One of the reasons given for today’s Lag B’Omer celebrations is to commemorate the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-136 CE. Most Jews believe that this was the last time of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel before the 1948 War of Independence.
However, there may have been another brief period of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, many centuries later.
In “A History of the Jewish People” by Haim Hillel be-Sasson, we learn:
In the last days of Byzantine rule over the Land of Israel the Jews made an attempt to exploit the rivalry between the powers ruling the orient – Persia, Byzantium and Rome – in order to regain their political independence. For hundreds of years they had repeatedly hoped that the redemption of the Jewish people would come with the conquest of Palestine by Persia; and now the time seemed to have arrived. At the beginning of the seventh century, the Persians set out on their conquests in the East, and in the year 614 they reached the borders of Palestine. Their approach set off a powerful messianic fermentation, which is reflected in several works written at the time whose theme is the Redemption. The Armenian historian Sebeos reported (Chapter XXIV): ‘As the Persians approached Palestine, the remnants of the Jewish nation rose against the Christians, joined the Persians and made common cause with them.’ The Jews assisted the invaders materially in their conquest of Galilee. From there the invading army turned to Caesarea and continued its conquests down to Apollonia, then eastwards to Lydda and from there to Jerusalem, which was captured in May 614. Jewish forces also took part in the conquest of Jerusalem. Sophronius, a contemporary monk who lived near Bethlehem, wrote in a poem: ‘God-seeking strangers and citizens of the city [Jerusalem]; . When they faced the Persians and their Hebrew friends/Hastened to close the city gates.’
The Persians handed Jerusalem over to Jewish settlers, who proceeded with the expulsion of the Christians and the removal of their churches. At the head of Jerusalem stood a leader whom we know only by his messianic name: Nehemiah ben Hushiel ben Ephraim ben Joseph. The sacrificial cult may even have been resumed. Jewish rule in Jerusalem lasted three years. In 617 there was a reversal of Persian policy. For reasons that are not sufficiently clear, the Persians made peace with the Christians. The Jews, on the other hand, did not, and the Persian authorities were forced to fight them: ‘And they waged war against the saints and brought down many of them. and Shiroi [the king of Persia] stabbed Nehemiah ben Hushiel. and sixteen of the just were killed together with him (Book of Zerubabel, page 101).
There are other accounts of this episode as well.
The Jews saw another opportunity to take back Jerusalem in the early seventh century, just before the rise of Islam. The Persians conquered what had been Judea from the Byzantine Empire, capturing Jerusalem in 614 CE. The Armenian historian Sebeos described the Jews’ reaction to the Persian campaign: “As the Persians approached Palestine, the remnants of the Jewish nation rose against the Christians, joined the Persians and made common cause with them.” The Persians even installed a Jew, Nehemiah ben Hushiel ben Ephraim ben Joseph, to rule the city.
But this regime was short-lived. Hoping to accommodate their Roman Christian subjects, the Persians apparently withdrew their support for any Jewish self-government. Moreover, in 629 CE the Byzantine emperor Heraclius reconquered Jerusalem, where the former anti-Jewish edicts were again renewed. The city’s new rulers banned public recital of Judaism’s core prayer, the Shema, and executed many Jews or evicted them to neighboring countries. Five years later, the Byzantines required all the empire’s Jews to become baptized. This harsh regime did not last long, however, for in 638 CE Muslim armies from Arabia conquered Jerusalem, thus opening a whole new chapter in the Holy City’s history.
Thirteen hundred years would pass between the last Jewish self-government in Jerusalem in 614 and the establishment of a Jewish national home under the British that would later become the State of Israel. During that time, Jerusalem would remain the center of Jewish national aspirations as well as religious ritual. But the quest to return to Jerusalem was not left as an eschatological task for the distant future. Jews returned to Jerusalem whenever the bans on Jewish settlement were lifted; thus many Jews came back to the Holy City after the second caliph of Islam defeated the Byzantines, establishing a new Jewish Quarter that was populated until the First Crusade. Jerusalem’s main Jewish synagogue in the first decades of Islamic rule, known as “the Cave,” was located under the Temple Mount, at the point along the Western MA closest to the Holy of Holies.
The Jewish Encyclopedia does not mention this, however.