Sunday 3 May 2020



Yosef ben Matityahu haCohen, or the Flavius Josephus[1] (38-100 CE), the Roman-Jewish historian born to a priestly father and a mother of royal Hasmonean lineage, is the only source for the story of Masada.

According to his account, after three years of living under siege, 960 Jews on top of the mountain of Masada committed mass suicide rather than submit to the inevitable horrors of the Roman victors.

For reasons that we are about to investigate, the heroic story of Masada is totally absent from any Halachic discussion or even reference by the Talmudic sages.

Why is this so? Many other historical events are mentioned in passing by the sages of the Talmud but the events of Masada in 73 CE, which would have placed it around the middle of the Mishnaic Period (0-200 CE), is conspicuously ignored.

Is it because the rabbis believed that the events never actually took place and that Masada is a historical fiction - or is there another reason?

For this article, I have again drawn extensively from the research of Rabbi Dr Amir Mashiach who teaches Jewish philosophy at Ariel University and at the Institute for Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University.[2]


During the first and second centuries CE there were three main Jewish revolutions directed against the Romans:


The first uprising is known as the Great Revolt and took place between 66-73 CE. The Romans ruthlessly quelled that revolution and many Jews were killed. During the peak of the revolt, the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.


Forty-two years later a second rebellion broke out which became known as the Uprising of the Diaspora (Mered haGaliyot) or the Kitos War of 115-117 CE. The Jews took advantage of the fact that most of the Roman armies were busy fighting another war at that time.[3] The Jews living in Cyrenaica (present-day Libya), Cyprus and Egypt attacked their local Roman garrisons and slaughtered them. This rebellion was eventually put down by Roman reinforcements under Lusius Quietus (Kitos). The Jewish community of Alexandria, the most prosperous of Diaspora communities, was utterly destroyed. This uprising was unusual as it took place outside of the borders of the Holy Land.


Fifteen years after the Kitos War the Bar Cochba Revolt began. It took occurred between 132-135 CE. At first, it was successful and the Province of Judea achieved independence. But that glory did not last long before this revolution was also ruthlessly suppressed. The Romans clearly had had enough of seventy-odd years of Jewish rebellion and they butchered the Jews into humiliating submission. As a result of the violent Roman suppression of the Bar Cochba Revolt, only a small Jewish presence remained in Palestine.


As mentioned, the events surrounding Masada took place in 73 CE during the first rebellion, the Great Revolt.

The Jewish rebels atop the natural mountain fortress of Masada who had been holding out against the Roman armies after a long and heroic struggle, were eventually about to be defeated. The Rebel leader, Eleazar ben Yair called upon his people to murder their own families and then finally commit suicide rather than be taken captive - as they all knew just what horrors awaited them.

Josephus records the tragic events as follows:

“They embraced their wives with great love and pressed their children to their hearts, kissing them for the last time with tears in their eyes, at the same time completing their design . . . and they all slaughtered their families . . . .

Thereupon they chose by lot ten of their number who would slaughter them all. And each one stretched out on the ground next to his killed wife and children, enfolding them in his arms and willingly stretching out his neck for the slaughter at the hands of the ten men who fulfilled this awful deed . . . .

So did they all die with faith.”[4]


According to some, the Jews at Masada were motivated by the Sikariyim (or Sicarii). They were a group of Jewish Zealots who were vehemently opposed to Roman domination of the Holy land and vowed to defend their land to the death. They were called Sikariyim because they carried sicae[5] or small daggers concealed in their cloaks. Theologically, they subscribed to the notion of absolute Divine Providence and therefore believed that they were on that mountain for a reason – and that reason was to die rather than be taken captive by the Romans.[6]


Josephus records[7] that Masada was not the only time that Jews committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the enemy. Just six years earlier, a similar event took place at Gamla. Gamla had a Jewish community of nine thousand Jews. The Romans attacked the town and killed four thousand Jewish inhabitants and the remaining five thousand chose to commit suicide by jumping off a high cliff.


