What happened at Masada? If the event was important, why was it ignored by many historians and especially in rabbinic literature?
The story appears only in Josephus’s The Jewish War, written shortly after the event, and therefore we don’t know what really happened and why.
The most important question is why the Jews at Masada stopped fighting. According to Josephus, they were in a good strategic position, had adequate food and water, and ample supplies of weapons and stones that they used to defend themselves. Why then did they give up?
Josephus writes that as the Jews saw a ramp being built across the valley on the western side, they despaired and killed themselves.
But as visitors to Masada may ask, why didn’t they continue to throw down boulders to stop the Romans?
More difficult to understand is the violation of the stringent Jewish prohibition against committing murder and suicide — sins for which a Jew is not buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Did they die according to Jewish law al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name, or did they commit a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name?
Some conclude that the Jewish defenders were not observant Jews, but there is no evidence for this and it makes no sense. They were fighting for Judaism and the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
Others suggest that they were “fanatics”, “Zealots”, unwilling to compromise, or surrender. The tragedy, however, raises a halachic question, and provides our first clue about why the Jews may have committed murder/suicide.
And it may explain Masada’s message about Jewish survival. What are we to learn from the notion that “Masada shall not fall again”, that Israel should never give up?
Is it better, as their leader, Eleazar, urged, “to die as free men rather than live as slaves?” That is not a Jewish ideal.
“Preserve life” is the primary Jewish moral and ethical code of behaviour. Giving up one’s life is prohibited in Jewish law, except in three instances: murder, extreme sexual offenses, and publicly desecrating and denying Judaism.
Enslavement isn’t included. And there’s another clue: at the very end of the story Josephus notes the date of this tragedy in the Roman calendar, “the 15th of Xanthicos”, which corresponds to the time of Passover.
Among the scroll fragments discovered at Masada was a section of the Prophet Ezekiel, chapter 37, the vision of the “dry bones”, a reference to resurrection.
We read this portion as the haftorah on one day of the year: the intermediate Sabbath of Passover! And according to tradition, the resurrection of the dead will take place during the month of Nissan. Had the people on Masada been reading this same text before they decided to destroy themselves?
Did they believe that through their self-sacrifice they would bring messianic redemption?
Josephus writes that the defenders of Masada were political extremists who believed that foreign occupation of Eretz Yisrael was an abomination.
For them, there was no compromise. But they were not supported by the rabbis, since Judaism’s highest ideal is “to preserve life”.
Rabbinic literature ignores Masada; it was never more than a minor footnote in Jewish history. There are, however, other instances of martyrdom especially on Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur.
Perhaps the rabbis did not comment because they were against what happened. Although they may not have known about Masada at the time, they probably knew later on.
Or, perhaps it never happened at all. We are left with a terrible, haunting silence.
Choosing homicide/suicide rather than fighting back is unusual, and may relate to another possibility. As long as the intended victims were Roman soldiers, there was no problem in fighting back. If the Romans, however, used Jewish slaves to build the ramp and used them as human shields, then the Jews at Masada faced a terrible dilemma: they could not — according to Jewish law and ethics — kill innocents to protect themselves.
At that point their decision assumes heroic proportions.
Knowing that the Romans would destroy everything they found, the Jews on Masada may have tried to send a message in the only way that could not be destroyed: the date, Passover, the holiday of liberation.
Perhaps in this way they wanted to convey the importance of freedom, and if necessary, of self-sacrifice.
But there are many ways of expressing freedom. For the last 2,000 years no one knew or cared about Masada. It became part of modern Zionism only when Yitzhak Lamdan, almost 100 years ago, coined his famous phrase: “Masada shall not fall again.” Eretz Yisrael, he believed, was the last refuge of the Jews; they held out against all odds.
Well, almost. In 1954, Lamdan committed suicide, and later the myth of Masada as a symbol of heroic resistance was adopted as a metaphor for Israel’s struggle to survive.
We don’t know if Josephus’s story is true — the victims left nothing to explain their actions, and archaeologists discovered the bones of only 25 bodies; Josephus writes that there were nearly 1,000 Jews at Masada. What happened to the rest?
