About 30 miles from Jerusalem lies Masada, which means “fortress” in Hebrew. Masada is a steep rocky hill rising over 1400 feet from the Judea Desert on the southwest shore of the Dead Sea. In 40 BC, during one of the turbulent times noted by his reign, King Herod along with his family fled from Jerusalem to Masada and later, between 37 and 31 BC, fortified and furnished it as a personal citadel.
After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD by the Romans, Zealot resistors and their families numbering less than 1000 fled Jerusalem to Masada, which had been occupied by another Zealot, Menachem Ben Judah, in 66 AD at the outbreak of the Great Jewish Revolt. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Masada became the last site of organized Jewish resistance against Roman rule.
In 72 AD, the Roman governor Lucius Flavius Silva marched against Masada commanding the Tenth Legion, which had in tow thousands of Jewish war prisoners. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada and laid siege to it. To approach the top of the mesa on which the actual fortress was constructed, they built a rampart of stone and earth on the western side of the fortress. Two years later, in the spring of the year 74 AD, the Romans moved a battering ram up this ramp and, at the end of the day, breached the wall of the fortress. Tired from the effort of breaching the walls and assured of victory, the Romans decided to enter the fortress the next day.
As recounted by Flavius Josephus, that night Eleazar ben Yair gathered all the defenders and persuaded them to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of Romans. Because Judaism strongly discourages suicide, as Josephus’ story notes, ten people chosen by a lot killed all the other defenders, then each other, down to the last man, so that only one would take his own life. Josephus also reported that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs as evidence that, not lacking an abundance of supplies, the Masada defenders deliberately chose death over slavery.
Masada today is the single most recognized symbol of Israeli freedom and independence. The site is so important to Israelis that elite units of the Israeli Defense Forces hold induction ceremonies there pledging, “Masada will never fall again!”