Eleazar ben-Yair

(1 century)
   Zealot leader on Masada. At some time during the Jewish revolt against the Romans that started in 66, the rock fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea was occupied by a group of Zealots led by Eleazar ben-Yair. The flat top of the rock had been fortified in the previous century by HEROD THE GREAT. At the beginning of the rebellion it had been taken from the Romans by another Zealot leader, MENACHEM BEN-JUDAH, and then abandoned. The Jewish historian JOSEPH us refers to Eleazar and his men as Sicarii (dagger men). This term was used by Josephus for Jewish guerrillas generally, though it probably originated from the name given to an extremist faction in Jerusalem who eliminated their opponents by stabbing them and then escaping into the crowd.
   After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and the wiping out of other rebel outposts, Masada was left as the last stronghold in the hands of the Jews. The Roman general Flavius Silva was sent to take it. Since its sheer cliffs made the rock almost impregnable against a direct assault, Silva cut off all the approaches to it and attempted to reduce it by starvation. The Roman troops took up their positions in eight camps, the remains of which can still be seen today. However, the storehouses on Masada were well stocked and a plentiful supply of water was contained in large cisterns hewn out of the rock.
   In 73 Silva attacked from the western side, where a siege ramp was built from a saddle between two ravines up to the defence wall, a height of nearly three hundred feet. A siege tower was hoisted onto a platform surmounting the ramp, and from it the wall was breached by an iron battering ram. The inner wooden wall was then set on fire by torch throwers. After this breakthrough, the final assault was prepared for the next morning.
   That night Eleazar gathered his people together and in a moving speech reminded them of their resolution ‘never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than God Himself. Since their cause was lost, they decided to kill themselves. In Josephus’ account, ‘They then chose ten men by lots out of them, to slay all the rest, every one of whom lay himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them, and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office; and when those ten had without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule of casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine and after all, should kill himself.’
   The next day the Romans, coming in full armour to the attack, ‘were met with a terrible solitude on every side… as well as a perfect silence’. Two women and five children who had hidden in a cave, came out and ‘informed the Romans what had been done as it was done’. Josephus adds that the Romans could only ‘wonder at the courage of their resolution and the immovable concept of death, which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through such an action as that was’.
   In the Masada archaeological expedition of 1964 to 1966, under the direction of Professor Yigael YADIN, a number of the finds related to the fall of Masada as described by Josephus. The remains of the buildings showed signs of burning. In the debris of Herod’s summer villa, cut into the rock face at the northern end, were found the skeleton of a young man together with scales of a suit of armour, fragments of a talit, or prayer shawl, and a potsherd with Hebrew letters. Nearby was a skeleton of a young woman with her dark, plaited hair still intact, and that of a child. In a cave were discovered the scattered bones of fourteen men, six women and five children. At one spot were eleven small potsherds, each inscribed with a different name, all of them written by the same hand. Could these have been the lots used to pick ten men who would slay the others, as Josephus dramatically relates? One of the inscribed names is Ben-Yair. For later generations of Jews, the strange flat-topped Rock of Masada towering thirteen hundred feet above the Dead Sea shore, has remained a symbol of Jewish courage and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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