, 1998.
    • Hanan Eshel, "Nailed Sandals in Jewish Sources and in the Excavation of a Cave at Ketef Jericho," Zion 53, no. 2 (1988): 191-8.
    • Isaac, Benjamin, and Aharon Oppenheimer. "The Revolt of Bar Kokhba: Ideology and Modern Scholarship." Journal of Jewish Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): 33-60.
    • Kloner, Amos, and Yigal Tepper. The Hiding Complexes in the Judean Shepelah. Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1987.