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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

History of Palestine: 100 C.E. - 614 C.E.

From the Destruction of Jerusalem to the Mahomedan Rule.

The tragic occurrences accompanying the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple are sufficiently told in detail in Josephus, the Talmud, and Midrashim, and it is useless to speak of them in this place. I will therefore confine myself to the history subsequent thereto.

Jerusalem was, unfortunately for us, destroyed by the Roman general Titus, in the reign of his father, the Emperor Vespasian. It is doubtful whether the city was completely demolished by the Romans, or whether they did or did not cause the plough to pass over it, as the accounts on this head are very contradictory. Josephus, in his Jewish War, book 7. chap 1., says that the army of Titus pulled down and destroyed the whole city, so that it could not be distinguished any more where it had stood, and that he left standing but a few towers, as a token of his prowess to posterity; but he does not mention that the city was ploughed up. Whereas in the Talmud, finis Taanith, it is stated that the plough was actually passed over the site of Jerusalem, though this ploughing is there mentioned to have been done by Turnus Rufus טורנוס רופוס, who lived at a later period, at the time of Rabban Gamliel, but not by Titus. In other books, the name of the one who passed the plough over Jerusalem is given as Titus Aniosrufus, or Tyrannus Rufus; and in Yerushalmi Taanith, and Echa Rabbethi, is called quite briefly Rufus. It would, however, appear that this representation of utter destruction must not be taken to very literally, since we find in several passages of the Talmud--for instance, in Berachoth, 3a, finis Makkoth, &c.--mention made of חרבות ירושלם ruins in Jerusalem; and the very passage of finis Taanith reads כשחרש טורנוס רופוס את האולם "When Turnus Rufus ploughed up the outer hall of the temple," which would denote that only the temple was wasted in this manner, but not the whole city of Jerusalem, of which ruins were allowed to exist.

In the year 3844 (84), Domitian, the brother of Titus, ascended the Roman throne. He was a wicked, tyrannical ruler, and in especial hated the persecuted the Jews. He endeavoured to destroy all the descendants of David. It was under him that, as just said, Turnus Rufus pulled down the remains of the temple, and passed the plough over its site. He also pronounced sentence of death over Rabban Gamliel, who was of the family of David, though he succeeded in escaping, as is related in Taanith, 29a. This Domitian was at length slain by his own servants, after he had reigned fourteen years.

In the year 3858 (98) Nerva, a worthy regent, and a humane man, who was at the same time a friend to the Jews, assumed the government. He endeavoured everywhere to improve the condition of our people, and to render more tolerable the oppression they suffered under the Roman proconsuls. He, however, only reigned two years.

He was succeeded, in 3860 (100), by Trajan, who was also a very great friend to the Jews; and he gave them, at the time of Rabbi Joshua Ben Chananiah, the permission to rebuild the temple, of which, however, they neither could nor would make any use, as is circumstantially told in Bereshith Rabbah, chap. 64. In his reign there arose in the city of Bither ביתר the celebrated Bar Kocheba, i.e. Son of the Star (Num. 24:17), but later called Bar Kusiba, i.e. son of falsehood. He alleged himself to be the regent (messiah?) of the Jews, and rebelled against the Romans, and caused a great slaughter among them, but more especially among the Roman and Greek inhabitants of the island of Cyprus. Trajan sent his sister’s son, Hadrian, as general to Palestine, to fight against Bar Kocheba; he contended against him for several years, but was not able to defeat him. Trajan reigned eighteen years.

In 3878 (118) Hadrian ascended the Roman throne. In the second year of his reign he at length overcame Bar Kocheba, through means of his general, Julius Severus, who had been previously stationed in Britain (England). He captured the uncommonly large and strong city of Bither, and caused such wasting and destruction in Palestine that they exceeded the misery produced by Titus. He destroyed 50 strong places and 985 towns and villages, and there fell 580,000 Jews by the sword, besides the large numbers who were carried off by famine, fire, and the pestilence, and not counting those who were dragged away into foreign lands, and sold as slaves. Near Hebron, four human beings were sold for one seah, about a peck of barley. ["O Lord, behold, and see to whom Thou hast done thus." Lam. 2:20.] Near Bither lay the dead, in a stretch of 18 mills (13½ English miles), for years without interment, till the reign of the succeeding emperor; because Hadrian would not permit the slain to be buried (Yerushalmi Taanith, 4.) This unfortunate war caused the total destruction of Palestine, and is called, in Sotah 9., § 14, Polemos ha-acharon פולמוס האחרון, "the last war." According to Yerushalmi Peah, 7., not an olive tree was at that time to be found in all Palestine, so entirely was everything destroyed. Under the reign of this tyrant the following martyrs were executed: Rabbi Akiba, at Cæsarea; Rabbi Chaninah, son of Teradion; Rabbi Yishab, the scribe (Hassopher); Rabbi Chutzphith, the interpreter; Rabbi Elazar, son of Shamua; and Rabbi Judah, son of Baba.

