Was the mass coordinated mutual killing at Masada (for lack of a better term) an act of heroic martyrdom or immoral murder and suicide?

While it is unknown for certain what exactly transpired, according to the only recorded history of it, nearly 1000 Jews withstood the Roman occupation of Judea, and attempted to fight back, by retreating to Masada and setting up a military outpost and refuge there, until they were ultimately trapped on the mountaintop. In the end, 10 men were selected to kill all the others, and one of them was selected to kill the 9 remaining men and ultimately kill himself at the end of it all.

On the one hand, they were likely trying to prevent torture, murder, rape and pillage from befalling themselves at the hands of the Romans.

On the other hand, who could say for certain that the Romans would have done that to them? Furthermore, if they had negotiated a peaceful surrender (especially if they hadn't first engaged in attacks but truly acted as though their retreat to Masada was for purposes of refuge from the war rather than a military strategy) they likely would have been taken as captives and perhaps enslaved but not specifically tortured or killed.

Much ink has been spilled on the subject of martyrdom (LeHavdil from the oceans of blood that has been spilled in actual martyrdom). What can be inferred, from that literature, regarding the specific case of Masada (assuming the story as generally understood, as summarized above, is what actually transpired)?


Hirhurim quotes R' J.B. Soleveitchik regarding an earlier event similar to Masada where Josephus' army committed suicide rather than surrender. Josephus, however, survived, surrendered and became a Roman citizen:

I would not say that Josephus lacked the courage to commit suicide. From a halakhic point of view, Josephus may not have been permitted to do so. The Midrash clearly says (Bereshit Rabba 34:13) that committing suicide is an act of murder. The case of King Saul causing himself to be killed is explained by some as an exception to this prohibition because Saul realized that the enemy would kill him imminently in any event. Therefore, if Josephus realized that he was not in imminent danger of being killed by the Romans, he would not have been halakhically permitted to kill himself. Nonetheless, one could argue that even though halakha may not have required Josephus to commit suicide, under halakha, one may commit suicide to avoid surrendering to the enemy. If so, such discretion would have been available to Josephus as well. In summary, I am not certain that Josephus committed an act of betrayal. He may have been acting in accordance with the prohibition against suicide.

It is interesting that Josephus is not mentioned at all in the Gemara, although Rashi does refer to him (Bava Batra 3b, s.v., hekhi). Our sages make no mention of the incident despite their extensive discussion of the events of the Second Temple period. It is hard to know what the attitude of our sages was, but I suspect that while they disapproved of what Josephus did, they felt that they did not have the right to condemn him. As a result, they ignored him. The Gemara would have mentioned him if it considered him a traitor.

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  • So the answer is, "maybe." – Seth J Sep 13 '13 at 0:03
  • From a halachic standpoint, murder/suicide under those conditions might not be the same thing as just suicide under those conditions. So it's not clear how fully this answers the question. – Fred Dec 15 '15 at 4:42

Okay there are two aspects to the Masadists' actions:

  1. Fighting a war when it was absolutely clear they stood no chance of winning. On this, I heard Rabbi Hershel Schachter state that the actions of the Masadists were "shelo birtzon chachamim" -- against the wishes of the Sages -- hence purposely omitted from the Talmud. You only fight a war that you stand some chance of winning.

  2. Committing suicide rather than surrendering. If they felt that they would have been forced into committing all sorts of terrible sins had they been captured, then the halachic literature does address this. But my impression is the Masadists' actions were more a result of an absolutist, better-dead-than-give-up-at-all approach, rather than halachic reasoning. Anyhow, there's a really, really depressing elegy on Tisha B'av about a town killing themselves rather than being forced by Crusaders to convert; the propriety of this was debated within Tosfos -- in one story, a rabbi who had encouraged mass suicide lived to see the threat dissipate -- and to carry the burden of his decision for the rest of his life. Similar questions came up in the Holocaust, though "I'd rather the child die now rather than be forced into Christianity" is different than "I'd rather the child die now rather than be killed by the Nazis."

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  • 1
    Referring to the war, not the suicides? – Menachem Jul 25 '12 at 23:34
  • This fits with my "on the other hand". – Seth J Jul 25 '12 at 23:46
  • Can you cite that tosfot? – Double AA Jul 26 '12 at 2:55
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    @DoubleAA Avoda Zara 18:1 and Daas Z'kenim to B'reshis 9:5. – msh210 Jul 26 '12 at 6:05
  • What's the difference between Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? – Shmuel Brin Jul 29 '14 at 5:43

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