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Jewish World Review
Week of 17 Iyar
The Great Revolt begins
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Even while indulging in the familiar kvetching about national leaders, state officials, and municipal officers, the student of
history considers that things could be a lot worse.
Indeed, it's the rule rather than the exception that things have been worse
than they are now, especially for the Jews. And even when things seem to have gotten as bad as they can get, they often go
from bad to worse to truly rotten.
Two millennia ago, the Jewish nation had endured the malevolent paranoia of Herod for 34 interminable years. After his
death, a Jewish delegation to the Roman Senate reported, "Even if a raging beast had reigned over us, the calamity would not
have been as enormous as the disasters inflicted upon us during the period of Herod's rule ... [W]hat happened to Judeans in
the days of Herod has no likeness and no counterpart." (Josephus)
Herod's successor, Agrippa, offered the Jews of Israel a welcome relief from Herod's violent excesses but, sadly, this
respite was not destined to last.
Agrippa was a classically conflicted assimilated Jew. Roman in name, education, and culture, he nevertheless refused to
worship pagan gods and mostly refrained from eating non-kosher food. The combination of his descent from Miriam (the
beloved Hasmonean princess forced to marry and then murdered by Herod) and his sensitivity for Jewish practice earned him
the trust of a Jewish populace deeply suspicious of Roman-appointed rulers.
Agrippa enjoyed an almost universal popularity among the Jews, one that he carefully cultivated and protected. Arriving in
Jerusalem just in time for Shavuos holiday, he made his pilgrimage to the Temple alongside the common Jews and carried his
offering of first-fruits to into the courtyard upon his own shoulders.
In the end, a Jewish ruler popular with the people, the rabbis, and the Romans seems to have been too good to endure.
After only three years as king of Judea, Agrippa died while visiting the Roman regional capital of Caesaria, presumably
poisoned by either Greek or Roman nationals fearful of the rising Jewish influence in occupied Israel.
After Agrippa's death, the emperor Claudius turned governance of Israel over to a series of procurators, or high
commissioners. Between the years 44 and 66, seven different officials held this position, each of them exploiting it for his own profit
and political gain. There was little order within Jerusalem, while outside the city marauding bandits freely roved the
countryside. Roman administrators, soldiers, and foreign residents of Israel eagerly took advantage of the corrupt bureaucratic
structure to bleed the land of its resources, and all the better in their eyes if they could humiliate the Jews in the process.
At times, acts of wanton exploitation and desecration by the Romans provoked Jewish uprising, which invariably drew
retribution from the Roman army. Typically, this encouraged further acts of insult and injustice against the Jews, inciting further
resistance and further countermeasures, perpetuating a vicious circle that made the Jewish populace increasingly bitter,
resentful, and desperate.
The final turn for the worse came with the succession of Nero as emperor of Rome in the year 54. Corrupt, cruel, and devoted
to the pursuit of personal pleasure, Nero took little interest in the affairs of Israel, thereby allowing the procurators to indulge
their greed and ruthlessness unchecked. In response to the cruelty of the Romans, more and more Jews supported the fiercely
nationalistic Zealots, who gained influence as they grew in number. On the other extreme, the heretical Sadducees allied
themselves with Rome to advance their own political agenda.
But nothing matched the suffering and indignity inflicted upon the Jews by the last of the Roman procurators, Florus,
appointed by Nero in the year 64. "Florus boasted publicly about his abominations, acting like a hangman. He did not recoil from
any robbery or murder, any evil or corruption ... It was beneath his dignity to rob individuals; he plundered cities and destroyed
entire communities. It was as if he had declared that robbery was legal, provided he was given a goodly share of the loot."
At Florus's urging, Nero revoked the right of citizenship of the Jews of Caesaria, leaving them at the mercy of the city's
Greek and Roman inhabitants. In the ensuing riots, Florus refused to intervene as Jews were murdered and synagogues
desecrated. And when Jewish leaders removed Torah scrolls to save them from being destroyed, Florus ordered them thrown
On the 16th of the month of Iyar, 3826 (66), Florus arrived in Jerusalem, where he demanded a huge tribute from the
Temple treasury. Outraged, a group of young Jews responded by walking through the streets shaking collection tins and
calling out, "Charity for Florus!"
Florus reacted predictably, ordering his troops to attack the Jews. The Roman soldiers eagerly obeyed, cutting down Jewish
men, women, and children in the streets of Jerusalem, crucifying and whipping captives, and slaying 3,600 in all.
The next day, the Roman soldiers again taunted the Jews, hoping for a pretext to renew their slaughter. Their plan worked,
but the Jews mounted a resistance far more ferocious than Florus had anticipated, beating back the astonished Romans and
driving them from the city. The Jews had won the first battle of Jerusalem and secured their capital. The Great Revolt had
The following winter, concerned that Jewish resistance threatened the stability of the region, the Roman proconsul in
Damascus, Cestius Gallus, led an army toward Jerusalem, destroying smaller Jewish communities along the way. But the
Roman assault broke against the fortifications of Jerusalem and, as Gallus retreated, Jewish soldiers attacked his army and
killed 6,000 of his men.
The Jewish forces returned to celebrate their victory in Jerusalem. A new Jewish government formed, appointing and
dispatching military commanders throughout the country and minting coins carrying the inscription, "Freedom of Zion."
Tragically, the short-lived unity from which sprang the reservoirs of strength that repelled Gallus's army rapidly disintegrated.
It was replaced by partisan bickering that ultimately proved a far more devastating enemy than the Roman legions that would
soon march against Jerusalem.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
Dedication of new walls of Jerusalem
© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson