Rabbi Akiva’s Laugh: The Hidden Call for the Bar Kokhba Revolt
The Sitz im Leben of R. Akiva’s Midrash
One of the hallmarks of academic Talmud scholarship is reconstructing the Sitz im Leben – a German term meaning “the setting in life,” or social context – of a given text. As the great twentieth-century Talmudist, Saul Lieberman, once wrote, “if we could identify the event and the affair on which the drasha was based, we could better understand the passage that the Talmud has preserved for us.” In this article, I would like to shed new light on one particularly well known drasha about Jerusalem after the Destruction by considering its political context.
In 70 C.E., after four years of revolt against the Roman Empire, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed, along with its famed and revered Temple. Hopes for revenge and rebuilding the temple percolated among the Jews of Judea for many years, until some five decades later the Bar Kokhba revolt broke out. The revolt came to its final, bloody conclusion in 136 C.E., when Jews were completely banned from the city of Jerusalem and Jewish Judea was almost entirely destroyed.
The Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235) provides the clearest report of the revolt:
At Jerusalem he [=Hadrian] founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple to Jupiter [=ναὸν τῷ Διὶ]. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites [καὶ τὸ ἱερὰ ἀλλότρια] planted there. (Cassius Dio, 69.12.1-2)
Hadrian founded Aelia Capitolina after his own name – Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus – and allegedly established a temple to Jupiter in place of the Jewish temple. The outcome of this activity was a revolt by the Jews, known to us as the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136). As Dio goes on to explain, Jews considered the settlement of foreigners in the city and the establishment of pagan rites there to be intolerable.
A Fox on the Temple Mount, The Rabbis’ Cry and R. Akiva’s Laugh
While rabbinic literature never explicitly mentions Aelia Capitolina, I would like to suggest that its foundation underlies the following midrashic passage about R. Akiva and his famous rabbinic colleagues in the early decades of the second century C.E.:
ספרי דברים מג  …שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים הגיעו לצופים קרעו בגדיהם. הגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל יוצא מבית קודש הקודשים. התחילו הן בוכין ור’ עקיבה מצחק.
Sifre Deuteronomy 43 …On another occasion they were coming up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus they rent their garments. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies. They began to cry but R. Akiva laughed.
אמרו לו עקיבה לעולם אתה מתמיה עלינו שאנו בוכין ואתה מצחק.
They said to him, “Akiva, you always surprise us. We weep and you are merry!”
אמר להם אתם למה בכיתם.
They said to him, “Akiva, you always surprise us. We weep and you are merry!”
אמרו לו לא נבכה על מקום שנ’ בו ‘והזר הקרב יומת’ (במדבר ג י), והרי שועל יוצא מתוכו?! עלינו נתקיים הכת’ ‘על זה היה דוה לבינו על הר ציון ששמם שועלים הלכו בו’ (איכה ה יח).
They answered, “Shall we not weep that a fox emerges from the place of which it was written “and any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death” (Num. 1:51)? In our presence the verse was fulfilled, “Because of this our hearts are sick, Because of these our eyes are dimmed: Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; foxes prowl over it. (Lam. 5:17-18).”
אמ’ להם אף אני לכך צחקתי. הה”א ‘ואעידה לי עידים נ<א>מ[נים] את אוריה [הכהן ואת זכריהו בן יברכיהו] (יש’ ח ב). וכי מה ענין אוריה אצל זכריה?
He said to them, “For that reason am I merry. For lo, it is written: “and call reliable witnesses, the priest Uriah and Zechariah son of Jeberechiah, to witness for Me.” (Isa 8:2). And what has Uriah got to do with Zechariah?
מה אמ’ אוריה ‘ציון שדה תחרש [וירושלים עיין תהיה והר הבית לבמות יער’] (מיכה ג יב[=ירמיהו כו יח).
What is it that Uriah said: ” Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps (עיים) And the Temple Mount shrines (לבמות יער) in the forest.’ (Micah 3:12 [Jer 26:18]).
מה אמר זכריה ‘כה אמר ה’ צב[אות] עד ישבו זקנים וזקונות [ואיש משענתו בידו מרב ימים]: ורחובות העיר ימלאו ילדים וילדות [משחקים ברחבתיה]’ (זכריה ח ד-ה). אמר המקום הרי לי <שני> עידים אלו,
What is it that Zechariah said: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares” (Zec 8:4-5). The Lord said: “Lo, I have these two witnesses.