Furthermore, Josephus also records another case of suicide which he witnessed taking place at Yodfat.[8] Apparently, that was when Josephus, then also a Rebel leader, was captured by the Romans.


The question begs as to why all these cases of mass suicide were ignored by the rabbis? Again, these catastrophic events all took place during the Mishnaic Period and the sages would have been well aware of them.


It should be pointed out that some scholars refute the historicity of Masada and consider it to be a myth.

Professor Nachman Ben-Yehuda[9], for example, argues that Josephus’ account is inaccurate. He maintains that the siege only lasted a few months and not three years. His big question is where are the graves and the bodies?

According to archaeologist Yigael Yadin, a Roman military garrison remained in Masada for forty years after the Masada incident and they either burned the bodies or threw them down the mountain and they succumbed to the ravishes of heat, wild animals and time.

Another archaeologist, Zeev Meshel says:

“The fighting for Jerusalem in the course of the Great Revolt saw the death of tens of thousands of people. This took place three years prior to Masada, and there, too, the graves are missing. During the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, there were tens of thousands dead, but in connection with that, too, not a single skeleton was found. The Romans buried the dead, or else burned them.”

Because there is some debate as to whether the Masada event occurred as recorded by Josephus, it is possible that the reason why the rabbinic sages of the Talmud never dealt with Masada was because they believed that the story was a myth.

On the other hand, if we take the Masada story to be true, then we need to find out just why the sages refused to mention it.


The standard answer that is commonly given to our question as to why Masada, Gamla and Yodfat are absent from rabbinic literature is not that the sages believed that the events did not occur, but rather that they did not want to elevate suicide to a heroic Halachic status.

Accordingly, it is for this reason that no mention is made of Masada in neither the Talmud nor the many Midrashic sources nor any other of the vast Halachic and Aggadic literature spanning the next two thousand years!


But there is another answer - probably a more accurate answer.

According to Dr Mashiach:

“It is evident from various rabbinic sources that in the wake of these bloody developments, the sages of the Talmud, who next seized the scepter of Jewish leadership, made a strategic choice in favor of changing the Jewish ethos from an offensive to a defensive one. They began to preach passivity and submission by pouring an interpretive meaning into various basic concepts, such as freedom, heroic achievement, and war...

The sages of the Mishnah experienced personally the oppression of the three rebellions; therefore it is understandable why they did it. For the Amoraim [the rabbis of the Gemara or Talmud 200 -500 CE][10], it is also understandable, since they lived under a foreign regime and did not wish to cause additional political turmoil.”

Interestingly, Dr Mashiach does point out that:

“True enough, some of the sages supported the rebellions, such as R. Aqiba or the sages belonging to the School of Shammai...but I am referring to the general mood prevalent in the texts of the Talmud and Midrash.”

[For the notion that R. Akiva even had an army, see here.]


As a result of all the turmoil and three failed uprisings during the first century CE, the general ethos of rabbinic literature began to radically change to an overriding attitude of passivity. And, very importantly (although Dr Mashiach does not specifically touch on this issue here) as a result of many Jews now living in Babylonia where the Babylonian Talmud was formulated, they did not want the Babylonian authorities to view them as political activists. For this reason, the rabbis intentionally toned down their rhetoric.

The Babylonians were worried that the Jews might rise against them as they had against the Romans. This was especially the case since the Jews resided predominately in an area closer to Palestine, and the Babylonians feared that should the Romans attack Babylonia, the Babylonian Jews might side with their fellow Palestinian Jews.

As a consequence of a well-orchestrated campaign to emphasize a peaceful and passive approach, the Jews were able to live independently and happily in Babylonia for a long period of time. They were treated well by the Babylonian authorities who were happy with the arrangement, encouraged it,  and wished to perpetuate the status quo. So much so that eventually the Babylonian Talmud was able to even dominate the Palestinian Talmud. [See link on Revenge of Talmud Yerushalmi, later.]



