Were the Defenders of Masada Justified in Killing Themselves?

Sept. 12 2019

According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish rebels, besieged by Roman legionaries on the hilltop fortress of Masada in the year 73 CE, decided to commit suicide rather than surrender. Scholars still debate the accuracy of this account, while the Zionist movement decades ago embraced it as an example of Jewish heroism. But, notes Shlomo Brody, the Talmud makes no mention of the fall of Masada, and the rabbinic view of such acts of martyrdom is hardly straightforward:

[T]he talmudic sages may have believed that [the defenders’] 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 rituals under political subjugation rather than choosing death.

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 talmudic sages justified it under extreme conditions. The Talmud, for example, records the story of a mother and seven children who jumped off a roof rather than commit idolatry, alongside another story of 400 boys and girls who leapt into the sea rather than being sold into slavery [by their Roman captors in the wake of the Great Revolt]. . . .

Perhaps most significantly, the ancient rabbis justified King Saul’s decision to fall on his sword rather than be captured by the Philistines (I Samuel 31). For Goren, this [last] case was a paradigm, demonstrating the preferability of suicide to allowing the [supposed] desecration of God’s name that occurs when an enemy kills Jews or gloatingly takes captives.

Goren’s claim about Masada was strongly criticized by several scholars, including Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria, who . . . argued that the operative halakhic principle is encompassed by the biblical verse “live by them [i.e., the commandments],” traditionally understood as an injunction to choose life in order to ensure the future of the Jewish people. If Jews throughout the generations had [chosen] death over political subjugation, the nation would never have survived. If the Masada fighters had surrendered, some would have been killed or enslaved, but others might have escaped and lived on. . . . [H]eroism means to know when to fight and when to stay alive.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Halakhah, King Saul, Masada, Suicide

Iran’s Responsibility for West Bank Terror

On Friday, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli police officer and was then shot by another officer after trying to grab his rifle. Commenting on the many similar instances of West Bank-based terror during the past several months, Amit Saar, a senior IDF intelligence officer, predicted that the violence will likely grow worse in the coming year. Yoni Ben Menachem explains the Islamic Republic’s role in fueling this wave of terrorism:

The escape of six terrorists from Gilboa prison in September 2021 was the catalyst for the establishment of new terrorist groups in the northern West Bank, according to senior Islamic Jihad officials. The initiative to establish new armed groups was undertaken by Palestinian Islamic Jihad in coordination with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, implementing the strategy of Qassem Suleimani—the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards who was assassinated in Iraq by the U.S.—of using proxies to achieve the goals of expansion of the Iranian regime.

After arming Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Iran moved in the last year to support the new terrorist groups in the northern West Bank. Iran has been pouring money into the Islamic Jihad organization, which began to establish new armed groups under the name of “Battalions,” which also include terrorists from other organizations such as Fatah, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. First, the “Jenin Battalion” was established in the city of Jenin, followed the “Nablus Battalion.”

Despite large-scale arrest operation by the IDF and the Shin Bet in the West Bank, Islamic Jihad continues to form new terrorist groups, including the “Tulkarem Battalion,” the “Tubas Battalion,” and the “Balata Battalion” in the Balata refugee camp.

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Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Palestinian terror, West Bank