As important as the Masada events are in Jewish history, it is interesting to note that the entire episode is not recorded in Talmudic or Midrashic sources; instead, events are reported only in Josephus' narrative. Why did the sages not record it? Although no one is certain, perhaps the sages did not consider suicide for the sake of independence, or to avoid slavery, a worthy ideal.

Suicide in Jewish Law

A very severe transgression, suicide is considered tantamount to murder. A suicide forfeits his share in the World-to-Come, (Olam Haba) and is buried in a separate area of the cemetery. Unless it can be assumed that the suicide was deranged at the time of his death, no mourning rites are held for him. However, some rabbinic opinions hold that suicide to avoid being tortured into sinning is greatly meritorious. As such, the Talmud relates the story of 400 boys and girls who, while being taken to Rome for immoral purposes, jumped into the sea and drowned themselves. In the times of the Crusades, parents killed their young children and themselves to prevent them from being forcibly baptized. The stories of some of these martyrs are immortalized in the Kinnos and other prayers. According to those opinions, suicide to avoid transgression is highly proper. (The permissibility of killing one's children to prevent their conversion is an issue that is hotly debated by the great Rishonim. See Daas Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosafos on Genesis 9:5 for a discussion of this most difficult issue.) However, suicide for national pride, such as at Masada, is not part of this category.

Despite the lack of authentic Jewish sources about Masada, there is no doubt that momentous events occurred there. Even today, more than 1,900 years later, the outlines of both the besieging Roman camp and the siege wall surrounding Masada remain clearly visible.

The Year of the Churban

There are several opinions as to which year the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash occurred. Rashi gives the date as 3828, or 68 CE, while Tosafos holds that it took place in 3829 or 69 CE. Josephus, on whom secular histories of this era are based, says it happened in 70 CE.

Part of the differences in opinion stem from alternate readings of the Talmud. Rashi and Tosafos dispute the meaning of the statement that the Second Temple lasted 420 years. Rashi holds that the churban took place in the 420th year after the Temple was built: adding 420 to 3408 (the date of construction) yields 3828, or 68 CE. However, Tosafos understands that the 420-year duration of the Second Bais Hamikdash means 420 completeyears; therefore, one year must be added to the calculation, which comes out to 3829, or 69 CE. Finally, Josephus’ opinion does not contradict Tosafos, as there are two methods for dating Jewish years. First, the five days before the creation of Adam are Year Zero, and Adam's creation marks Year One. Second, those initial five days are Year One, and Adam's creation begins Year Two. Tosafos uses the former opinion, while Josephus follows the latter.

Current dating of the Jewish calendar assigns a year to the five creation days, hence the date of 3830 or 70 CE. However, Rashi's date of 3828 is difficult to understand. Rabbinic tradition states that the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed in the year after shmittah, the sabbatical year.Jewish law states that shmittah occurs in any year divisible by seven. Accordingly, 3829 (Tosafos) or 3830 (Josephus) was a year after shmittah. However, the year 3828, the year according to Rashi’s view, is not a year after shmittah in either calendar calculation. (For a fuller treatment of this subject, see History of the Jewish People: The Second Temple Era, Mesorah Publications, pp. 213-214.)


Josephus Flavius, the Jewish secular historian of the Second Temple era, is a figure of great controversy. Some traditional Jewish historians defend him passionately, saying that his actions and writings were motivated by what Josephus himself considered best for the survival of the Jewish people. Others are equally adamant in proclaiming him to be an opportunistic traitor who fawned on the Romans for self-preservation, and whose history is full of distortions.

Born in 37 CE, Josephus was a Kohen who, as a young man, traveled to Rome and became enamored of Roman culture. During the war against Rome, he commanded the fortified city of Jotapata. Realizing that defeat was imminent, Josephus hid in a cave with other fighters. When the Jews in the cave decided on a suicide pact, Josephus arranged matters to remain alive. Surrendering to the Romans, he convinced Vespasian that he would be valuable as a Roman spokesman to the Jews. Traveling with the Roman army on their road of conquest, Josephus constantly harangued the Jewish defenders, telling them of the futility of resistance.

After the war, as a friend of Vespasian and Titus, Josephus settled in Rome, where he wrote historical works with a pro-Roman slant. However, his Jewish sentiments do sometimes appear in his work, which includes The Jewish War, describing Jewish history from the Maccabees to the downfall of Masada; The Jewish Antiquities, a history from Creation to the outbreak of war with Rome; and Contra Apion, a spirited defense of Judaism in response to the anti-Semitic Greek writer Apion.

On many occasions, Josephus’s writings contradict Talmudic and Midrashic tradition. For example, he writes that he, and not Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, negotiated with Vespasian, and that Titus did not want to destroy the Bais Hamikdash; instead, his soldiers simply got out of control. Josephus also slanders the Pharisees, the sages and their followers. Mainstream opinion is that if Josephus records events, such as Masada, that do not appear in traditional sources, he can be believed. Nevertheless, Josephus’ ideas must be discounted if he contradicts accepted Talmudic or Midrashic sources.