After my latest Land of Israel excursion with a visiting family, I remove the dust from my hat, sip a glass of wine and begin to write.
We are quickly approaching the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. We are making waves in culture, finance and technology and we are the center of Jewish cuisine, wine, art and academia. But, it’s really history and archaeology that make Israel unique. Tourists visit from all over the world enthralled with the very idea that they are walking the land of their biblical heroes. Tasty hummus and falafel doesn’t hurt either, I always say.
Here in Israel, the top guidebooks are not only Lonely Planet and Frommer’s but the Bible and Josephus too.
So where should we start?
Masada is an awesome desert mountain fortress rising above the beautiful, otherworldly landscape of the Dead Sea basin, graced with ruins of a palace built by Herod the Great over 2000 years ago.
In the year 70 CE, Jewish rebels made Masada their refuge, holding out for three long years, surrounded by the full force of Rome’s legions. And although the remnants of the Roman encampments, siege wall and attack ramp help bring the saga to life, we cannot truly know what it was like for them. We do know however, that these Jews brought the brutal siege to an end with their mass suicide.
Their choices were to either die as free people by their own hand, or to live life as slaves to the Romans. But that is nowhere near the full story. Once you put boots on the ground around Masada, it becomes clear that we are not doing these people justice by harping on about the story of their death. These people did not come to Masada to die, they came to Masada to LIVE.
Ironically, with all the talk of their deaths, almost nowhere else in the world do we find so many remnants of ancient Jewish LIFE.
One of the structures is clearly communal in purpose, identified as a synagogue, a beit knesset. Fragments of various Bible scrolls were found buried in a corner, probably as a ritual burial, a geniza. These scrolls date to the early first century CE and are treated as part of the Dead Sea Scroll collection. Why would refugees in a desert getaway go to all the trouble of building a synagogue and preserving Bible scrolls for study? It’s very simple, they planned to stay alive and live on as a functioning Jewish community.
THE MIKVAH (RITUAL BATH)
When Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist, came to Masada in the 1950s and first laid eyes on a strange, three-pooled plastered bath system carved into rock, he did not know that he had just made the first-ever discovery of an ancient mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath. Hundreds more were subsequently found all over Israel but none compare to the beauty of the first one.
Yadin had never seen a mikvah before, ancient or modern. But he had heard of it and had a hunch. He promptly sent his people back to Jerusalem to find him an expert in the customs of Jewish ritual baths. They found two rabbis from Meah Shearim, Jerusalem whom they brought back to Masada and led up the dusty snake path. (There was no cable car back then.) The rabbis, in their Chassidic garb, jumped into the pits and, after much poking and measuring, announced that this was, indeed, a kosher mikvah!
It is important to note that the purpose of building a mikvah is so that Jewish family life can continue and children can be born. We see again, that the Jewish rebels clearly came to Masada not to die but to live and create new life.
These are just a couple of the many amazing sites to see at Masada.
Masada has become a symbol of staunch resistance against all odds of the few against the great and powerful. It is a symbol of a people making the ultimate sacrifice for what they believe. And if it is a symbol, maybe after all that ís some kind of victory.
About the author
Rabbi Jeremy Poupko is Director of Israel Ambition Tours and an expert tour guide and tour agent. He lectures extensively, combining Torah, history and archaeology, directs an online forum for in-depth Talmud study and is a part-time rabbi. Jeremy lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children.