Massacres, Migration and Messiahs
(Part 1 of 2)
The Spanish Inquisition
In the early part of the second century CE, the might of the Roman empire was in the hands of Hadrian, who had plans to turn Jerusalem into a pagan city. In 132 CE, a Jew called Simon Bar Kosiba, nicknamed Bar Kochba, led a rebellion against the Romans, in which he and his followers actually had the upper hand for a time.
The great Rabbi Akiva was one of Bar Kochba’s followers and saw in him the potential to be the Messiah.
But in 135 CE, the city of Betar, the last stronghold of the rebels, fell to the Romans. The date once again was the 9th Av. To prevent a repeat episode, Hadrian decided to cut-off the Jews from their faith, their land and in particular, from Jerusalem.
Many complied with the new decrees – but one who refused to conform was Rabbi Akiva, who was flayed to death with iron combs the following year.
The Writing of the Talmud
Because the situation for the Jews at that time was so dire, the decision was made to set the Oral Law in writing. Towards the end of the second century Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, a wealthy man who enjoyed relatively good relations with the Romans, wrote the Mishna in six sections, covering the six basic areas of Jewish law.
Subsequently, the Mishna was expanded upon in the Talmud. Two versions were written; one in Babylon and one in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Talmud was prepared under difficult circumstances and is more cryptic and harder to understand. In general, Jews today study the Babylonian Talmud.
The Rise of Christianity and Islam
By the beginning of the 4th century, Christianity had ceased to be an offshoot of Judaism – it had established its doctrines and was a religion in its own right.
Practicing Christianity was outlawed in Rome, punishable by a grisly death. But in the year 312, Constantine became emperor and following a seemingly prophetic dream, decided to convert the entire empire to Christianity. His kingdom became known as the Byzantine Empire and its leader focused on the eradication of paganism.
Typically, a concerted attempt to destroy Judaism followed and Jews lost many of their civil and religious rights. Some fled the areas controlled by the empire and settled in Arabia. By the middle fo the 7th century CE, the teachings of the prophet Mohammed had been widely accepted here and the whole region, including Jerusalem, was under Islamic control.
Jews were allowed to live in Arabia without having to convert, but the laws applied to them made them very much an underclass.
Jews continued to move around the Arab world, settling in Spain, Egypt, Jerusalem and France. But in the 11th century a new threat cropped up in the form of the Crusades.
Instigated primarily as a means for the Christian church to raise funds and minimise the influence of Islam, Jews in the path of the Crusaders were also prime targets. There were 10 separate crusades over a period of 200 years and for around 100 of these, until the year 1187, the Crusaders held control over Jerusalem, building churches and hospitals to replace the mosques.
Eventually, an Egyptian Sultan overpowered the Crusaders and the city became part of the Muslim world once more.
Unfortunately, the downfall of the Crusaders did not mark the end of Christian persecution of the Jews. They were forbidden from owning land and from entering into many professions.
They were forced to dress in a way that would outwardly identify them as Jews. And they were subjected to regular waves of massacres in the form of blood libels, where they stood accused of murdering Christian children in order to drink their blood.
On the 9th Av in the year 1260, the Jews were expelled from England. In the 14th century, the Black Death was another calamity blamed on the Jews - many were murdered as a result.
In European cities, Jewish communities were often forced to live herded into ghettos. But all these troubles were capped in 1478 with the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition. The situation in Spain reached a peak in 1492, when Islam fell and the entire country reverted to Christianity. On 9th Av (again) a decree was issued that forced the Jews to leave Spain or convert – those who stayed and continued to practice Judaism in secret were hunted out, tortured and killed.
Many Jews fled first to Portugal but the inquisition caught up with them there shortly afterwards. The next most attractive destination was Poland, where Jews had been free to live since an open invitation was issued to them in 1264.