We should remember that Josephus — who was opposed to Jewish resistance against Rome — wrote that the Sicarii killed people in nearby Ein Gedi and stole their food in order to stock Masada.
If that’s true, it is possible that he knew beforehand who was at Masada. Yigael Yadin, however, called them “Zealots” in the English edition of his book on Masada, but that is a separate group.
It is also possible that there were different groups at Masada (including Essenes) who fought with and killed each other.
A few years before the struggle for Masada ensued, another event took place that was critical to Jewish survival. Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakkai, one of the leading rabbis of his day, obtained permission from the Roman general Vespasian to reconstitute a center of religious authority, the Sanhedrin, in Yavne. This changed the course of Jewish history. Despite persecution, our rabbis continued to teach and to write down the Oral Law and the Talmud, without which Judaism would not have survived at all.
Despite its popularity — it’s the second most visited site in Israel after the Western Wall — Masada is historically irrelevant.
What is meaningful is not the spectacular event but everyday actions, what seem to be commonplace. Throughout the generations, Jews affirm their commitment to Judaism, preserving and observing the everyday Jewish way of life, of halacha, morality and ethics.
On the evening of Passover, we retell the story of liberation from Egyptian slavery, reaffirming our belief in God, the centrality of Jerusalem, and our homeland in Eretz Yisrael. In the shadow of tragedy, we embrace our history and rededicate ourselves to Jewish authenticity.
Paradoxically, Masada, a place where Jews resisted Roman occupation and were destroyed, is also a symbol of Jewish survival. In the final analysis, its defenders may have been motivated not by despair but by faith.
Whatever happened, it was not only a struggle for Jewish nationalism; it represented an expression of Jewish conscience and commitment. Jodi Magness’s new book, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, is an important contribution to our understanding of Masada and its historical context.
Not only is it well-written, including personal experiences, her own research, and her association with the famous Israeli archaeologists who supervised excavations at Masada; it also is a thorough presentation of what was discovered there, the historical period, and a comprehensive review of the literature and various theories about what happened there, and why. It is, therefore, an essential read.
In response to my question of why, according to Josephus — the only source for knowing what may have happened at Masada — the Jewish defenders of Masada stopped fighting,
Prof Magness responded: “According to Josephus, the Jews decided they had no further chance of holding out after the Romans breached the fortification wall around the top of the mountain.
“Of course they did throw down boulders, but that did not do much against an iron-clad battering ram on a tall stone podium; and remember too that the Roman coverfire meant that the movements of the Jews were limited.”
But standing at the edge of Masada looking down at the Roman ramp, one can appreciate the advantage that the Jews had.
A boulder thrown down would have a powerful force that would destroy anything in its path. Why didn’t the Jews who saw what was happening respond?
Although we don’t know if Josephus had any firsthand knowledge of what happened at Masada, since he wrote his book in Rome, he probably spoke with contemporaries and may have had access to witnesses and other sources of information.
His attention to details, moreover, and his accuracy has astounded archaeologists. Although the speeches he quotes may well be his own ideas and the reasons for the final tragedy cannot be verified, there are no other literary sources for the event.
We should also remember that Josephus, although Jewish, was writing as a Roman historian for Greek and Roman readers. He was under no obligation to present the Jews in a positive light.
As a historian, however, his writing is usually reliable and therefore we must assume that his telling of the Masada story has at least some validity.
The story of Masada remains an enigma; there is no way of knowing exactly what happened there. Presenting Masada as a dramatic — and extreme — example of heroic resistance to the foreign occupation of Eretz Yisrael, however, is problematic. Jewish nationalism is not about suicide, nor is suicide sanctioned by Judaism.
Faced with an unbearable choice — killing innocent Jewish slaves in order to survive — the defenders of Masada displayed their affirmation of the Jewish values upon which the Jewish people and the State of Israel depend. Their heroism challenges us to live a meaningful, inspired life.
* The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist, who has been a tour guide in Israel for nearly 40 years
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