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  • Chava Teitelbaum

Masada: The Mass Suicide that became a Tourist Attraction

The year is 37 CE, and the air is thick with rebellion. In Jerusalem, warring factions of Jews argue over whether to put up a fight against Roman domination. A fiery group known as the Zealots were plotting a grand revolt against the Romans, while the religious leaders tried to cool them off in favor of peaceful negotiations. But an extremist fringe group of Zealots, known as the Sicarii, were gaining traction and showing no sign of surrender.

Masada is the second most popular historical site to visit in Israel, but not everyone knows the controversial and tragic story behind it.

In fact, historians themselves are baffled by the strange historical account coupled with a surprising lack of evidence, making it somewhat of a de

sert mystery.

While the Romans had strength and numbers, the sheer will of the Jewish rebels was a force to be reckoned with. The Romans took this threat seriously, and Emperor Herod erected a military fortress on a strategic desert plateau known as Masada.

Most of what we know of Masada comes from the writings of the historian Flavius Josephus. Jospehus was a Jewish scholar turned Roman advisor. Being an employee of the Roman Emperor, Josephus was enlisted to paint a glorious picture of the Roman empire through his writings- making us question their historical accuracy.

Herod’s fears were not unwarranted. Just a mere 30 years later, the Zealots launched a full-scale revolt against the Romans; a small group of guerilla fighters facing the force of an empire that had conquered the globe. In this story, unlike that of the Chanuka miracle, the Jewish rebels were no match for an army of that caliber. The Jewish leaders that had opposed the rebellion now braced themselves for total


When you visit Masada, you’ll hike up a steep and winding incline to the top of a mountain plateau, surrounded by desert beauty. Or, if you snooze the alarm and get there after the sun comes up, the Israeli park rangers will laugh at you and tell you to take the cable-car, because you will not survive the scorching heat (t

his is the version that happened to me).

Whichever way you make it to the top, once there you will see the skeletal remains of ancient Roman grandeur. What you probably won’t see is the evidence of the Jewish rebels that were supposed to have lived there.

The violent and unrelenting Sicarii forged on, despite their unquestionable defeat in Jerusalem. Remaining members fled to the outpost of Masada, one of the few stations that had been captured by the Sicarii amidst the fighting. Eventually, several hundred men, women and children, survivors of the battle for Jerusalem, settled atop this desert oasis. Josephus explains that these were much more than a few tired, but reckless refugees. He describes them as bloodthirsty pillagers who terrorized the local Jewish villages and raided their supplies- that is, until the demise that brought them historical fame and glory.

Now most Israeli school children know the end of this story- or so they think. It is the story that has emblazoned Masada as a national symbol of courage, heroism, and the struggle to survive. But can archeology confirm what we all believe to b

e true?

When the Romans wanted to get a job done, they did it thoroughly, until the very end. They had to impress upon the rebels, and the rest of the empire in their sovereignty- that any attempt at rebellion is futile. They set out to squash any hope that remained, including the Sicarii outpost.

Once the Romans laid siege upon Masada, the group’s leader, Elazar ben Yair, knew it was only a matter of weeks before they would all be captured. In the choice between certain death or a lifetime of slavery, he knew where he stood. The task would just be to convince the rest of his tribe.

According to Josephus’s writings, what happened next was an eerie, cult-like disaster- the mass suicide of over 900 people. When the Romans broke through the walls with their battering rams, preparing to do battle with these vicious fighters, they were met with the silence of a ghost town. Only two women and five children, hidden in a cistern, were found alive.

This is the sorry tale that they told:

The leader Elazar ben Yair made a powerful exclamation, fearing the worst had come. Their enemies were closing in on them, and a life of misery and shame awaited them opposite Masada’s walls. Ben Yair told them to choose death with dignity rather than succumb to their enemies. Not only them, but to each their own women and children, should prefer to be killed by their own sword rather than the sword of their enemies, or forced into a life of slavery and hardship. The speech aroused the men’s hearts with passion and fearlessness. Each vowed they would go through with this plan to kill themselves and their families. After a tearful goodbye, each man slaughtered his own family

. Then, they cast lots to kill each other, with the final man tasked to finish the job and kill himself.

Sounds like a great movie plot. But did this really happen?

Excavation tells a different story. If there were 967 people killed, according to Josephus, where are all the remains? Only remains of 28 individuals were found at the site of Masada in a nearby cave, rather than the palace that Josephus writes about. Another important finding were pottery shards inscribed with names- supposedly used to cast the lots described Josephus. But who is to say that these weren’t just lots to determine mundane things, like who would stand watch or go on raids? Archeologists are frustrated with this surprising lack of evidence to the story.

What really happened at Masada? While we can never know for sure, but what speaks to us most vividly is Josephus’s description of this story. Josephus himself marveled at their courage and resolve to carry out this formidable action.

Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution and the immovable contempt of death, which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was” - Josephus, the War of the Jews

It tells of a culture that values honor, valiance, and resilience against all odds. This is perhaps what has led Masada to become a symbol of national pride. It has taken on a new meaning for the state of Israel; representing its strong will and determination. Here, IDF soldiers are sworn in to their ranks, taking an oath to ‘never let Masada fall again’.

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