A Letter to the World at large from Jerusalem by Eliezer ben Yisrael (Stanley Goldfoot) - a must read
A Letter to the World at large from Jerusalem
by Eliezer ben Yisrael (Stanley Goldfoot)
I am not a creature from another planet, as you seem to believe. I am a Jerusalemite, like yourselves, a man of flesh and blood.
I am a citizen of my city, an integral part of my people.I have a few things to get off my chest. Because I am not a diplomat, I do not have to mince words. I do not have to please you or even persuade you. I owe you nothing. You did not build this city, you did not live in it,you did not defend it when they came to destroy it. And we will be damned if we will let you take it away.
There was a Jerusalem before there was a New York. When Berlin, Moscow, London, and Paris were miasmal forest and swamp, there was a thriving Jewish community here. It gave something to the world which you nations have rejected ever since you established yourselves - a humane moral code.
Here the prophets walked, their words flashing like forked lightning. Here a people who wanted nothing more than to be left alone, fought off waves of heathen would-be conquerors, bled and died on the battlements,hurled themselves into the flames of their burning Temple rather than surrender, and, when finally overwhelmed by sheer numbers and led away into captivity, swore that before they forgot Jerusalem, they would see their tongues cleave to their palates, their right arms wither. (see psalms 137)
For two pain-filled millennia, while we were your unwelcome guests, we prayed daily to return to this city.
Three times a day we petitioned the Almighty: "Gather us from the four corners of the world, bring us upright to our land, return in mercy to Jerusalem, Thy city, and swell in it as Thou promised."
On every Yom Kippur and Passover, we fervently voiced the hope that next year would find us in Jerusalem.
Your inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions, the ghettos into which you jammed us, your forced baptisms, your quota systems, your genteel anti-semitism, and the final unspeakable horror, the holocaust (and worse, your terrifying disinterest in it) - all these have not broken us. They may have sapped what little moral strength you still possessed, but they forged us into steel.
Do you think that you can break us now after all we have been through?
Do you really believe that after Dachau and Auschwitz we are frightened by your threats of blockades and sanctions?
We have been to Hell and back - a Hell of your making. What more could you possibly have in your arsenal that could scare us?
I have watched this city bombarded twice by nations calling themselves civilized. In 1948, while you looked on apathetically, I saw women and children blown to smithereens, after we agreed to your request to internationalize the city.
It was a deadly combination that did the job - British officers, Arab gunners, and American-made cannon.
And then the savage sacking of the Old City - the wilful slaughter, the wanton destruction of every synagogue and religious school, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the sale by a ghoulish government of tombstones for building materials, for poultry runs, army camps, even latrines.
And you never said a word.
You never breathed the slightest protest when the Jordanians shut off the holiest of our places, the Western Wall, in violation of the pledges they had made after the war - a war they waged, incidentally, against the decision of the UN.
Not a murmur came from you whenever the legionnaires in their spiked helmets casually opened fire upon our citizens from behind the walls. Your hearts bled when Berlin came under siege. You rushed your airlift "to save the gallant Berliners". But you did not send one ounce of food when Jews starved in besieged Jerusalem.
You thundered against the wall which the East Germans ran through the middle of the German capital - but not one peep out of you about that other wall, the one that tore through the heart of Jerusalem.
And when that same thing happened 20 years later, and the Arabs unleashed a savage, unprovoked bombardment of the Holy City again, did any of you do anything?
The only time you came to life was when the city was at last re-united. Then you wrung your hands and spoke loftily of "justice" and the need for the "Christian" quality of turning the other cheek.
The truth - and you know it deep inside your gut - is that you would prefer the city to be destroyed rather than have it governed by Jews. No matter how diplomatically you phrase it, the age-old prejudices seep out of every word.
If our return to the city has tied your theology in knots, perhaps you had better re-examine your catechisms.
