"Live free or die" may be the state motto of New Hampshire, however the
stirring call to liberty was first uttered, not during the American
Revolutionary War, but over two thousand years ago in the middle of the
Judaean wilderness, atop a remote mountain fortress called - Masada.
According to the account of Josephus in his The Jewish War, the New
Hampshire state motto was coined by the Jewish rebel leader, Elazar Ben
Yair, in a bid to convince his almost 1000 followers that suicide was
preferable to defeat at the hands of Rome.
Along the shores of the Dead Sea, south of the oasis of Ein Gedi stands a
natural escarpment, a veritable island of stone towering to over 1400 feet
over the salt plains. Both the Hasmonean kings and Herod recognized the
strategic benefit of Masada. Herod, afraid of a possible coup, suspicious
of Cleopatra's design's on his kingdom, carved a fortress- retreat out of
the formidable mountain. As was his nature, Hero spared no expense. A three
tiered palace, complete with mosaic floors, frescoes, and swimming pools,
covers Masada's northern face. A bath house, in full Roman grandeur, is
divided between chambers for hot, cold, and warm water. In an area that
depends on floodwaters descending to the desert canyons from the mountains
above, Herod constructed a system of aqueducts that diverted water from the
river canyons to Masada's West. Thirteen separate collection pools dug
around the fortress could hold up to 1 ,4,000,000 cubic feet of water.
Storage rooms were filled with the finest foods in the case that Herod's
stay proved to be more than a short vacation. With Herod's death, a Roman
garrison was stationed at Masada, most likely in order to guard the caravan
routes moving from Arabia and Petra northwards to Jerusalem, Beth Shean,
and up into Syria.
With the outbreak of the Great Revolt, Masada played no central role. The
arenas of action were Jerusalem and the Galilee. However, when Jewish
rebels groups began to wage relentless gang warfare amongst themselves, the
Sicarii followers of Elazar Ben Yair were forced to evacuate Jerusalem. It
seems that even for many of the Jewish rebel groups, the fanatical
extremism of the Sicarii was seen as a menace to public safety. Josephus
relates that the Sicarii, upon leaving Jerusalem, descended to the Judaean
Desert. Masada, one of several fortresses built throughout the remote
desert, was a perfect refuge. Overpowering the Roman garrison, the Sicarii
established their main camp atop the lonely mountain in 66 CE. As the
revolt continued, Masada became the home for almost 1000 men, women, and
Who were the Sicarii? Sicarii derives from Latin, from the concealable
blade that this rebel group would use against their rivals. On holidays,
and market days, when the streets were full of people, the Sicarii would
knife Jews suspected of collaboration with the Romans. Josephus, in The
Jewish War, sought to portray the Jewish rebels as cutthroats and brigands.
Writing in Rome in the decade after the Great Revolt, Josephus aimed to
present the Revolt in a way that would neither cast direct blame on the
Romans, nor on the Jewish people as a whole. Basically, the Jewish rebels
were cast by Josephus as radical religious fanatics who against the better
judgement of the majority of the people, brought the conflict with Rome to
its inevitable finale with the destruction of the Temple. So much did
Josephus seek a way to divert direct blame for the destruction of the
Temple from the royal Flavian house of Vespasian and Titus that he
describes how Titus attempted to save the Temple, yet the blood lust of his
troops could not be contained. While Josephus refers to the rebels with the
derogatory - Sicarii or lestoi, they may have referred to themselves as
Zealots, in Hebrew - Kannaim.
For the rebels themselves, the title - kannaim - was probably one of great
pride. The term - zealot - kannai is used in Numbers 25. In the wanderings
in the desert, the Israelite camp was attacked by the Midianites. The
Midianites employed an original battle tactic to divert the attention of
the Israelite warriors. They sent ritual prostitutes into the Israelite
camp to engage the young men of Israel. Pinhas Ben Elazar responded to the
Midianite encroachment by impaling a young Israelite and his Midianite
partner on a spear. Subsequently "because he was zealous for my sake"
(Numbers 25:11), God bestowed upon him a "blessing of peace." The Zealots
of the Second Temple modeled themselves on the example of Pinhas, and of
course, on the Macabean revolt against the decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes.
In Pharisaic Judaism, a tradition of martyrdom did exist. Beginning with
the Hassidim of the Maccabean revolt, inspired by the Book of Daniel,
normative Judaism defined three occasions when suicide for the
sanctification of God's name (Kiddush HaShem) was obligated. In the first
case, one should be willing to die rather than be forced to worship idols.
Secondly, one should be willing to die rather than be forced to take
another human life. And thirdly, one should be willing to die rather than
be forced to engage in those sexual practices that the Bible defines as
"abominations." The last of the three must be seen in the context of pagan
rites where incest and bestiality were forms of worship. It seems that for
the Sicarii of Masada, a fourth occasion also obligated a Jew to be
prepared to die. In the eyes of the Zealots, a Jew was obligated to accept
death rather than accept the authority of foreign rule.
