Recently, archaeologists unearthed several Roman swords in a cave in the Judean desert, which they believe had been stored there by Jewish rebels during the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century CE. Meir Soloveichik considers this discovery in light of one made over 80 years ago, by the famed soldier-archaeologist Yigael Yadin, in another desert cavern: letters from the rebel leader Shimon Bar Kokhba himself. In one missive, he asks to be brought palm branches (lulavim), citrons, willows, and myrtle for the rites of the Sukkot holiday—which the Jews of 2023 will begin celebrating this Friday evening:
In the midst of war against the mightiest empire on earth, Bar Kokhba desperately sought for his army to observe the rituals of Sukkot. The date palm was a supreme agricultural symbol of Judea. That is why it is wielded on the biblical harvest holiday and why Vespasian, [the Roman emperor who crushed an earlier Jewish revolt in 70 CE], had minted coins with the same tree and the triumphant words Judea Capta (“Judea has been captured”). The request for lulavim is made more poignant when we realize that in rabbinic thought, the ramrod palm branch represents the spine. Above all, it reminds us, as Rabbi Norman Lamm reflected, that “to be a Jew, to be possessed of this sublime historic faith, . . . requires, above all else, the power, the moral strength, the ethical might, and the undaunted conviction that are symbolized by the unbending backbone, the lulav.”
Yadin reports that in standing among the skeletons of the Jewish soldiers, and finding the letter of Bar Kokhba, awe settled over his cohort. . . . They were right to be in awe, as it is indeed awe-inspiring to hold a Roman sword once wielded by fighters for Judean freedom. But it’s even more inspiring to ponder the fact that these weapons, once wielded by Hadrianic legions thought to be all but invincible, now remind us of an empire long gone, even as the world still has plenty of ideological heirs of Hadrian, who despise the Jewishness of Jerusalem.
Yet the ultimate vindication . . . is to be found in the countless lulavim that will adorn Jerusalem this year, embodying a living, vibrant Judaism that holds aloft the spiritual symbol of the Jewish spine, and therefore of Jewish endurance. Thus does this new archaeological discovery, several weeks before Sukkot, remind us of the wonder of our age: the lulav has outlasted the Roman sword.