After what we have been through, we are not passively going to accommodate ourselves to the twisted idea that we are to suffer eternal homelessness until we accept your saviour.
For the first time since the year 70, there is now complete religious freedom for all in Jerusalem .
For the first time since the Romans put a torch to the Temple, everyone has equal rights (you prefer to have some more equal than others.)
We loathe the sword - but it was you who forced us to take it up.
We crave peace, but we are not going back to the peace of 1948 as you would like us to.
We are home. It has a lovely sound for a nation you have willed to wander over the face of the globe. We are not leaving.
We are redeeming the pledge made by our forefathers:
Jerusalem is being rebuilt.
"Next year" and the year after, and after, and after, until the end of time - "in Jerusalem "!
Mohammed reacted with anger when Jews refused to recognize him as the last of the prophets.
The might of Rome could not be challenged.
In response to the revolt of the Jews, in 67 CE Rome sends out the empire’s most experienced commander, Vespasian, at the head of four legions. This is a massive force. Each legion had 6,000 fighting men plus an equal number of auxiliaries for a total of nearly 50,000 Roman soldiers.
(One of these four legions, the 10th is the most famous. It is commanded by Vespasian’s own son, Titus, and has a boar as its symbol.)
The Roman goal: the annihilation of those Jews who dared to rise against Rome and who have heretofore (unbelievably) succeeded.
Shrewdly, Vespasian begins his campaign in the north. Any city or town that resists his advance is utterly destroyed, its population slaughtered or taken into slavery, the women raped, property pillaged. Then, the surrounding area is denuded of trees and the fields strewn with salt to ensure that nothing would grow there again.
While always brutal in warfare, the Romans surpass themselves when it comes to suppressing the revolt in Judea. Their aim is to send a message throughout the Empire: any resistance against Rome will end in total and complete devastation.
Vespasian hopes that by the time he turns to Jerusalem, the Jews will have seen that resistance is futile and have surrendered.
But, even with four legions, Vespasian has a tough fight on his hands.
One of the first to resist is the fortress of Jotapata, built on the slopes of Mount Atzmon. Here the commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee, Yosef ben Mattityahu—better known to us as Josephus Flavius—makes a heroic stand, but cannot withstand the Roman onslaught.
When defeat seems certain, the Zealots of the group decide that it is better to die at their own hands than to be sold into slavery or to watch their families be mercilessly butchered by the Romans.
Thus, they make a pact to kill their own wives and children and then themselves. Josephus is one of the few survivors; rather than kill himself, he surrenders to the Romans.
Vespasian realizes immediately that Josephus could be useful to the Romans and employs him as guide/translator and later as a chronicler of the war.
Josephus’ works have survived to this day. Among the foremost are Antiquities and The Jewish War, the story of all of the events taking place before, during, and after the Great Revolt, from 66 CE to 70 CE.
His account is unique as far as historical accounts go, because he is an eyewitness to many things he writes about. (He differs in this regard from other Roman historians, like Deo Cassius, who lived later and merely repeated what they’ve read in official records.)
Of course, Josephus has his own slant on things. For example, he is writing for the Romans, (which is probably why his works have survived intact), yet he is born and raised a Jew. So he seems to be trying to please everyone at the same time, and you have to read him very cautiously and very critically. (Ultimately he lays the blame for the revolt at the feet of a few cruel Romans such as Florus and the Zeolots)
Despite the extreme subjectivity of much of his writing and his tendency to exaggerate and be melodramatic (which is typical of historians of this period), he is nonetheless an invaluable source of information about the entire Second Temple period and the Great Revolt. However, one thing that even his critics agree upon is that he is very accurate concerning the physical descriptions of places and structures in the Land of Israel. Archeology has verified many of his descriptions and accounts.
All during the summer and autumn of 67 CE Vespasian marches through northern Israel suppressing Jewish resistance. Some surrender without a fight - like Tiberias, for example. Some fight to the end.
