Parsha Halacha

Parshat Balak

The Downfall of Bar Kochva

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In the Torah portion of Balak we read about the prophecy of Bilam regarding the Messianic era. In his prophecy, Bilam says,[1] “אֶרְאֶנּוּ וְלֹא עַתָּה אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ וְלֹא קָרוֹב דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וּמָחַץ פַּאֲתֵי מוֹאָב וְקַרְקַר כׇּל בְּנֵי שֵׁת – I see it but it is not now, I behold it, but it is not close. A star will rise from Yaakov, a ruler will come forth from Israel. He will smash the brow of Moav, and rule over all the children of Seth.”

Bar Kochva
The words דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב (“a star will rise from Yaakov”) were interpreted by Rabbi Akiva to be referring to Bar Kochva,[2] a military leader whom Rabbi Akiva considered to be Moshiach. In his words,[3] דרך כוכבא מיעקב, זה מלך המשיח – “’[Bar] Kochva will rise up from Yaakov,’ this is referring to the King Moshiach.” Unfortunately, Bar Kochva turned out not to be Moshiach and his rebellion was crushed by the Romans who ruthlessly (killed him) in battle as well as millions of his followers when they captured the city of Beitar.[4]
After that occurred, the people referred to him as Ben Kuziva which means “the false one” or “the disappointment.”[5] In fact, Rebi Yehudah Hanassi, who lived several generations after this event, interpreted the above verse as an allusion to the disappointment of the Bar Kochva story. The Midrash says,[6] Rebi [Yehudah HaNasi] would expound the verse דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב, אַל תִּקְרֵי כּוֹכָב אֶלָּא כּוֹזָב “’A star will rise up from Yaakov.’ Do not read it is a ‘star/כּוֹכָב’ but rather as ‘disappointment/כּוֹזָב’.”

According to the Talmud and Midrash,[7] there were sages who disagreed with Rabbi Akiva and felt that bar Kochva was not Moshiach. In fact, Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta said to Rabbi Akiva, “Grass will grow from your chin (i.e., on your grave), and Moshiach will not have yet arrived.”
This article will discuss some of the details of this unfortunate saga.

Judging with Smell
The Talmud says[8] that one of the qualities of Moshiach is that he will be able to judge people with his sense of smell, as the verse says about Moshiach,[9] “And he will smell with his fear of G-d, and he will not [need to] judge by the sight of his eyes…”

Meaning of Smell
There are various interpretations[10] as to how Moshiach will judge with his smell:
·        Divine Insight
The Yad Rameh (on Sanhedrin ibid) says that this refers to the fact that Moshiach will have Divine insight and will sense who is righteous and who is not. The Ben Yehoyadah adds that this Divine insight will be imbued into his physical sense of smell so that he will be able to sniff out the truth (with Divine assistance).
·        Judging with Ease
According to the Radak (on the above verse), Moshiach will be able to discern the truth (with Divine insight) as easily as one can smell something.
·        Smells of Gan Eden
Rabbi Avraham Chaim Shur explains[11] that every mitzvah creates a positive smell while every sin creates a negative smell. These smells are spiritual and cannot be discerned by the average person. Yitzchak Avinu, who, according to the Zohar,[12] spent three years in Gan Eden, had a very keen sense of smell and was able to detect the scent of Gan Eden when Yaakov entered his room and the scent of Gehinom when Eisav entered.[13]
Moshiach, too, is stationed in Gan Eden until his time comes to redeem the Jewish people. Thus, his sense of smell is very refined, and he will be able to smell the scent surrounding each person that is created by their actions. This scent will assist him in reaching the correct verdict in his judgments.

What About the Halacha?
The commentaries question how Moshiach will be able to render Halachic rulings based on his Divine sense of smell since the Talmud says elsewhere[14] that Torah rulings must be based on the Torah and not on heavenly voices or prophecies.
Several answers have been offered:
  • The Facts
Some say[15] that one may use Divine insight to ascertain the facts and that it is only prohibited to use it regarding how to interpret the Torah.
  • No More Mitzvot
Some suggest that the Talmud is referring to the time in the Messianic era when mitzvot will no longer be mandatory.[16]
  •  Judgment of the King
Others say that Moshiach will use his sense of smell to judge people as a king and not as a Torah sage. The king’s (fair) judgments do not have to follow Torah law precisely.[17]

Tested and Killed by the Sages
The Talmud says[18] that the sages weren’t convinced that Bar Kochva was Moshiach so they tested him to see if he could judge with his sense of smell (i.e., with Divine assistance). When he failed the test, they realized he wasn’t Moshiach, and they killed him as claiming to be Moshiach made him a false prophet and deserving of death.[19] Although at that time the Sanhedrin didn’t judge capital cases, they made an exception as they felt that Bar Kochva’s rebellion was endangering many Jewish lives.[20]

