Friday, July 31, 2015

The Burial at Betar

In war, a common means of humiliating the enemy is to refuse them burial of their dead (which is forbidden by the Geneva Convention). Certainly, demoralization was the goal of the Romans when they forbade the Jews from burying the dead after the fall of Betar on 9 Av, 133 C.E. And there were many dead--enough for the sages to pronounce that, “For seven years the gentiles fertilized their vineyards with the blood of Israel without using manure.”

The intensity of this statement underscores the extent of the massacre that accompanied the capture of Betar. There were, of course, other rebellions against Rome in other parts of their Empire. But the people of Judea seemed to especially enrage the Romans. Perhaps it was the fact that the Jews rebelled numerous times. Perhaps it was their strange, stubborn insistence on monotheism (in a world where the emperor was a diety). Whatever the reason, the Romans were particularly fierce in their repression of Bar Kochba’s rebellion.

An odd thing happened after the massacre at Betar. The Romans left the bodies out to rot in the sun–and yet they did not rot. When, years later, on the 15th of Av, permission was granted for burial to take place, the bodies had not decomposed. Rabbi Matnah explains: “It [15 Av] is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried...On the day when the slain of Betar were allowed burial, the benediction ‘Who is good and does good’ was instituted (as the 4th blessing of Birkat Hamazon: Ha’tov v’hameitiv) - ‘Who is good,’ because the bodies did not putrefy, and ‘does good,’ because they were allowed burial” (Ta’anit 31a).

This Treat was last published on July 29, 2012.

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