One of the most heroic stories concerns the city of Gamla in the Golan Heights.
Partially excavated and the center of a beautiful nature reserve, Gamla is a must-see spot in Israel today. This site is unusual, because unlike most cities in Israel that were destroyed, Gamla was never re-built by anyone and is therefore considered to be one of the best-preserved Roman battle sites in the world. The excavations show the city exactly like it looked on the day of its destruction in 67 CE.
(Gamla stood covered by the sands of time for exactly 1900 years until Israel won back the Golan Heights in 1967.)
Anticipating the Roman advance, the citizens of Gamla minted coins with the imprint “To the Redemption of Jerusalem, the Holy.” They believed that on the outcome of their resistance rested the future of Jerusalem. Sadly, they were right.
The Romans totally annihilated Gamla killing some 4,000 Jews. The remaining 5,000 inhabitants, rather than waiting to be brutally slaughtered by the Romans, jumped to their deaths off the cliffs surrounding the city. (This is why Gamla is called the Masada of the north.)
In the summer of 70 CE, having liquidated virtually all the other pockets of resistance the Romans finally work their way to Jerusalem. They surround the city and lay siege to it.
The Romans know that if they can destroy Jerusalem, they will destroy the soul of rebellion, because Jerusalem is the center of their spiritual life.
Before the Great Revolt began, Jerusalem had somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 inhabitants (prior to its destruction the walled city of Jerusalem was considerably larger then the Old City of today), but now, with refugees from other places flocking in, the population is two to three times its normal size. It is concentrated in two enclaves:
the Lower City, south of the Temple Mount (this section of Jerusalem is today outside the current city walls; today it is called the City of David or Silwan in Arabic)
the Upper City, west of the Temple Mount, inhabited by the wealthier folks and the priestly class (excavations of this part of the city can be seen in the underground Wohl Archaeology Museum under Yeshivat HaKotel in the Jewish Quarter)
The city is massively fortified. It also has huge storehouses of food. It has a good water supply. Jerusalem can hold back the Romans for a long time.
So it seems like the Romans are in a very bad situation. They are trying to besiege one of the largest cities in the ancient world which is remarkably well fortified, which has a huge amount of food and water and a lot of determined people who are not afraid to die. (1)
Jerusalem could have gone done down in history as the only city that the Romans couldn’t take by laying siege. But it didn’t.
The reason that it did not was sinat chinam, “senseless hatred among the Jews.”
While the Romans are besieging the city on the outside, the Jews are waging a civil war inside.
Forces of the various factions are occupying various parts of the city. Most importantly, the Sicarii and the Zealots, led by Yochanan of Gush Chalav, have control of the Temple Mount. An unlikely alliance of Sadducees and Pharisees makes up the bulk of the moderate forces which rule the rest of the city.
When the moderates attempt to remove the extremists from the Temple Mount, Yochanan of Gush Chalav brings in non-Jewish mercenaries, the Idumeans, who slaughter the moderate Jews.
As if that is not enough, the Zealots destroy the great storehouses of food so that the people would have no choice but to fight or starve.
With the food storehouses destroyed, famine breaks out in the city and desperate people try and sneak outside the walls to forage for food. Anyone that is caught by the Romans is immediately put to death via the standard Roman form of execution - crucifixion. So many die that the city is surrounded by thousands of crucified Jews.
So the soldiers out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest; when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies. Josephus, Wars 5.11.1)
Meanwhile, the Romans continue their systematic destructions of the city’s defenses, layer by layer.
What happens next?
YOCHANAN BEN ZAKKAI
The leader of the Pharisees and the head of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, sees that Jerusalem cannot hold out. It’s too late. But the Zealots are bent on continuing their suicidal fight. So he formulates a plan.
At this time the Zealots are not allowing anyone to leave the city (as if anyone wanted to flee to be crucified), except for burials. In a desperate bid to try and salvage something from the impending disaster, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai has himself put in a casket and taken to Vespasian.