After this devastation of the country, Hadrian had Jerusalem rebuilt, though less than its former extent, and called it Aelia Capitolina, after his own name Aelianus Hadrianus, and Jupiter Capitolinus; whence Jerusalem is called in Greek books Ailia. He also placed on the temple mount the images of Jupiter and Venus נוגה and כוכב, which remained standing 180 years, till destroyed by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine. Even at this day there is found, on the farthest end of the southern city and temple mount wall, a large stone with the following inscription:*

T I T O    A E L    H A D R I A N O
A N T O N I N O    A V G    P I O
P P P O N T I F    A V G V R

* The letters of this inscription are each five inches in height.

This stone, however, is placed accidentally upside down, so that the writing has to be read reversed. It would appear that formerly there stood on this spot a monument, to which this stone was affixed; and as it fell down at a later period, the Mahomedans found this large stone when they rebuilt or repaired the city and temple mount wall, and placed it in its present position in the clumsy manner we find it, without troubling themselves about the inscription.

Hadrian also caused a wall to be built around Jerusalem, and allowed no Jews to come even within the environs of the city (Lamen. 5:2). It was only at a later period that they were permitted to go to the surrounding mountains, probably the Mount of Olives, to cast a mournful, sorrowing look towards the seat of their ancient glory. Later yet, they purchased from the Greek and Roman garrison the permission to enter its precincts once a year, on the day of its destruction, the 9th of Ab (August), in order to weep there for their mournful fate, and the fall and dispersion of Israel.

In 3900 (140), Antoninus, son-in-law of Hadrian, became emperor. He was a great friend of the Jews, and lived at the time of Rabbi Judah Hannassi, the author of the Mishna; he was often for a length of time in the town of Rami in Galilee (see above, art. Rimon in Zebulun), and lived on terms of the greatest intimacy with this Rabbi Judah. According to Yerush. Megillah, 1., Antoninus privately embraced Judaism. It appears to me that he caused the unburied dead around Bither to be interred, as was stated above. He reigned twenty-four years.

He was succeeded in 3924 (164) by his son-in-law Marcus Aurelius, also called Marcus Antoninus. From Abodah Zarah, 10a, it would appear that Antoninus had a son called Asverus (Severus); if this be well-founded, the prince must have died in his father’s time, since the government was transferred to the son-in-law.

Commodus, the grandson of Marcus Aurelius, became Emperor in 3943 (183);* he was a cruel ruler, and an enemy to the Jews.

* The usual authorities place the death of Marcus three years earlier, 180.

Septimius Severus, a severe and harsh governor, became emperor in 3955 (195). In the year 3964 (204) he made an irruption into the East, and after several bloody battles effected important conquests, and penetrated as far as the Tigris. In the later years of his life, he became more just and humane.

Alexander Severus, a good emperor, ascended the throne in 3985 (225). In 3994 (234) a fierce struggle spring up in Palestine between the Jews and Samaritans, the former under the guidance of a certain Caudius. This contest lasted so long that Alexander was at length induced to interfere, and restored peace in the country by the execution of many of both parties.

Decius Troanus commenced his reign in 4014 (254); his rule lasted but about 1½ years. He is also called Tarchanianus, and is, according to my view, the Tarchinus טרכינוס of Sukkah, 51b, who caused many of the Jews who were settled in Alexandria, in Egypt, to be destroyed. In one edition this passage reads Alexander of Macedon; but this is incorrect, and should be Tarchinus, as it is in the Yerushalmi and Midrash. (See above, Sela Rimmon, in Benjamin.)

Diocletian assumed the government in 4049 (289). He was of mean birth, and a native of Dalmatia; he was carried in his infancy to Syria, and was, according to Bereshith Rabbah, 63, a swineherd near Tiberias, and entered afterwards into the Roman army as private soldier, and rose at last so high that he was chosen Emperor. He lived a long time in the East, at Banias, and caused the Bachr Chams to be dug (see chap. 2., first note.) At the present day, there is still to be seen in Alexandria of Egypt, the column of Diocletian, 99 feet in height, 28 in circumference, with a shaft of 73 feet in length. It is also called Pompey’s Pillar.

