The Bar Kokhba War (132-135 CE) broke out when Hadrian decided to refound Jerusalem – still largely ruined from the disastrous Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE) – as the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina. Although Jewish discontent had already erupted into violence in the Diaspora during the reign of Trajan, the Jews of Judaea seem not to have risen up against the Romans until this threatened abomination against the site of the Temple and the surrounding Holy City. The leader of this new rebellion, which took the form of a bloody guerilla war, was Simon bar Kokhba who had messianic pretensions and gained a reputation as a great warrior. Unfortunately, although Bar Kokhba managed to make Hadrian pay dearly for Aelia Capitolina, when the emperor assembled an army of six full legions to invade Judaea in 134 CE the rebellion was soon crushed. In punishment almost the entirety of Judaea was laid waste by the victorious Romans and the Jewish population destroyed or driven out.
In order to fund the rebellion, Bar Kokhba and his supporters used what circulating coins they could find or capture from the Romans and restruck them with new types more suitable for their revolutionary purposes. The most remarkable and desirable of the new types were used for the silver sela overstruck primarily on Syrian and Phoenician tetradrachms. The obverse features a depiction of the façade of the Jerusalem Temple with an uncertain object inside, which has been variously interpreted as the show bread table or the Ark of the Covenant. It has been suggested that the Bar Kokhba rebels intended to rebuild the Temple, but the presence of either the show bread table or the Ark – items lost at the end of the Jewish Revolt or earlier – seems to imply that the image represents the idea of the Temple to rally support rather than any real edifice planned by the Bar Kokhba rebels. The reverse type looks back to the coinage of the Jewish Revolt in its depiction of the lulav and etrog associated with the Fest of Tabernacles.
Most of the silver Bar Kochba coins were overstruck upon tetradrachms of Antioch commonly circulating in Judaea at that time. They served as a declaration of independence from Rome, since only sovereign entities could mint coins in silver, and in their overstriking, the rebels could simultaneously insult the emperor and make nationalistic declarations. David Hendin maintains that the inscription “First Year” had an “aggressive posture… The principal motive of the coins was both political and psychological-to make bold statements of Jewish sovereignty, whether or not it actually existed, to both Jews and Romans.”The Temple façade on the obverse has been variously described as a schematic depiction of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, or perhaps as an imaginary sketch of a rebuilt Temple to come. It has been posited that the item within the two central columns is the Ark of the Covenant, an ark holding Torah scrolls, the showbread table, or possibly a stylized generic ritual chalice. On the reverse of the sela are represented the Four Species, the most important articles Jews utilize in the ritual observance of Sukkot, known as “The Holiday” while the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The Four Species are here depicted as the central object, the lulav (a bundle comprised of three of the species) and, to its left, the etrog (the fourth species). The objects used in the ritual celebration of the festival of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-41: “You shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot] the fruit of the citron tree (etrog), the branches of the date palm (tamar), twigs of a plaited tree [myrtle] (aravot), and brook willows (hasadim)… You shall celebrate it [Sukkot] as a festival for God …[This is] an eternal decree for your generations.”After the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.), Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who had escaped from the besieged Jerusalem in a coffin) ordered that the ceremony of the Four Species should be carried out as a memorial to the Temple. (Mehahot 65a).
Tetrastyle façade of the Temple of Jerusalem; show bread table or Ark of the Covenant in chest form with semicircular lid and short legs, seen from a narrow side
‘Year one of the redemption of Israel’ (Paleo-Hebrew), lulav with etrog at left
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