Philosophically, the Sicarii defined the political principle as central to
Judaism. Now of course, throughout the ancient history of Israel, politics
and religion were one amalgamation. One could be used, and frequently was,
employed to rationalize and support the other. In the case of the Jewish
rebels, they defined the Jewish acceptance of foreign rule over the Chosen
people as a desecration of God's name (Hillul HaShem). Their revolt was a
religious-political act designed not simply to drive the Romans out of the
Land of Israel, but to prove the might of the God of Israel over the empty
idols of the Roman Empire. Messianically inspired, they held that their
revolt would stir God's intervention on the side of the Jewish people, and
hasten the coming of the messiah who would lead Israel into combat against
Unfortunately, with regards to Masada, Josephus is our only source. No
Talmudic, Christian, or Roman source corroborates the tale of 960 Jews
choosing suicide over Roman defeat. Josephus never claims that he wrote as
an eyewitness. With the eventual defeat of Masada by the troops of Flavius
Silva in the year 73 CE (or 74 CE), after a siege that may have lasted
between several weeks to several months, two women and five children
emerged from a cave as the lone survivors. The younger woman, who was "in
education and intelligence superior to most women." (The Jewish War.
VII:405) told the detailed account, including a word- for-word repetition
of Elazar's two lengthy speeches before his followers, to the Romans.
Certain details of Josephus' report are neither logical nor can they be
supported by the archaeology. In order to storm Masada, Silva's army
constructed an enormous ramp from the West. With the completion of the
ramp, Silva ordered his troops withdraw. The roman attack was to take place
at sunrise. If we accept Josephus' description, then we must accept that
Silva voluntarily surrendered the possibility of a surprise attack, and
preferred an ascension to Masada directly into the rising sun instead of a
night-time assault. Flavius Silva was an experienced field officer, and it
is difficult to understand why he would act in a way contrary to basic
Archaeologically, the excavations of Yigal Yadin in early 1960's were an
impressive undertaking of massive proportions. The systematic study of
Masada revealed "over ten miles of wall, 4000 coins. . . . more than 700
ostrakon inscriptions, and 14 scroll fragments." (Yigal Yadin. Preface. The
Story of Masada.) Other archaeologists have challenged Yadin's
conclusions. Did Yadin jump to conclusion based on his desire to find hard
evidence for Josephus' account? In one famous find, Yadin describes eleven
clay shards, each bearing a name in Hebrew. Among the names appears "Ben
Yair." Did this piece belong to Elazar Ben Yair, the commander of Masada?
After addressing his men, the women and children were not present, it was
decided that each man was to slay his wife and family, and then kill
himself. Josephus tells how ten men drew lots in order to decide who among
them would ensure that all the others were dead. After carrying out their
rounds, they were to also commit suicide. Were these the lots? From the
pieces themselves, it is almost impossible to identify them with the story
of the suicide, If they are the lots, why eleven? Out of almost 1000 men,
women, and children, as many as 300 men may have taken part in the first
drawing. If only ten were used in the final drawing, then how to explain
the extra shard. The shards may be ration tickets, or entrance passes.
Most importantly where are 960 bodies? Josephus says that the
suicide-murder took place in the area of the Palace. Were are the remains?
The archaeological excavations revealed 25 bodies in a cave on the
Northern face. Did these people commit suicide, or were they killed by
roman troops while hiding in the cave. Even if the Romans burned the
bodies, or tossed them into the ravines below Masada, there would remain
some evidence. Yadin's identifications of finds as proof of the events from
that fateful, gruesome night were more the wishful thinking of an extremely
creative archaeologist who wanted to endow the Masada excavation with
impassioned relevance for modern Israel than a careful, well-grounded
Shaye Cohen, a historian of the Second Temple period argues that the story
told by Josephus is highly embellished. The mass suicide and the eloquent
orations of Elazar Ben Yair were popular literary devices used throughout
the historical writing of the Hellenistic-Roman world. Among other strange
features, Elazar Ben Yair is quoted by Josephus as offering the Brahmins of
India as a pertinent lesson on the immortality of the soul seeking release
from the bonds of temporary flesh. Cohen suggests that probably there were
those who chose suicide. Others may have fought, and still others may have
tried to escape.
Whatever the events of the final night of Masada, it is clear that a siege
did take place. Nine Roman army camps encircled Masada. Roman forces
numbered some 8000 legionnaires and support troops, and thousands of Jewish
POW's. No natural spring exists close by. Water had to be brought in from
Ein Gedi or Ein Bokek. Food and supplies, even for a siege of several
weeks, had to be brought by caravan down to the scorching desert. Why?
How can the Roman commitment to the siege of Masada be explained?
The revolt officially ended with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Titus were welcomed in Rome as a hero. Coins were minted portraying a woman
in tears at the feet of a legionnaire. They bore the slogan - Judaea Capta
- Judaea Vanquished. On one level, the stubborn pockets of rebellion at
Herodium, Macheurus, and Masada were a thorn in Rome's side. More
importantly, the Sicarii were not simply brigands, but a religiously
inspired terrorist cult. The objective fact that the Sicarii could never
defeat the armies of Rome was irrelevant to them. In their apocalyptic
scheme, they represented the "few against the many." In the end, they
firmly believed, that with the help of God, they would be victorious. For
the Romans then, each pocket of Jewish revolt had to be extinguished. Each
ember had the potential to rekindle the blaze of Jewish resistance.
The Sicarii and the other Zealot bands disappeared. Their indiscriminate
violence against non-combatants and their fanatic certainty that only they
represented the best interests of the Jewish people and Judaism led to
disaster. However, the hope for a restoration of Jewish liberty never
faltered. Even after the crushing defeat of the Great Revolt, the Jewish
people preserved the aspiration, restated in modern Israel's national
anthem, "to be a free people in our own land."