In the past, the term ‘freedom’ meant just that. Freedom meant living free from the mastery of another nation. Dr Mashiach refers to this as ‘legal freedom’:

“That is, a free person was one who had no master, ruler, or king. Legal freedom was the principal factor in stirring Jewish sentiment and in leading to Jewish uprisings in the various empires.”

However, now in Babylonia in a post-Bar Cochba world:

 “The sages of the Talmud injected a different meaning into the familiar concept [of freedom][11]...‘For there can be no free person except for him who engages in the study of Torah.’[12] No more need to revolt or to cast off the yoke of the enslaving oppressor: from now on, regardless of where he may be spatially located at any given moment, the Jew who studies Torah is thereby—and thereby alone—transformed into a free man.”

2. ‘MIGHT’:

The very important definition of ‘might’ was similarly changed to a more passive and submissive reading. In Biblical times - and even in the Babylonian sages' living memory from their own first-century Jewish history - ‘might’ meant physical and military force and power.

“But in the texts of the Talmud and Midrash, physical militaristic prowess turned into ability of a psychological-cognitive type: ‘Who is mighty? He who overcomes his inclination.’[13] No longer might in the heat of battle, might of a bodily kind in facing the enemy, but rather the might of a person coping with himself in the face of the prodding by his own inclination, which is his real enemy.

3. ‘WAR’:

As an immediate consequence of the new conceptual content associated with the notion of might, we see the transformation taking place in the notion of war....henceforth, in Talmudic literature, the concept of war takes also the meaning of ‘the war [for the sake] of Torah,’[14] that is to say, fighting it out in the house of Torah study concerning the import of Halakhic rulings, reasonable assumptions, or turning to the Heavens in prayer.[15]


Besides re-defining notions of war, power and freedom, the Babylonian sages also emphasized submission:

“[They] preached submission and maintaining a low posture: no longer a Jew upholding his dignity, but one who keeps his head down. ‘The sages said: If evildoers come upon one, he should nod to them with his head.’[16] Yet another piece of advice: ‘One should always be pliable as a reed, not hard as a cedar.’[17] The message is the same: a Jew should know how to bow his head, swallowing his self-respect, and becoming similar to a reed: ‘just as a reed that all the winds come and blow at, and it sways to and fro with them...’”


The Babylonian Talmudic sages went even further and declared that G-d Himself had indeed forbidden rebellion against the nations of the world!

Dr Mashiach writes:

“The sages of the Talmud endorsed their preached message of passivity and submission with a pungent oath in which God makes His people pledge ‘not to rise up in rebellion against the nations of the world,’ an oath accompanied by a severe threat: ‘Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, If you abide by the oath, well and good, and if not, I will make your flesh permissible for all like the flesh of the deer and the hinds of the field.’[18]

In this way, God in His Glory Himself is ‘drafted’ by the sages of the Talmud in order to relieve of content any emotion bound up with the offensive ethos, replacing it with a defensive ethos instead.”


The sages dealt with every topic imaginable and it seems, therefore, very unusual for them to have been silent on a matter such as Masada. As you will recall from earlier, the standard answer is that they did not want to elevate suicide to a Halachic norm or value.

However, the fact is that the sages had no problem with suicide under certain conditions. Essentially those conditions involved suicide on religious grounds only – but not on political or nationalistic grounds.

There are a number of cases where the Talmud gives its full approval of suicide on religious grounds. Some examples follow:

Case 1:

“Four hundred boys and girls were taken captive for a disgraceful purpose. They sensed what was in store for them and said: If we were to drown in the sea, would we reach life in the world to come? The oldest among them expounded to them . . . 

[W]hen the young girls heard this, they all leapt and fell into the sea. The boys...too, leapt into the sea.

