The “Miracles” of Beitar: A Reading of Brachot 48b

Today is was the 15th of Av, which is a minor Jewish holiday. Last year, I wrote about some of its calendrical significance. This year, I want to relate to the Gemara at the tail end of Taanit which discusses the different reasons why Tu B’Av became a holiday. The reasons I outlined last year correlate to the opinion that it was a wood-gathering festival. Right smack in the middle of the hottest, driest season is a ripe time to gather dead wood for the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and in general would be a good time for wood-gathering in preparation for the winter.

There’s another reason, which also comes up in Masechet Brachot; we know from the Mishna at the end of Taanit that Beitar fell on Tisha B’av. One opinion in the Gemara maintains that Tu B’Av was the day that the corpses of the fallen soldiers were finally allowed to be buried. This day became a holiday because God’s hand was seen twice in this event – in that the bodies had not begun to decompose, and in that the Roman authorities granted permission in the first place. Similarly, these two reasons are offered to explain why the Bracha of ‘Ha-tov Ve-hameitiv’ was added to bentching. God is ‘tov’ in that the bodies didn’t decompose, and ‘meitiv’ in that He arranged for the authorities to permit burial.

In the long list of holidays and miracles that the Jewish people celebrate, this one might rank all the way at the bottom. Beitar was an out-and-out massacre. The estimates for the number of dead from the Bar Kochba revolt are staggering – perhaps the greatest massacre of Jews until the Holocaust. Yet, the day that the Roman authorities permitted dead soldiers to be buried was a holiday. It was seen as divine intervention, despite the fact that it was those same Romans who perpetrated the massacres. This is like thanking God for influencing Germany to pay reparations.

Then there’s the fact that the bodies did not decompose. While this fact is admittedly quite miraculous, it hardly seems like the type of miracle that merits commemoration through a holiday or frequent blessing. If one is looking for some signal of Divine intervention in the wake of a national massacre, this seems to be a grasp for straws.

Looking at the Gemara in Brachot in a larger context can provide the key to understanding Chazal’s attitude toward the Beitar massacre. I wrote about it partially here (at the end), but the Gemara in Brachot (48b) stands on its own:

אמר רב נחמן משה תקן לישראל ברכת הזן בשעה שירד להם מן יהושע תקן להם ברכת הארץ כיון שנכנסו לארץ דוד ושלמה תקנו בונה ירושלים דוד תקן על ישראל עמך ועל ירושלים עירך ושלמה תקן על הבית הגדול והקדוש הטוב והמטיב ביבנה תקנוה כנגד הרוגי ביתר דאמר רב מתנא אותו היום שניתנו הרוגי ביתר לקבורה תקנו ביבנה הטוב והמטיב הטוב שלא הסריחו והמטיב שניתנו לקבורה:

Rabbi Nachman said: Moshe instituted the bracha of ‘hazan’ when the manna descended. Joshua instituted the bracha on the land when they entered the land. David and Shlomo instituted ‘boneh Yerushalayim’: David instituted ‘al Yisrael amecha ve-al Yerushalayim irecha’ and Shlomo instituted ‘al ha-bayit ha-gadol ve-hakadosh’. ‘Ha-tov ve-hameitiv’ was instituted at Yavneh for those who fell at Beitar, as R’ Matna said: ‘The day that the Beitar dead were allowed to be buried they instituted ‘ha-tov ve-hameitiv’ at Yavneh. ‘Ha-tov’ ­because they didn’t rot, ‘ve-hameitiv’ because they were allowed to be buried.’

Each bracha is linked by the Gemara with a certain event. These events capture the ultimate theme of each bracha. Never was it more clear that God feeds us than when the manna was descending on a daily basis. Never was our appreciation for the Land of Israel greater than when we first entered it (though 1948 would certainly come close). The newly built Jerusalem, and the newly built Temple, symbolized all of our hopes for God’s indwelling amongst us. Furthermore, there is a clear progression in the theme of each bracha. In the first one, God provides direct nourishment. As the brachot progress, we acknowledge God’s hand in the very productivity of our land, and ultimately in the epitome of our civilization, Jerusalem. The brachot move from the more basic through the higher levels of culture.

The fourth bracha is an abrupt shift from the themes of the first three. Halakha recognizes this shift (‘Amen’ after third and it’s not considered ‘semucha le-chaverta’), but it is clear in the theme as well. The first three are all optimistic, pertaining to an increasingly greater fulfillment of our ultimate vision. The fourth bracha was born in exile. The events that form the basis for this bracha are the product of a people who are searching for God’s Presence when it seems to be glaringly absent. It’s a worldview which seeks out God’s hand in the political machinations of powerful empires and in the silver lining of the darkest clouds.

Beitar was the final glimmer of redemption before the exile which has lasted two millennia. More than the Destruction of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt spelled the end of Judea, and eventually the land of Israel, as the center of Jewish life. This mandated a theological shift toward a search for God within the exile. The bracha of ‘ha-tov ve-hameitiv’ is that bracha which was never supposed to be, but which Our Sages instituted to mark that shift.

According to the Talmudic opinion that Tu B’Av commemorates this ‘double miracle’ of Beitar, this minor holiday is intimately connected with Tisha B’Av. If Tisha B’Av is the day when we lost God’s Presence, when we lived our own destruction, then Tu B’Av marks the day when we begin the quest anew, when we begin to pick up the pieces and to try to thrive despite an exilic existence, and when we begin our search for God despite His apparent absence.

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