Were the defenders of Masada right to take their own lives?
Despite the perverse actions of his son Titus, the emperor Vespasian had little interest in disrupting Jewish practices or Torah observance. Although Rome viewed Jewish culture with contempt and worried that Jewish ideology could lead to rebellion, Rome's primary concern remained money. A steady flow of tax money depended upon political stability, which, in turn, depended upon the political submission of conquered peoples. Roman nobility had little interest in promulgating their own beliefs, and they tolerated diverse cultural practices unless these were perceived to provoke political resistance. If caesars and generals were vindictive, it was usually as a means to secure the stability and wealth of the empire.
The dissolution of the Sanhedrin by Pompey and the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash by Titus were primarily to preserve or restore order. Similarly, the Roman assault upon the fortress of Masada was, from the Roman perspective, a necessary final step in crushing Jewish resistance to Roman rule.
After the conquest of Yerushalayim, Roman forces quickly subdued the Chashmona'i fortresses of Herod in southern Yehudah and Michvar in Transjordan. one last stronghold, Masada, remained. Renovated and reinforced in the days of Herod, the mountain fortress was now held by the Zealot leader Elazar ben Yair and his followers — 960 men, women and children who had escaped the destruction of Yerushalayim. For them, as Zealots, resistance against Rome was an article of faith.
Built on a high plateau whose sheer walls jutted almost straight up out of the Judean desert, Masada posed a unique problem for the Roman legions. Attacking soldiers could ascend only along narrow foot trails, eliminating the advantage of their overwhelming numbers. The steep slopes and high fortress walls rendered catapults ineffective, and the Zealots' huge storehouses of food and plentiful supply of water made conventional siege impractical. For an entire year, the Roman army camped at the base of the lonely fortress and accomplished nothing.
But Rome could accept neither defeat nor stalemate. Using Jewish laborers, the Roman general Flavius Silva ordered the construction of a massive ramp, three hundred feet high, up which his soldiers forced Jewish slaves onto an enormous siege tower fitted with a battering ram to destroy the fortress walls.
As the Romans slowly positioned their machinery of war, the defenders hurriedly constructed interior walls of wood and earth to absorb the shock of the battering ram. The stone outer walls crumbled, but the resilient inner walls held. But even this reprieve was temporary. Roman archers shot firebrands into the wooden walls, and then withdrew to let the flames do their work. Inside the fortress, the Zealots knew that little time remained.
Convinced that surrender was nothing less than heresy, the Zealots decided to take their own lives rather than give themselves up to the Romans. Two women and five children hid themselves and survived to tell what had happened. After every man had killed his own wife and children, the survivors had drawn lots to determine who would kill the rest and then commit suicide by turning their swords upon themselves. When the Romans entered the fortress on the first day of Pesach in 73 CE, they were not met by fierce Jewish resistance but by the sight of nearly a thousand corpses.
Jewish history is overfull with tragic stories of martyrdom, many involving suicide. Shaul Hamelech threw himself on his sword rather than allow Yisrael to suffer the degradation of its king falling into enemy hands alive. Of the 97,000 Jews taken captive by Rome for slave labor, gladiatorial spectacle or prostitution, many took their own lives, including four hundred boys and girls who cast themselves into the sea to avoid a life of sin and humiliation. During the Crusades and the Inquisition, thousands of Jews who chose death for themselves and their children rather than submit to forced baptism were praised as righteous martyrs by the rabbis of their times.
But concerning the suicides on Masada, the Sages remained silent. A Jew is permitted, indeed obligated, to give up his life rather than transgress the three cardinal sins — murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality — or to prevent any public desecration of Hashem's name. For any other transgression, a Jew may only give up his life under conditions of g'zeiras shmad — in such time when any foreign nation is attempting to destroy the Jewish people either physically or spiritually. Although the Romans would later bring to bear their full weight of empire to wipe out Judaism and the Jews, at this moment in history, their only concern was political stability and political submission.
Consequently, the Sages' silence with respect to Masada speaks volumes when compared with their unqualified praise for the heroes who died defending Yerushalayim. Despite the sincerity and passion of the martyrs of Masada, the Sages did not find them deserving of honorable mention. This may have been because their motives were ultimately unknowable, or because the questionable halachic basis for their actions would have set an improper example for the Jews of that generation. Nevertheless, perhaps the story of the Zealots' resistance surely provided the Jewish people with desperately needed inspiration in a time of tragedy and despair. For these reasons, the Sages may have chosen neither to condemn the martyrs of Masada nor to praise them.