By Joe Yudin, CEO of Touring Israel
Almost every week someone asks me if I can plan their son’s or daughter’s coming of age Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony on top of Masada. There is one good reason to have it on Masada but there are many better reasons not to do it on Masada.
Yes, the story of Masada is one of the most famous in the history of the Jewish people, and Masada itself is one of the “must see” historical treasures in all of Israel. For those of you who do not know the story it goes something like this:
King Herod was a Roman installed tyrant of Judea (Israel) who had many enemies, amongst them most of his Jewish subjects. In order to defend against a Jewish rebellion, he builds this giant mountaintop fortress in the middle of nowhere – Masada. Within his massive defenses he builds palaces, swimming pools, ritual baths, tanneries, dozens of water cisterns integrated into a water system, storerooms, dwellings, offices and one of the oldest known examples of early synagogues in existence, all built as if hovering in the beige desert sky overlooking the Mountains of Moab and the Dead Sea. It is truly a site to see.
Fast forward 70 years after King Herod’s death to 67 CE, and we find the Jews of Judea in the middle of a revolt against Rome. The Romans had installed idols throughout the land over the entrances to the holy places including the Temple itself, as well as an overly cruel tax system during a failing economy leading to mass poverty, starvation and open rebellion coupled with the cruelest of punishment against those who spoke ill of Caesar and his governors: Crucifixion. The Jews were divided into four groups who weren’t just fighting Roman oppression but fighting amongst themselves in order to define what Judaism would evolve into for the next 2,000 years. The most radical, uncompromising and viscous group of the four was known as the Zealots and they were responsible for starting the war against Rome in the first place. The Zealots succeeded in their initial push to rid Judea of the Roman forces. Anyone who got in the Zealots way or who disagreed with their philosophy of not compromising with the enemy was killed, Jew & non Jew alike.
By the year 70 CE the tide of the war had changed and the Roman legions were marching on Judea burning down the cities that did not surrender unconditionally, including Jerusalem and the Temple at its center. The Zealots fled Jerusalem into the desert, stopping briefly at the oasis of Ein Gedi where a peaceful Jewish settlement had existed for centuries. The Zealots raided their stockpiles of food, killing anyone who tried to stop them before heading up the snake path of Masada, tricking the few Romans defending the fortress and occupying it.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem and throughout the Land of Israel Jews from the other Jewish groups, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes where surrendering. Other cities not involved in the revolt were spared, their Jewish populations remained free. Jewish prisoners were sold off into slavery around the known world, and certain Jewish streams that were Temple based or eschatological in nature didn’t survive. The few rabbis of the Pharisaic persuasion who remained alive start a “yeshiva”, a school, in the coastal city of Yavne which would succeed in preserving Judaism, in a less nationalistic, more spiritual, interpretive and flexible direction. This Judaism is called Rabbinical Judaism and all streams of Judaism today have its roots in it. Jews today are descendants of these Jews of the Rabbinic stream, the Jews who surrendered, the Pharisees. The Jews who were enslaved. The Jews who survived and persevered despite the hardships we faced by Romans and later oppressors around the world, at home and in exile.
What happened to the Jews of Masada, those who began the revolt, and refused to surrender? Well the Zealots knew what would await them if captured alive by the Roman legionnaires and it wouldn’t be pretty, so they choose to die – a sort of collective suicide – rather than go through what the Romans were renown for perpetrating. The Romans were left with nothing after their long, brutal siege of the mountaintop fortress. This in unto itself is seen as some sort of victory over the Romans. But was it? Masada is the place for Jews to remember that there is a time for peace and a time for war, that compromise is an important component to Judaism and that an “all or nothing” mentality sometimes leads to nothing.
So why do I recommend not to have a Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony on Masada? Well there is the spiritual reason and there is the practical reason.
First the spiritual reason:
Whereas the early Zionist forefathers used the story of Masada as a rallying point to show an example of bravery against all odds, and as a sort of “Live Free of Die” attitude that we Jews will fight to the death rather than be thrown from our land once again, today Israelis look at Masada a bit differently. The reason Masada fell and the Jews were exiled from Israel wasn’t because of poor military strategy, or forces beyond our control. We lost our country because we could not stick together and we could not compromise with each other. “Senseless hatred” amongst our fellow Jews ruled the day and the result was our exile. If we want to keep our nation that has arisen out of these ashes, we need to internalize this lesson and do the opposite of “Senseless hatred” which is unbridled love between Jews and human kind. The Temple, or today the Western Wall, is the symbol of love between human beings, each other, our creator and the world. Spiritually there is no better place for the ceremony than the Western Wall, amongst the ruins of the Temple in the archaeological gardens underneath the Robinson’s Arch.
As for the practical reason:
Masada is a trek. Its one and a half hours outside of Jerusalem in a boiling desert. You need to wait in line to enter the national park then wait in another line to take the gondola up the mountain with 50-70 other people. If you want to hike up you need to do it early in the morning because of the heat. Remember Masada is in the desert. By the time you get up you will be, well, dirty and sweaty. By the time you get through the ceremony will you really want to spend another hour or an hour and half touring this incredible archaeological and must see historical site? Probably not…and that would be a shame. Are grandma and grandpa going to enjoy sitting around in the heat for an hour during the ceremony? I doubt it. There is the option to rent out the gondola but that means you need to get there before the park opens, and remember you have an hour and half drive to get there. The Western Wall on the other hand is a 20 minute easy walk from your hotel or a five minute bus ride. After the ceremony you can have a celebratory lunch in Jerusalem get back to the hotel, change and then continue touring. In my opinion do the ceremony at the right place, the Western Wall and take the time to do an in depth tour of Masada with an incredible guide while making sure that your children get the right message about this important historical site.