אם קימין דברי אוריה קיימין דברי זכריה; אם בטלו [דברי א]וריה בטלו דברי זכריה.
If the words of Uriah have been carried out, then the words of Zechariah will be carried out. If the words of Uriah are nullified, then the word of Zechariah will be nullified.
לכך שחקתי שנתקי[ימו ד]ברי אוריה לסוף שדברי זכריהו עתידין לבוא. ב[ל]שון [ה]זה
For that I rejoiced because the words of Uriah have been fulfilled; in the future the words of Zechariah will be fulfilled”.
אמרו לו נחמתנו עקיבה [תתנחם לרגלי מבשר].
Thereupon they addressed him with these words, “Akiva, you have consoled us; may you be comforted by the coming of the herald [of redemption].”
While Micah was a prophet during biblical times who here seems to describe the desolation that will reign in Jerusalem and on the site of the First Temple following their destruction, the Midrash understands the prophecy as referring to the destruction of the Second Temple, and R. Akiva’s homily anticipates the final messianic redemption.
R. Akiva uses an innovative interpretation of Isaiah 8:1-2 to link the destructive prophecy attributed to Uriah – “Zion shall be plowed as a field” (Micah 3:12) – with the prophet Zechariah’s redemptive vision that “there shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem…” (8:4-5).
It is understandable why Micah’s prophecy about Zion being plowed as a field fits with seeing the Temple Mount in shambles. But why, of the many prophesies of consolation in the Book of Zechariah, did R. Akiva choose to quote these particular verses?
Zion, Jerusalem, and the Mountain of the House
/ Mountain of the Lord
It is notable that the preceding verse to the aforementioned prophecy in Zechariah states (8:3):
כֹּה, אָמַר ה’, שַׁבְתִּי אֶל-צִיּוֹן, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם; וְנִקְרְאָה יְרוּשָׁלִַם עִיר הָאֱמֶת, וְהַר-ה’ צְבָאוֹת הַר הַקֹּדֶשׁ.
Thus said the Lord: I have returned to Zion, and I will dwell in Jerusalem. Jerusalem will be called the City of Faithfulness, and the mount of the Lord of Hosts the Holy Mount.
Significantly, the only other verse in the Bible that place the terms “Zion, Jerusalem, and the mountain of the house / mountain of the Lord” alongside each other is the verse cited from Micah that predicts the calamity (3:12):
לָכֵן בִּגְלַלְכֶם צִיּוֹן שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁ וִירוּשָׁלִַם עִיִּין תִּהְיֶה וְהַר הַבַּיִת לְבָמוֹת יָעַר.
Assuredly, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins And the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.
Thus, this adjacent verse in Zechariah precisely and symmetrically inverts Micah: Zechariah consolingly promises that God will return to (1) Zion, (2) Jerusalem, and the (3) Temple Mount. For this reason it is likely that Zechariah 8:3, and not the following verses, was originally quoted in R. Akiva’s homily was.
R. Akiva’s Approach: A Prophecy about Idolatry
In light of the symmetry between the verses from Micah and Zechariah, R. Akiva’s exegesis assumes that pagan rites are the main concern of Micah’s prophecy.
“The City was Plowed” and the First Furrow
R. Akiva interpretation of the prophecy about the plowing of the city as a reference to idol worship fits its Roman background. The “plowing of the city” mentioned in m. Ta’anit 4:6 likely alludes to the ceremony of sulcus primigenius – the plowing of the first furrow, which constituted the ritual foundation ceremony of a Roman city. The founder of a city would lead two oxen tied to a plow and mark the sacred borders of the city. This ceremony is familiar from the coins of Aelia Capitolina, in which Hadrian is minted on one side of the coin, while on the other side he plows the first furrow.
In this light, we can appreciate R. Akiva’s interpretation of Micah’s words as a prophecy regarding the sulcus primigenius, while Zechariah’s counter-prophecy could have been read as responding to the pagan city dedication: “Thus saith the Lord: I return unto Zion.”
