Ask the Rabbi: Heroism at Masada?

It might come as a surprise that the Sages never discuss Masada in their vast Talmudic or midrashic literature.

AERIAL VIEW of Masada in the Judaean Desert, with the Dead Sea in the distance. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
AERIAL VIEW of Masada in the Judaean Desert, with the Dead Sea in the distance.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Any tourist visiting Israel, let alone a state resident, has almost inevitably visited the ancient fortress of Masada. Originally built by Herod, it was destroyed nearly a century later in 73 CE by the Romans to kill remaining Jewish rebels who fled there after the destruction of Jerusalem.
According to the ancient historian Josephus, 967 Jews chose to kill each other rather than be taken as captives. In the words of their leader, Eleazar ben Yair, “We have it in our power to die nobly and in freedom. Our fate at the break of day is certain capture; but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear.” This mass killing and suicide, according to Josephus, was preceded six years beforehand in Gamla by 4,000 Jews taking their own lives.
As Yael Zerubavel and others have documented, the tale of Masada was lionized by early-20th-century Zionists as a model for Jews to refuse to accept subjugation to foreign powers. We should fight to the end and never give up our freedom. The story took on greater significance in the 1960s with the archaeological dig led by IDF general Yigal Yadin. His best-selling book, in both Hebrew and English, further entrenched the centrality of the narrative in the Israeli ethos.
It might therefore come as a surprise that the Sages never discuss Masada in their vast Talmudic or midrashic literature. Why?
One explanation might be that the mass suicide never took place! Several historians have argued that Josephus, whose writings are tinged with inaccuracies based on ideology or personal benefit, is the only source for this myth. There is no substantive archaeological or other evidence to corroborate the story. In a recent book, Prof. Jodi Magness concluded that archaeology cannot prove or disprove Josephus’s story.
Another possible explanation for the Sages’ silence is that they disapproved of the protagonists or, more significantly, their decision.
Josephus asserts that the Masada rebels were comprised of members of the Sicarii group, who seem to have been an (extremist?) splinter group that also fought with their fellow Jews. The Sages may have had no interest in memorializing the actions of such uncompromising warriors, particularly after the failed rebellions in 115-117 CE (“Uprising of the Diaspora” or “Kitos War”) and 132-136 CE (the Bar-Kochba uprising).
Alternatively, or in addition, the Sages may have believed that their decision to kill each other was a severe violation of Jewish law. Judaism prohibits suicide, and Jewish law has largely urged its adherents to practice our rituals under political subjugation rather than choosing death. Indeed, as Amir Mashiach has noted, in the 10th-century Book of Jossipon (sometimes misattributed to Josephus because it contains many parallel historical stories), the entire episode of Gamla is omitted, while the men at Masada, after killing their families, died in battle.
The legitimacy of the warriors’ actions was debated by two leading religious-Zionist rabbis during the 1960s. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then the chief rabbi of the IDF, wrote an extensive defense of their decision. While suicide is broadly prohibited, there are a number of cases in which the Sages justified it under extreme conditions. The Talmud, for example, records the story of a “mother and seven children” jumping off a roof rather than commit idolatry, alongside another story of 400 boys and girls leaping into the sea rather than being sold into captivity (Gittin 57b). During the Crusades, some medieval scholars justified suicide – and even killing their own children – rather than being killed or forced to convert to Christianity. Perhaps most significantly, the Sages justified King Saul falling on his sword rather than being captured by the Philistines (I Samuel 31). For Goren, this case was a paradigm to permit committing suicide rather than allowing the desecration of the Name of Heaven by allowing an enemy to kill Jews or gloatingly take captives.
He further concluded that the same principle should apply to IDF soldiers. If one’s capture will lead to the disclosure of important state secrets or security information, thereby endangering many others, one should commit suicide before being tortured into revealing such information. As Yaron Silverstein has noted, Goren likely had in mind the case of Uri Elan, who was captured in 1955 on a reconnaissance mission in Syria and committed suicide before revealing any secrets.
Goren’s claim about Masada was strongly criticized by several scholars, including Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria, who deemed it “mistaken and dangerous.” Neria argued that the underlying halachic principle is encompassed by the biblical verse “live by them [the commandments].” This established the principle that we should choose life in order to ensure the future of the Jewish people. If Jews throughout the generations had followed the model of Eleazer ben Yair, choosing death over political subjugation, the nation would have never survived. If the Masada fighters had surrendered, some would’ve been killed or enslaved, but others may have escaped and lived on. King Saul, in his mind, was a unique case of a national symbol whose death had further been guaranteed by the Prophet Samuel. For other Jews, heroism means to know when to fight and when to stay alive. Indeed, in more recent decades, many committed Zionists have questioned whether the Masada fighters’ zealousness is worthy of emulation.
Goren’s essay remains an important part of his broader project to revive Jewish writings on war and heroism. Yet one wonders if in the case of Masada his reasonable refusal to condemn their heartbreaking decision became conflated with promoting them as a model for emulation. In the next column, we’ll contrast this case with the example of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The writer, a postdoctoral scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.