What was the Test?
The Talmud does not say how the sages tested Bar Kochva’s judicial capabilities. Some say they did not test him per se, but rather they became aware that his judgments were flawed when he falsely accused and executed his uncle, the great Tzadik Rabbi Eliezer HaMuda’i, for (supposedly) conspiring with the Romans.[21]

Killed by a Snake Bite
According to other Torah sources,[22] Bar Kochva was killed by a snake bite during a battle with the Romans. Some say[23] that these sources argue with the account in the Babylonian Talmud that Bar Kochva was killed by the sages while others explain the meaning of the Babylonian in non-literal ways so that the two opinions do not disagree.
Here are some of their explanations:
  • Didn’t Protect
After the sages decided that Bar Kochva was not Moshiach, the Jewish army did not protect him as they had done previously, and he was then killed in battle. Thus, by deciding that he was not Moshiach, the sages brought about his demise.[24]
  • Death Sentence
Along a similar line of reasoning, some say[25] that the sages ruled that he deserved death but did not carry out their ruling. Shortly after this, he was killed by the Romans in battle. (Perhaps this was how G-d carried out the ruling of the sages.[26])
  • Grandfather and Grandson
Rabbi Sa’adiah, the grandson of the Rambam writes[27] that the differing accounts of the events refer to different people. Bar Kochva was killed by the sages (as it was discovered that he was not a descendant of King David). Whereas his grandson Romulus, who was leading the battle after the death of his father Rufus, was killed by the Romans (or by a snake) as recounted in the Midrash and the Jerusalem Talmud.

The Sequence of Events
Based on the above sources as well as others, the Lubavitcher Rebbe outlines (Likutei Sichot, vol. 27 pg. 199 footnote 56*) the following chain of events: From the beginning of this saga, Rabbi Akiva and several of his colleagues felt that Bar Kochva was Moshiach while Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta and other sages were not convinced about this.[28] The latter group tested him to see if he had prophetic powers and he failed the test.
They therefore ruled that he was not Moshiach. Whereas Rabbi Akiva was of the opinion that Moshiach need not perform any miracles and as such, continued to believe he was Moshiach. Based on the opinion of the latter group of sages, Bar Kochva was not Moshaich and was therefore deemed a rodef (someone who is attempting to kill others) as he was recklessly endangering the Jewish people. Although he was killed by the Romans, his death is also attributed to the sages as, based on their ruling, his death was deserved.

May Hashem send us the True and Righteous Moshiash speedily in our Days!
[2] Based on the letters of Bar Kochva that have been discovered, it seems that his original name was Bar Koziba. Perhaps he was from the town of Koziba that is mentioned in Divrei HaYamim I 4:22.
[3] Midrash Eicha Rabbah (Buber edition) 2:47
[4] See Gittin 57b that there were either 4,000,000 or 40,000,000 people killed by the Romans when they conquered Beitar. (These numbers may be exaggerated.) See below as to who killed Bar Kochva.
[5] Me’or Einayim, quoted by Etz Yosef on Eicha Rabbah 2:4. But see Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:5) that Rabbi Akiva referred to him as Koziva even when he was thought to be Moshiach.
[6] Ibid
[7] Jerusalem Talmud ibid and Eicha Rabbah ibid. See also Sanhedrin 97b and 93b
[10] Cited in Yalkut Biurim in the Metivta Shas on Shanhedrin ibid
[11] Torat Chaim on Sanhedrin ibid
[12] See Zohar Parshat No’ach pg. 60a
[13] See Ta’anit 29b with Maharsha and Rashi on Gen. 11:33
[14] See Yevamot 102a regarding Eliyahu HaNavi and Bava Metziah 59b regarding a voice from heaven.
[15] Rabbi Yosef David Azulai in Birkei Yosef, O.C. 32:4
[16] Rabbi Eliyahu Shik in Ein Eliyahu on Sanhedrin ibid. See Niddah 61b
[17] See Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 3:1 who says, “The king is granted license to execute them… and to improve society according to the needs of the time. He may execute many on one day, hang them, and leave them hanging… in order to cast fear into the hearts and destroy the power of the wicked…”
[18] Sanhedrin ibid (93b)
[19] Yad Ramah
[20] Vayoel Moshe, Maamar Shalosh Shavuot, SIman 139. See Sanhedrin 41a that the Sanhedrin stopped judging capital cases 40 years before the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash
[21] Mirkevet HaMishnah on Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:3 based on Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit ibid
[22] Jerusalem Talmud ibid and Midrash Eicha ibid
[23] Radvaz on Rambam ibid
[24] Alternate explanation in ibid.
[25] Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, Yeshu’ot Meshicho, vol. 2, Ha’iyun HaRishon chapter 4
[26] See Tzitzat Novel Tzvi by Rabbi Yaakov Saportas (1610 – 1698 of Morrocco and Amsterdam), page 119
[27] Responsa Pe’er HaDor Siman 225
[28] According to the Rambam, originally all of the sages felt that Bar Kochva was Moshiach. It was only later on that they began to question it.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

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