Heaps of stones and Mercury
Continuing this line of interpretation, it is possible that the prophecy that “Jerusalem shall become heaps” – which refers to piles of stones (עי in Hebrew) – was also understood as signifying a pagan ritual. In the Greco-Roman context, piles of stones could hold ritual significance—and the rabbis knew this. For example, the Mishnah states: “One who throws a stone at Merkulis such is its worship” (m. Sanhedrin 7:6). Mercolis is the Roman god Mercury, analogous to the Greek god Hermes – the pagan god mentioned most frequently in the writings of the Sages. Hermes was the god of travelers, who would build piles of stones for his worship; each passing traveler would add a stone by way of a gift.
The Mishnah and contemporary historical testimonies suggest that the old method of worshipping Hermes-Mercury by casting stones was a common practice. Accordingly, Micah’s expression “Jerusalem shall become heaps” might also have been understood in the Midrash as referring to this pagan ritual.
Idolatrous “Shrines in the Forest”
The third part of the prophecy, “And the Temple Mount (pagan?) shrines in the forest,” may be more problematic, since no clear evidence suggests that a pagan temple was indeed constructed on the temple mount. However, a statue of Hadrian was placed on the Mount, probably as part of the founding of the city. From a Jewish perspective, the presence of statues or objects there with an alien religious orientation would probably be sufficient to claim that the Mount had indeed become like “(pagan) shrines in the forest.”
From Drasha to History
Let us now revisit Cassius Dio’s description: Hadrian founded a city on Jerusalem’s ruins, “naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple (ναός) to Jupiter.” Here, Dio’s uses the Greek noun ναός in the singular, with the unequivocal meaning of temple. However, when Dio notes that “the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites (ἱερά) planted there,” he uses the noun ἱερά (ἱερός) in the plural, which probably refers to pagan acts. This suggests that Cassius Dio is referring not to the dedication of a temple to Jupiter, but to pagan rites that supposedly took place on the razed Temple mount. In his understanding, these rites encouraged the Jews to revolt.
Cassius Dio’s description is consistent with the gist of R. Akiva’s reading of Micah: The ceremonial formation of Aelia Capitolina could have been alluded to in the words “Zion will be plowed like a field;” the words “Jerusalem shall become heaps” might have hinted at the piles of stones created in and around the city in honor of pagan worship; and they could also have been interpreted as confirming the pagan ceremonies held in the city and pagan places of worship established to this end.
R. Akiva’s Apocalyptic Midrash and the Outbreak of the Bar Kokhba Revolt
If we adopt this reading of R. Akiva’s drasha and its background, what we have is not a message of comfort for the dark days of Exile, but rather a pesher.
Pesher is a technical term that originated in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It refers to a midrash that tries to discover traces of recent events in the words of the prophet. Some of the peshers depict the eschaton. This method enables the interpreter and his audience to uncover the divine plan behind the chaotic reality, and to take measures in accordance.
The pesher method wasn’t restricted to the Qumran sect. In the last decades of the second temple we can find the pesher in use by other groups as well. Jesus uses many prophetic verses for clarifying his status as a messiah (e.g. Matt 21:4-5, Mark 12:10). Flavius Josephus had asserted that the Jewish revolt against Rome was ultimately sparked by “an ambiguous oracle, likewise found in their sacred scriptures” (Josephus, Jewish War, 6.312) – in other words, a biblical text applied to the current period, a pesher.
For some 60 years after the destruction, Jerusalem served as a camp for the Roman Legion. This situation changed after Hadrian’s visit to the East in 129-130 CE. If Hadrian indeed founded Aelia Capitolina during this visit, then R. Akiva’s interpretation essentially constitutes a call to revolt, together with the reassurance that now, when Micah’s prophecy of devastation has been realized in full, the time has come for God to return to Jerusalem as Zechariah promised.
Notably, this was not his only pesher. R. Akiva’s famous assertion that “a star shall arise from Jacob – through Kozeva from Jacob” (y. Ta‘anit 4:8 68d) is a pesher on Balaam’s blessing. Following those peshers, the Jewish people launched their last major revolt, led by “the star of Jacob,” against Rome and were assured that “Thus said the Lord: I have returned to Zion” (Zec 8:3).
Aftermath: The Roman Edict against Jews Entering Jerusalem
The revolt was a failure and in its wake, Judea fell into ruins. In retrospect, the pesher, the messianic hopes, and the claims of imminent redemption helped seal the fate of the Jewish community in Judea. We might have expected that the pesher would have been suppressed or forgotten, and replaced with a text of consolation —and this is precisely what is reflected in the change of the rabbinic prooftext from Zech 8:3 to Zech 8:4-5.