He greets Vespasian as if he were the emperor, to which Vespasian replies that he ought to be executed for his remark. Not exactly a friendly welcome. But Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai persists, telling Vespasian that God would allow only a great ruler to take Jerusalem.
Just then, a messenger arrives from Rome with a message for Vespasian: “Rise, because Caesar has died and the prominent men of Rome have decided to seek you as their head. They have made you Caesar.”
Impressed with Rabbi Yochanan’s ability to predict the future, Vespasian asks him to name a wish. He asks Vespasian for three things, but the most important request is: “Give me the city of Yavne and it’s sages.
What Rabbi Yochanan really asks for is to save the Torah.
Vespasian gives Rabbi Yochanan a safe escort for the Torah sages of the day to leave Jerusalem and to convene a Sanhedrin at Yavneh.
Could Rabbi Yochanan have asked Vespesian to spare Jerusalem?
Not likely. By then, the Romans had to prove a point. They would not have spared Jerusalem. But Rabbi Yochanan’s quick thinking spared Judaism.(2)
The Jewish people can always survive physical destruction. The much bigger danger is spiritual destruction. Had the Sanhedrin been wiped out, the transmission process of the Oral Law would have been cut. Without the Oral law there is no Judaism.
Because the Romans granted Rabbi Yochanan’s wish, the sages survived, the chain of transmission survived, and the Jewish people survived.
Meanwhile, now that Vespasian is emperor, he must return to Rome. He turns the siege over to his son Titus and tells him to finish the job.
1) See: Talmud-Gittin 56a
2) See Talmud-Gittin 56a for the exact account of this story
On the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av, the Temple burns to the ground.
We left off the story in the last installment with Vespasian being made Caesar and returning to Rome. His son Titus now takes over the siege of Jerusalem.
Titus attacks just after Passover in the year 70 CE, battering the city with his catapults which propel a rain of stone, iron and fire onto the population. By then, the city defenders are weakened from hunger and perhaps even more so from internal strife. Even so, it takes Titus two months of intense fighting before he is able to breach the outer city walls reach the Temple Mount.
The date for this event is 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz(1) . To this day, religious Jews fast on the 17th of Tammuz in commemoration of this event.
Roman historian, Deo Cassius, reports:
“Though a breach was made in the wall by means of engines, nevertheless the capture of the place did not immediately follow even then. On the contrary, the defenders killed great numbers [of Romans] who tried to crowd through the opening and they also set fire to some of the buildings nearby, hoping thus to check the further progress of the Romans. Nevertheless, the soldiers, because of their superstition, did not immediately rush in but at last, under compulsion from Titus, they made their way inside. Then the Jews defended themselves much more vigorously than before, as if they had discovered a piece of rare good fortune in being able to fight near the Temple and fall in its defense.”
A horrific slaughter ensues with the Romans taking the city, literally house-by-house. One of the excavations that gives testimony to the destruction is the famous “Burnt House” which is open to visitors in Old City Jerusalem today. Here the skeletal remains of a woman’s arm were found where she died on the doorstep of her house, with a spear still lying nearby.
Despite the determined resistance of the Jewish defenders Titus slowly works his way to the Temple Mount. Now a duel to the death ensues, and finally, five months after the Romans had begun this attack Titus orders the Second Temple razed to the ground. The day is the 9th of Av, the very same day on which the First Temple was destroyed.
Deo Cassius again:
“The populace was stationed below in the court and the elders on the steps and the priests in the Sanctuary itself. And though they were but a handful fighting against a far superior force, they were not conquered until part of the Temple was set on fire. Then they met their death willingly, some throwing themselves on the swords of the Romans, some slaying one another, others taking their own lives and still others leaping into the flames. And it seemed to everybody and especially to them that so far from being destruction, it was victory and salvation and happiness to them that they perished along with the Temple.”
