In The Aftermath Of The Betar Massacre
‘Forty Se’ah Of Tefillin Casings Were Found…’
The Gemara (Gittin 57b-58a) speaks of the large number of Jews massacred by the Romans at Betar (after the destruction of the second Beth Hamikdash). Rabbah b. Bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan that 40 se’ah of tefillin casings were found on the heads of Betar’s slaughtered victims. (A se’ah is equivalent to 144 eggs.)
Or Was It 120 Se’ah?
The Gemara cites a baraita which seems to contradict R. Yochanan’s account, for the baraita states that 120 se’ah of tefillin casings – not 40 – were found on the victims of Betar. The Gemara explains that both accounts are true; one refers to the number of tefillin shel rosh whereas the other refers to the number of tefillin shel yad. Rashi (s.v. dedareh) explains that tefillin shel rosh are larger than tefillin shel yad because the former have four compartments whereas the latter only have one.
Shel Yad On The Head?
The Maharam Shiff (ad loc.) notes a difficulty. How can the Gemara suggest that Rabbah b. Bar Chana was referring to tefillin shel yad when he stresses that 40 se’ah of tefillin boxes were found on the heads of Betar’s victims? Furthermore, the Rashash (ad loc.) asks: Are tefillin shel rosh really three times larger than tefillin shel yad?
A Novel Explanation
The Vilna Gaon (Divrei Eliyahu ad loc) suggests that a number of victims were only wearing their tefillin shel yad, for the proper order of donning and removing tefillin is to don one’s hand tefillin first and remove it last. Thus, the victims wearing tefillin can be divided into three groups: a) those who were in the process of donning tefillin and only wearing their tefillin shel yad; b) those who were wearing both tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh; c) those who were in the process of removing their tefillin, and had already taken off their tefillin shel rosh but not their shel yad.
Thus, according to the Vilna Gaon, Rabbah b. Bar Chana, who says that 40 se’ah of tefillin casings were found on the heads of Betar’s victims, was referring to tefillin shel rosh (unlike Rashi’s explanation). And the baraita, which mentions 120 se’ah of tefillin casings, was referring to tefillin shel yad. And the ratio makes sense: for every person wearing tefillin shel rosh, there were an additional two wearing only their tefillin shel yad (as explained above).