One of the gravest results of the revolt was the prohibition against Jews entering Jerusalem. We can, I believe, hear an echo of this prohibition in the drasha as it now stands before us. The proposed, original verse from Zechariah calling for God’s return and His immediate revelation on the Temple Mount (Zechariah 8:3) was thus replaced by the subsequent comforting verses:
Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares. Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Though it will seem impossible to the remnant of this people in those days, shall it also be impossible to Me?—declares the Lord of Hosts (Zec 8:4-6).
R. Akiva’s Identification of Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberechiah
In his drasha, R. Akiva identifies Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberechiah, mentioned in Isaiah 8:1-2, with prophets and prophecies that appear elsewhere in the Bible.
Zechariah son of Jeberechiah, was the father-in-law of Ahaz (2 Kings 18:2), and was typically identified in the Midrash with Zechariah the prophet, whose full name was “Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo” (Zec 1:1). The identity of Uriah, however, is less clear.
R. Akiva was not the first to attribute Micah’s famous prophecy in 3:12 to a prophet other than Micah. The book of Jeremiah relates how the prophet Jeremiah evaded the death penalty when the people were able to confirm his message by quoting this same prophecy of Micah:
ירמיה כו טז וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַשָּׂרִים וְכָל הָעָם אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים וְאֶל הַנְּבִיאִים אֵין לָאִישׁ הַזֶּה מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת כִּי בְּשֵׁם יְדֹוד אֱלֹקֵינוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלֵינוּ:
Jeremiah 26 16 Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and prophets, “This man does not deserve the death penalty, for he spoke to us in the name of the Lord our God.”
יז וַיָּקֻמוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִזִּקְנֵי הָאָרֶץ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-כָּל-קְהַל הָעָם לֵאמֹר:
17 And some of the elders of the land arose and said to the entire assemblage of the people,
יח (מִיכָיה) [מִיכָה] הַמּוֹרַשְׁתִּי הָיָה נִבָּא בִּימֵי חִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-כָּל-עַם- יְהוּדָה לֵאמֹר כֹּה-אָמַר יְדֹוָד צְבָאוֹת צִיּוֹן שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁ וִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִיִּים תִּהְיֶה וְהַר הַבַּיִת לְבָמוֹת יָעַר:
18 “Micah the Morashtite, who prophesied in the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, said to all the people of Judah: ‘Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins And the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.’
יט הֶהָמֵת הֱמִתֻהוּ חִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וְכָל יְהוּדָה הֲלֹא יָרֵא אֶת יְדֹוד וַיְחַל אֶת פְּנֵי יְדֹוָד וַיִּנָּחֶם יְדֹוָד אֶל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עֲלֵיהֶם וַאֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים רָעָה גְדוֹלָה עַל נַפְשׁוֹתֵינוּ:
19 “Did King Hezekiah of Judah, and all Judah, put him to death? Did he not rather fear the Lord and implore the Lord, so that the Lord renounced the punishment He had decreed against them? We are about to do great injury to ourselves!”
Notably, the passage from Jeremiah continues with reference to a prophecy attributed to a certain Uriah son of Shemaiah:
כ וְגַם אִישׁ, הָיָה מִתְנַבֵּא בְּשֵׁם יְדוָד, אוּרִיָּהוּ בֶּן שְׁמַעְיָהוּ, מִקִּרְיַת הַיְּעָרִים; וַיִּנָּבֵא עַל הָעִיר הַזֹּאת, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, כְּכֹל, דִּבְרֵי יִרְמְיָהוּ.
Jeremiah 26:20 “There was also a man prophesying in the name of the Lord, Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim, who prophesied against this city and this land the same things as Jeremiah” .
Apparently, the juxtaposition of an otherwise unknown prophet named Uriah to Micah’s prophecy in Jeremiah 26 led R. Akiva to attribute the prophecy of Zion being plowed as a field to Uriah in Isaiah 8.
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Dr. Meir Ben Shahar was born in Jerusalem. He studied and received His Ph.D. in Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He teaches at the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University and Sha’anan College. His primary research interests are historical consciousness in ancient Judaism, rabbinic literature, Second Temple literature and Josephus.
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