Constantine the Great became Emperor in 4072 (312). He was the first monarch who embraced Christianity; the earlier Emperors persecuted and destroyed the followers of this religion in every way and manner, till Constantine and his mother, Helena, professed the same. He caused churches and monasteries to be built in every direction; and also the alleged sepulchre of the founder of their religion was discovered or rather invented by the keen sight of the pious Helena, and supplied with a church by Constantine. He also embellished Byzantium, and called it Constantinople; the Jews name it קושטאנטין or קושטא Costo, or Costantin. The great Roman empire was now divided into the eastern and western; the first is known as the Greco-Romano, the chief seat of the government of which was at Constantinople. Palestine belonged to this, the eastern division, and many believers in Christianity now began to settle in the Holy Land.

At that time there lived at Rome a Jew named Joseph, who went over to Christianity, and acquired thereby much respect with Constantine, and obtained from him the permission to appear openly as converter of the people, and to build churches and monasteries. To carry out his object he travelled into Palestine* as missionary, and commenced to preach publicly in order to persuade the Jews, of whom there were a great many in Cæsarea, Tiberias, Nazara, and Kefr Tanchum, as in fact all these towns were inhabited by Jews solely, to adopt his religion, and he already made a commencement to build churches. But the Jews regarded him not, and would not permit him to construct the like buildings in the places just named. He reported his want of success, on account of this opposition of the Jews, to Constantine, who thereupon imposed on them heavy taxes and fines, and caused a great many of them to be put to death. Constantine reigned till the year 4102 (342). See Abn Ezra, end of Daniel [should be 4097 (337)].

* "Thy destroyers and those who pull thee down proceed from thy own self" (Isaiah 49:17), so is the rendering in our sense of this verse; and this then was the first missionary of the destructive kind who came to Palestine. At present there are also many here, who are sent hither from the pious country of Britain. But Constantine is already dead, and no one molests us with small or large exactions or contributions as fines for contumacy. The times do change!

In the year 4098 (338), there was held a great synod of many Christian clergymen, in order to discuss the character of Jesus of Nazareth; and all agreed to deny him all divine attributes, and that he could be declared nothing more than a prophet.

Constantius commenced his reign in 4099 (339). At that time there lived a large Jewish population in Zippori (Safuri), who showed themselves disobedient to the Emperor; in consequence of which, he attacked them, and out of revenge for their disobedience, he caused the city to be demolished; since that time it is but a miserable small village.

In 4125 (365), Julian, called the Apostate, assumed the government. He was a very great friend of the Jews. In the second year of his reign, he gave the Nahssi of Israel, i.e. the chief religious authority, who was at that time Rabbi Hillel, a great-grandson of R. Judah Hannahssi, and who lived at Tiberias, the order to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Preparations were actually made to carry this resolve into effect, when the sudden death of this good prince frustrated the measure, and the work was left unaccomplished. Julian was an ardent persecutor of the Christians, and repealed all the contributions and taxes with which Constantine had burdened and punished the Jews, and in short abolished all unfavourable laws with regard to our people.

Valentinian ascended the throne in 4128 (368); he was likewise a humane man, and especially kind to the Jews. In the twelfth year of his reign, 4140 (380), he commanded to surround Jerusalem with a new wall, and promised to make liberal expenditure for this purpose; but he died in the same year, and this project was also frustrated.

Theodosius I. commenced his reign in 4140 (380). He was a persecutor of Arian Christians, but a friend to the Jews; and he made it known in all his empire that they should have everywhere unrestricted freedom in the exercise of their religion, and that no one should place any obstacles in their way.

Arcadius commenced his reign in 4155 (395); he also was a wise ruler and a friend to the Jews.

Theodosius II reigned in 4172* (412); he was cruel and inimical to the Jews. In the eighth year of his reign (4180?) he ordered all the Jews to be driven out of Alexandria in Egypt, and commanded that all the contributions and donations which were collected for the Nahssi† of Palestine, for the purpose of defraying the general benevolent objects among the Jews, and the promotion of the study of the law and similar purposes, should be delivered into the imperial treasury.

* Too late by four years.--TRANSLATOR.

† He nevertheless did not reside "any more in Palestine, but in Babylon, although he bore the name נשיא הארץ "The Prince of the Land."

In 4288 (528) Justinian the Great became Emperor. He was a very wise and good prince, and a friend to the Jews. In the year 4316 (556), a bloody contest arose between the Jews and the Christians residing in Cæsarea, in which very many, nearly all of the latter, were destroyed. Justinian had the matter investigated, and declared that the Jews had been in the right.