All of the neighboring countryside is denuded of whatever trees remained from the siege to create the giant bonfire to burn the buildings of the Temple to the ground. The intense heat from the fire causes the moisture in the limestone to expand and it explodes like popcorn, producing a chain reaction of destruction. In a day’s time, the magnificent Temple is nothing but rubble.
Josephus describes the destruction of the Temple:
“While the holy house (The Temple) was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age…but children and old men…and priests, were all slain in the same manner….The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those who were slain…one would have thought the whole city would have been on fire. Nor can one imagine anything greater and more terrible than this noise.”(2)
HISTORY AS DESTINY
The destruction of the Second Temple is one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people, and certainly one of the most depressing.
It is a sign that God has withdrawn from (though certainly not abandoned) the Jews. Although the Jews will survive—in accordance with the promise that they will be an “eternal nation” - the special relationship with God they enjoyed while the Temple stood is gone.
Sadly, this period of time, perhaps more than any other reflects the maxim that Jewish past is Jewish future, that Jewish history is Jewish destiny.
There’s no period of time that more closely reflects what is going on today in Israel and among the Jewish people worldwide. We are still living in the consequences of the destruction of the Second Temple, spiritually and physically. And the same problems we had then are the same problems we have now.
States the Talmud (, 9b): “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.”
What is the antidote to this problem which is so rampant in the Jewish world today? The answer is ahavat chinam, the Jews have to learn to love their fellow Jews.
There’s no hope for the Jewish people until all learn how to communicate with each other, and respect each other, regardless of differences.
God has no patience for Jews fighting each other. It’s extremely important to study this period of time carefully because there are many valuable lessons that we can learn about the pitfalls that need to be avoided.
“JUDEA CAPTURED” Before setting fire to the Temple, the Romans removed anything of value. Then they harnessed a group of Jewish slaves to take these priceless artifacts to Rome. Their arrival in Rome is memorialized in engravings of the Arch of Titus, still standing there today near the Forum which depicts the Triumph or victory parade held by victorious legions to celebrate their victory and display the spoils of war.
It was the tradition in the Roman Jewish community that Jews would never walk under that arch. On the night of May 14, 1948, when Israel was declared a state, the Jews of Rome had a triumphant parade and marched under the arch. Their message: “Rome is gone, we’re still around. Victory is ours.”
But at the time it was a horrible disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people died, many more were enslaved. There were so many Jews flooding the slave market after the Great Revolt that you could buy a Jewish slave for less than the price of a horse. Israel was in despair.(3)
Jerusalem has been conquered, the Temple has been destroyed, but it was not over yet.
A group of about 1,000 Zealots escaped and made their way into the desert , near the Dead Sea, where they holed up in the great fortress on top of a mountain plateau called Masada that rises more than 1,200 feet above the shores of the Dead Sea. Masada was built by Herod, the Great, as a place of refuge for him. As such it was practically self-sufficient. With its own water collection system and storage houses that could feed an army for years. What’s more, the fortress was practically inaccessible from below and easy to defend.
Indeed, the Zealots manage to survive there for three years.
If you go visit the ruins of Masada, you will see the remains of the fortress as well as the Roman siege wall, camps and ramp that the Romans built, using Jewish slave labor, in order to capture Masada(4) .
Josephus reports on the capture of Masada in 73 CE and the narrative resembles in some way the capture of Gamla. Here, too, the Zealots killed their own families, then each other until finally, there was only one man left, and he committed suicide. Josephus recounts the final speech of Zealot leader, Eleazar ben Yair:
“Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time has now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice….It is very clear that we shall be taken within a day’s time; but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends ....Let our wives die before they are abused and, our children before they have tasted slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow this glorious benefit upon one another mutually and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument to us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire…and let us spare nothing but our food; for it will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not conquered for want of provisions; but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.”(5)
For the modern state of Israel, Masada is a symbol of Jews who chose to die as free men rather than be enslaved or executed by the Romans, and is held up as a Zionist ideal. Up until recently, Israeli soldiers would go up to Masada to be sworn in, and call out for the mountain to hear and echo back: “Masada will never fall again!” (We will discuss this in greater detail in future installments on modern Zionist history.)
