Monday, March 11, 2013

Yodfat – the lesser known Masada

Last week I was on a trip to the Galilee – an area located in the northern part of Israel. We toured a specific region called Misgav and visited some its villages and historic sites. The Galilee is blooming this time of the year, with green hills and flowers everywhere. But the highlight of the tour for me was a visit to the ancient town of Yodfat. It was the site of an epic battle during the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans (67-73 AD).

Ancient Yodfat
There isn’t much to see at the ancient site of Yodfat. The Romans did a thorough job of razing it to the ground. If you look hard, you may spot a few stones, remains of homes and a couple of water holes. There is very little to hint of the heroics of Jewish rebels who fought against three Roman legions – the ancient world best war machine.

As we sat on a remaining stone wall, our tour guide read passages from the book “The War of the Jews” written by Josephus Flavius. The description brought the scenery to life: over there was the Roman garrison. On this side was the roman siege wall. Here stood the city wall - where defenders threw rocks and spilled boiling oil on the Roman legionnaires. These are the water holes that held the precious water supply…

Josephus was the commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee at the beginning of the revolt. He led the defenders of Yodfat and heroically held the Romans back for 47 days before the town fell. After the Romans took over the city and slayed most of its population, Josephus hid in a cave with 40 other defenders. The group decided they prefer to commit suicide rather than fall into Roman hands. Josephus tried to convince the others to turn themselves in. After failing to do so, he suggested they draw lots and take turns killing each other. By stroke of luck, or careful planning, Josephus and another person remained the last two standing. He convinced the other person to forego the suicide plan and surrender to the Romans – which they both did.

Josephus accompanied the Roman forces as they crushed the Jewish rebellion and eventually sacked Jerusalem. A handful of remaining rebels fled to the Masada fortress near the Dead Sea, where led by Elazar Ben-Yair, they held the Roman troops back for 3 years. Finally, the rebels committed a mass suicide preferring death over a life of slavery.

Once the war was over, Josephus was transported to Rome, where he eventually gained his freedom and became a Roman citizen. His book about the Great Jewish Revolt became one of the only sources for the events that led to the destruction of the Jewish kingdom.  

Growing up in Israel, I heard a lot about the heroic story of Masada, but very little about Yodfat. Josephus Flavius, a general and a historian, chose life.  Elazar ben Yair, an extremist, chose death.  Elazar ben Yair became a folk hero, while Josephus Flavius was considered a traitor. The 40,000 slain by the Romans in Yodfat are long forgotten, while the 960 who committed suicide in Masada were immortalized.  Masada became a symbol and a major tourist attraction, while Yodfat lies quietly in ruins.

Makes you wonder…

1 comment:

  1. There are different pages in the Jewish history - such as the chapter of the 'Marranos' - the Jews that were force to convert and become Christians in the 15th century.
    I think it poses a genuine question, not necessarily at the level of life and death, and it is to do with whether one insists on their principles at all costs, or gives them up, or finds covert ways to maintain them...