And of them does Scripture say, ‘For on Your account have we been driven toward death all day long, being considered as sheep for the slaughter’ (Psalms 44:23).”[19]

 Not only was the act of suicide sanctioned by the Talmud but a verse from Psalms is even brought as a support for this view.

Case 2:

Then there is the case of Hannah and her seven sons who are enticed to worship idols. The sons refuse and are executed one after the other.

 “[Hannah then] ascended the rooftop, fell, and died. A heavenly voice issued forth, saying, ‘The mother of sons rejoices’[Psalms 113:9].”[20]

Again, an act of suicide for religious and theological reasons is endorsed and even lauded by the sages, who bring another verse from Psalms as a support.

Case 3:

Rav Kahana sold baskets of woven palm leaves to women. Once he was seduced by a certain noblewoman. He told her to wait while he went to adorn himself. Meanwhile, he obviously felt guilty and he climbed on top of his roof and jumped off. The Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet had to come and save him from hitting the ground. Rav Kahana told Elijah that this was all as a result of him being so poor that he had to engage in a trade that brought him in contact with women. Elijah, says the Talmud, gave Rav Kahana a basket full of dinars to spare him from having to engage in such work in the future. [21]

This act of attempted suicide is acceptable because it too was for religious reasons.

Again, the sages of the Talmud acknowledge and recognize suicide only on theological grounds. But suicide based on ideological or nationalistic tendencies do not even get a mention. They did not want to create an ethos of rebellion or political defiance and they were not prepared to endorse political or nationalistic suicide under any circumstances whatsoever.

As Dr Mashiach puts it:

“This is an ethos destined to preserve the Jewish People in the diaspora, preventing the fostering of destructive notions of rebellion.”


After being neglected for two thousand years, the silence was finally broken in 1960 by soon to be Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren. At the time he was the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces.

He published an article entitled “The Heroism of Masada in Light of the Primary Sources,”[22] and it set in motion a huge Halachic debate amongst certain rabbis regarding the role of suicide in combat. 

R. Goren begins his discourse with the question:

“The heroic and daring conduct of the fighters at Masada, who, upon seeing the imminent outcome of the war and the visionary forecast of destruction coming upon them, resolved to fall each by the hand of his fellow as free men rather than submit to enslavement by the enemy, leads to a grave Halakhic problem: was their conduct in accord with the Halakhah or not?”


R. Goren uses the story of King Saul as the basis for his position on suicide in combat. Saul and his army were pursued by the Philistines. Many of them fell at Mount Gilboa. The enemy now had their sights on Saul and had already killed three of his sons. Eventually, they closed in on Saul and wounded him with arrows. He called on his armour-bearer and commanded him to kill him, lest the enemy abuse him. The armour-bearer refused and Saul took his own sword and fell on it. The Philistines found him and cut off his head and fastened his body to a wall.

R. Goren concluded that Saul’s act was in accordance with Halacha and that all the rabbinic sources, beginning with the Talmud and continuing with the post-Talmudic Tosafists, permit suicide in the face of inevitable and agonizing suffering.[23]

Similarly, at Masada, the men knew that they would be subjected to humiliating deaths and the women knew they would be forced into prostitution. Suicide was therefore justified by Halacha.

R. Goren writes unequivocally:

 “[A]ccording to the Halakhah, they were commanded to die by their own hand.”

He continues to suggest practical imperatives for contemporary soldiers who know they will face torture or be forced to divulge military secrets:

“[I]t is even then permissible to die by one’s own hand rather than fall into the enemy’s hands, similar to what happened to King Saul and the people of Masada . . . . In all of the above cases, it is apparent that it is best to die by one’s own hand rather than command another Jew to kill one, but from the actions of the people of Masada and the case of King Saul and his armor bearer it becomes clear that there is no difference in this respect, and it is also permissible to ask others to kill one.”