Back in 73 CE when Masada, the last Jewish stronghold, fell, the Romans could finally declare an end to the revolt.
Congratulating themselves on asserting the Roman might against the defiant Jews, the Romans also minted coins depicting a weeping woman and proclaiming Judea Capta, “Judea Captured.”
But was it?
The land was no longer under Jewish control, but it had not been since the days of Hasmoneans anyway. True, the Temple, the center of Jewish worship and the symbol of Judaism’s special connection to the one God, was gone. But Judaism - along with all its unique value system—was alive and well.
Thanks to the foresight of Rabbi Yachanan ben Zakkai, the center of Torah learning at Yavneh thrived. It was here that the rabbis put together the legal/spiritual infrastructure which would allow the Jewish people to survive without many of the normative institutions which were the backbone of Judaism: Temple and its service, the High Priesthood, the monarchy. It was here that the rabbis institutionalized public prayer as a replacement for the Temple service and made the synagogue the center of Jewish communal life(6) .
But most importantly, it was here that the rabbis devised a way of making sure that Judaism lived on in every Jewish home. In the coming years, when the Jews would be dispersed the world over - doomed for two thousand years to have no common land, no centralized leadership, and aside from Hebrew scriptures, no common language - they would carry with them their Judaism undiminished.
But that was yet to come.
1) See Talmud-Taanit 26a-b and Josephus, The Jewish Wars 6.2.1. The Talmud describes the 17th of Tamuz as the day the wall of the city was breached while Josephus describes it as the day the Antonia Fortress that stood to the north of the Temple Mount was demolished by the Romans.
2) Josephus, The Jewish Wars 6.5.1.-Josephus would have us believe that Titus tried to prevent the destruction of the Temple, but the accuracy of such a claim is greatly in doubt. Josephus, who was at this point working for the Romans and became an adopted member of the family of Vespasian and Titus certainly tried to paint them in the best light possible.
3) If you visit the Forum (Ancient capital of the Roman Empire) in the center of Rome you can still see the Arch of Titus which stands along side the most famous landmark in Rome-The Coliseum. The correct name for this giant arena, which seated 50,000 people, is the Flaviun Amphitheater. It was completed in the year 80 C.E. and its primary function was blood sport such as gladiatorial combat. There is probably no other building in the Roman Empire that was more antithetical to Jewish values (i.e. value of life) than the Coliseum. It is sadly ironic that the building was probably done by Jewish slave-laborers from the Jewish revolt and the money for the construction probably came from the booty taken from the destruction of Jerusalem.
4) Masada remains the best preserved Roman siege site in the world. Exactly as the Romans besieged and breached the walls is exactly as you see the site today.
5) Josephus-The Jewish Wars-7.8.6-7.The most obvious question about this dramatic speech is how did Josephus get the text. Josephus writes that rather than join in the mass suicide, two women and a few children hid and so the speech was preserved. The veracity of such a claim is much in doubt. Dramatic speeches were a common literary device created by many ancient historians to spice up the narrative although there is little reason to doubt the accuracy of the story or the fact that the speech, even if it was contrived, was a fairly accurate representation of Zealot sentiments.
6) See; Talmud-Brachot-28b
Jerusalem is a beautiful place, despite of any tensions. It's definitely one of those special places... maybe because it's the most sacred region for some religions, or maybe because it's standing there, for thousands of years.
Visiting Jerusalem is definitely one of my life goals, and while that doesn't happen, we get to see these fantastic photographs. These were taken by some really talented people. For more of their work you should definitely visit their portfolios, simply by clicking each picture. Cheers! ;)