Maurice reigned in 4244 (584); he was a good and mild prince. At this time, the East was visited by many and violent earthquakes; through which means the building commenced by Julian on the temple mount, was thrown down. The benevolent Maurice sent Jewish builders from Constantinople to Jerusalem to restore it.

Heraclius reigned in 4373 (613). He was engaged in war with the Persian King, Chosroes II. (Kusarai). The Jews in Tiberias, Nazara, and the inhabitants of the mountains of Galilee, were for the Persians. Chosroes penetrated as far as Jerusalem, which he besieged a long time, and took it at length in the month of Sivan, 4374 (June, 614), by assault. He caused a terrible destruction in the same, destroyed all the churches and monasteries, and carried the Christian Patriarch away with him as prisoner of war. About 20,000 Christians lost their lives in this catastrophe; those that remained were likewise carried away into captivity by Chosroes. He next conquered all Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, and carried off in every place a large number of Christians as slaves.

Heraclius and his son Constantine now advanced with a large army and attacked Chosroes furiously; they penetrated as far as Gaza, when the Persians took to flight. At last, however, peace was concluded. Heraclius again obtained possession of Jerusalem, where he would not allow a single Jew to take up his residence, and endeavoured, moreover, to persecute and to destroy them everywhere; for his sharp-sighted court astrologer* had predicted to him, from an inspection of the stars, that his empire should soon fall into the power of a circumcised nation, which he interpreted to be the Jews, but he knew not that the Arabs (Mahomedans) were likewise circumcised. Jerusalem, therefore, remained attached to the Greek empire till 4396 (637).

* Even to this day this notable personage has great influence in the courts of the oriental rulers; and in difficult cases, he is requested to deduce and read the decision and judgment in the premises from the dear and innocent stars. So, also, did the astrologer of Serif Pacha, of Damascus, as late as 5600 (1840) read quite clearly and truly in the stars, that the wicked gluttonous Jews of that place, had butchered and eaten up the old father Thomas (of which occurrence, I may perhaps say something hereafter); and this oracular decision was so evident, as the light of the sun, stars rather, to the just and tolerant Pacha, that he undertook the most stringent measures against the Jews, by torturing and imprisoning them without any better cause than this unreasonable suspicion. (Compare Jud. 5:20.)

A Short Review of this Period, and of the Situation of Science and of the Learned During the Same.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the seat of the Jewish sages, the Sanhedrin, was first in Jabné (Jamnia), but was afterwards transferred to Galilee, to wit, Usha, Shafram, Beth-Sheärim, Zippori, and Tiberias. It was in the three last-named towns, in the times of Rabbi Judah Hannahssi, who compiled the Mishna, about 3979 (209). He died soon after, and his son, Rabbi Gamliel, succeeded him in the Nahssi dignity. He was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Jehudah Nessiah, and he, in the year 4118 (358), by his son Rabbi Hillel, who was the last Nahssi in Palestine. The seat of the later Nessiim (chiefs), as also that of the most learned men, and of the sciences and wisdom in general, was the land of Babel, as it had become by degrees soon after the death of Rabbi Judah Hannahssi. The principal cities where the Jewish colleges flourished, were Sora, Nahardeä, and likewise Pumbaditha. Rabbi Yochanan, a scholar of Rabbi Judah Hannahssi, compiled the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) about the year 4030 (279). Rab Ashi, however, compiled the Talmud Babli (the Babylonian Talmud) in Babel, about the year 4129 (367); but the work was not closed till the year 4260 (400).

We know but little of the learned men of Palestine after the decease of Rabbi Hillel. But in the year 4280 (420) there was a slight difference between the Nahssi and the ריש גלותא Resh Gelutha (chief of the captivity), who was next in rank after the Nahssi, for which reason he left Babel and went to Palestine, where he was received as chief by the learned men of that country.

Since, as I have related, the Emperor Maurice sent, in the year 4344 (584), Jews from Constantinople to Jerusalem to reconstruct the buildings on the Temple Mount, which had been thrown down by the earthquake, it would appear that at that time there were but few Jews in Jerusalem and vicinity, or else there would have been no necessity to send others thither from so great a distance.

The situation of our people during this period, was not continually the same, but always in accordance with the disposition of the reigning sovereign; since, as already related, some of them were eminently friendly, whilst others were equally bitterly inimical to the Jews, and they, accordingly, were either favoured or persecuted, as the whim of the moment dictated.

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