R. Goren ignited a huge Halachic debate on suicide in combat but not everyone agreed with him. Chief among the dissenting views is that of R. Moshe Tzvi Neriah. He studied Eleazar ben Yair’s last speech where, according to the rebel leader, anytime a Jew is subjected to foreign rule, one is obligated to take one’s life. R Neriah argues that this means that the entire nation of Israel should have committed suicide rather than subject themselves to Roman rule. This, obviously is an untenable position.

For this reason, he takes exception to R. Goren’s interpretation. He writes that the events at Masada which were carried out by the rebels were contrary to Halacha:

 “This is a mistaken and dangerous Halakhic ruling that should be warded off, for the Giver of the Torah has given us life.”

Notwithstanding the dissenting Halachic opinions, the Masada episode had finally arrived in rabbinical literature.


R. Goren was not afraid to look outside of the Talmud for his sources on military matters because since the Bar Kochba Revolt there had been no Jewish army[24] and therefore the Talmud did not deal with such affairs. He boldly turned to works that are not usually source material for rabbinic scholars.

R. Goren writes that he consulted:

“[T]he Apocrypha [the vast body of ancient writings that were not officially canonized as part of the Tanach][25] dealing with wars of the Jews and the military of the Second Temple period, such as the Books of the Maccabees and the books of Joseph son of Matthias the Priest, known as Josephus Flavius—all these have the ability to instill in us the splendor of old through the ways of fighting and the strength, the organization, the undertakings, the problems, and the practices of Israel’s army in ancient times...”[26]

R. Goren had no difficulty in citing those unusual sources because he believed he knew the reason why the Talmud excluded the Masada story. It was because the Masada events spoke to suicide for ideological and nationalistic reasons. The Talmud only accepted it for religious and theological reasons. And the reason why they differentiated between the two was to create an exilic culture of Jewish passivity and political submission.


But one group of rabbis was conspicuously absent from the 20th-century debate spearheaded by R. Goren.

Dr Mashiach explains who these rabbis were:

“Rabbis associated with the ultraOrthodox, who maintain...the defensive ethos in the spirit of the Talmudic sages, were not privy to the discussion. Delving into the issue of suicide for ideological-national reasons was alien to them, just as Flavius or the rebels of Masada had been to the Talmudic sages earlier.”

Thus - in some circles - the two thousand year resounding silence on Masada continues to perpetuate itself. And for the same reasons: to maintain the ethos of submission and passivity.

[For more on how the Babylonian Talmud rose in prominence over the Palestinian Talmud, see Revenge of the Talmud Yerushalmi.]

[1] Sometimes referred to as Josephus Flavius.
[2] Amir Mashiach, The Ethos of Masada in Halakhic Literature.
[3] Trajan’s Parthian War on the eastern border of the Roman Empire.
[4] Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, book 7, chap. 9
[5] Sica in the singular.
[6] Sidney Hoenig, “Historic Masada and the Halakha,” in Tradition 13, 2 (1972), pp. 100–115.
[7]  Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, book 4, chap. 1.
[8] Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, book 3, chap. 8.
[9] See Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (Madison, 1995) and idem., Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Amherst, 2002). 
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Avot 6:2,  שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין, אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה
[13] Avot 4:1
[14] B. Meg. 15b; B. Hag. 14a; B. San. 42a; B. San. 93b.
[15] B. Bava Batra 123a.
[16] B. Yevamot 121a
[17] B. Taanit 20a.
[18] B. Ketuvot 111a.
[19] B. Gittin 57b.
[20] B. Gittin 57b.
[21] B. Kiddushin 40a.
[22] “Gevurat Metzadah le-or ha-Mekorot”, first published in Or haMizrach 1960.
[23] B. Pesachim 53b, and Ketuvot 33b.
[25] Parenthesis mine.
[26] Shlomo Goren, “Tzava u-milchamah le-or ha-halakhah” in Machanayim 87 (5725).

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