The Tiger at the Gates: The Romans Lay Siege to Jerusalem

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19 Jul 2011
Fast of Tisha B'Av

The Enemy Approaches, and Famine in Yerushalayim

When the Roman Emperor was convinced by Bar-Kamtza that the Jews were indeed mounting a rebellion, he sent against Yerushalayim the great general, Nero. As Nero approached, he tried to find out what G-d, in whom he believed, wanted him to do. He shot an arrow to the east, and it fell in the direction of Yerushalayim. He shot another arrow to the west, and it likewise fell in the direction of Yerushalayim. He shot more arrows north and south, and they all fell pointing in the direction of Yerushalayim. He said to himself, “It must be that G-d Himself wants me to destroy His holy city.”

To confirm whether this was true or not, he asked a young child what verse he had learned in school that day, and the child replied, “…And I will give over my vengeance against Edom (Rome) into the hands of Israel.” (Yechezkel, 25) He understood that Hashem was using Rome as a tool with which to punish His People, Israel, but that in the end, He was still on the side of the Jews, and would take drastic measures against Rome.

He said, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, wishes to destroy His House, and wants to use me to do that job, but He will ultimately punish me for doing that.” He dismounted, fled and converted to Judaism, and from him descended the great Tanna, Rabbi Meir.

But Rome then sent Vespasian, who came with a great army, and besieged the city for three years.

But in the City of Yerushalayim, there were three very wealthy men. Their names were Nakdimon ben Gurion, Ben Kalba Savua and Ben Tzitzis HaK’sas. They were called those names because the first meant that he was so rich and so dominated the affairs of the city that it seemed as if “the sun shone for him.” The second was called his name because he was so generous that anybody, even a “dog” who entered his house hungry would come out satisfied. The third was called that because when he walked wearing his “Tzitzit,” (a ritual attachment to four-cornered garments), they would trail on cushions, because he could afford always to have his way padded by his servants with cushions. Others said that he was so rich and important that when he traveled to Rome, his “kisei,” or chair, would always be placed among the nobles of Rome.

These loyal citizens of Yerushalayim each made a promise to supply the city with a necessity of its survival for as long as the siege would last. One offered to provide wheat and barley, another to provide wine and salt and oil, and the third, to provide wood for the duration of the siege. And, in fact, they could have supported the city for twenty-one years, were it not for …

The Internal Conflict

In the city there was a group of people, non-productive and inclined only to violence. They wanted to fight the Romans. The Rabbis wanted to negotiate with the Romans. The Rabbis said to the “Biryonim,” the violent militants, “let us go outside and try to make peace with the Romans.” The Biryonim said they would not allow it, because they insisted on fighting, although the Rabbis tried to persuade them that it would be to no avail.

To exclude other options, and to bring the matter to a head, the Biryonim set fire to the stores of food, bringing famine upon the city.

One of the richest women in the city was named Marta, daughter of Beitus. Following her normal pattern of behavior, she sent her servant out to purchase some of the finest flour. The servant went out and, though he searched high and low, was unable to find a crumb, and so he reported to his mistress. But he told her that there had been a small quantity of a somewhat inferior grade of flour still available. She told him, “Buy some for me at once!” By the time the servant reached the market, that too was gone. “There’s still some ordinary flour!” “Buy some for me!” “There’s only barley flour left!” “Get it!” “It’s all gone!”

Desperate, she put her slippers on, and went out to look for food herself. Some say she stepped on a piece of dung, and died. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai applied to her the verse “The delicate among you, who had never before set foot on the ground…” (Devarim, 28:56) Others say she found a dried fig that Rabbi Tzadok had spat out during his period of recuperation, and died when she ate it. Before she died, she had all her gold and silver thrown out in the streets, saying “What good do these do for me now?” Hearing this, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said with regard to her, she is an example of “They throw their money out in the streets!” (Yechezkel, 7:19)