Jews Against Rome - Jews Against Each Other

Masada - Thou Shalt Not Kill

Shimon Avish

When 18-year-old Daniel is abducted by Sicarii assassins and taken to their walled fortress of Masada, he's forced to let go of the Jewish Law he's learned from his parents and to adopt his kidnappers' code of violence and thievery, simply to stay alive.

Wracked with guilt but determined to survive, Daniel becomes part of the Sicarii culture, even marrying one of their soldier's sisters. Between violent raids against neighboring settlements to prevent starvation and other challenges to his beliefs, Daniel is faced with choice after choice that test his character, strength, and resolve and pushes him to discover the kind of man he wants to be.

Set against the backdrop of the last confrontation between the Jews and Romans during the Second Temple period, author Shimon Avish masterfully weaves together history and his real-life experiences in the army and as a kibbutznik, bringing to life a painful chapter in Jewish history through the eyes of young Daniel.

Book Excerpt or Article

I stood by the arched entryway to my parents' home. My cheek still tingled from the blow Father had dealt me moments before. I let the cool stone of the archway and nighttime summer air relieve the sting, but not the memory of the slap. How could he hit me? Isn't it a parent's role to nurture and protect their children, and doesn't thou shalt not kill also mean thou shalt not resort to violence to force your son to agree with you?

Unable to remain so close to him, I ran away from the house and down the main alleyway until I had to stop and catch my breath. Then, pausing partway across the Zion Bridge, which spans from the Upper City to the Temple entrance, I tried to calm myself by leaning against the rough stone of the balustrade. But looking up at the massive triple-arched portico of the Temple Mount and then down on my favorite view of Jerusalem toward the Siloam Pool, I still could not soothe my heart or mind.

Standing in silence on the bridge and slowing my breath, I noticed voices approaching and the jingling of little bells to my left, close to the Temple Mount gate. I watched as the High Priest, Mattathias, and his retinue drew near the stairs leading from the Temple onto the bridge. Mattathias led the procession from the front, dressed in his finest indigo robes with dangling tiny gold bells and tassels, his head held high and shoulders back, strutting quickly, as he was prone to do.

Suddenly, a man in a filthy tunic with wild hair shoved past me on the bridge and ran toward Mattathias. I caught sight of another, younger man as he drew near the High Priest from between the arches of the Temple Mount gate. The unruly-haired fellow headed straight at Mattathias as the other man closed fast from behind, lurching forward and striking the High Priest in the back as if tripping on a crack in the paving stones. He shoved the High Priest and sent him flying into the waiting arms of the first assailant.

With infinitesimal, almost undetectable movements, the wild-haired attacker drew a blade from between the folds of his robe and forced it up under Mattathias's rib cage. Then he twisted the dagger and pulled it out, wiping the bloodied blade on the priest's robes as he eased him onto the ground. Stepping back, he looked around to see if there were any other witnesses to his actions, and missing me in the darkness, he gathered his men to him with a high-pitched whistle.

What was happening? Who were these people? My heart pounding, I moved into the shadows of the bridge to hide. Was that the notorious Sicarii—the dagger-men of Jerusalem? Did I just witness an assassination?

Gathering my courage, I yelled, "Guards!" to the sentries near the Temple gate. "Look, the High Priest!" I pointed across the bridge to where Mattathias laid in a heap, his entourage surrounding him, making useless sounds like a brood of hens. I looked for signs of the attackers, but the dagger-men had already vanished into the night.

I could not believe what I was seeing. I knew that attacks on the Temple priests were becoming more common, but the Sicarii had never struck this close to home, nor had they ever assassinated a High Priest before. I had to tell Father.

Before I had managed two steps, someone caught me by my belt.

"Be quiet," this someone hissed while grabbing and then twisting my right arm high behind my back. The pain was unbearable, but sensing the danger I was in, I clenched hard with my already aching jaw to keep myself from screaming in pain.
*
Earlier that day, I had awoken to a sense of foreboding because the morning sky foretold of a coming sandstorm. The leading edge of the storm would arrive soon, and the air was already thick with dust, making it difficult to see. On such days, most people stayed indoors, or if they had to be out, they covered their mouths and noses. I knew I would not be able to gaze upon Jerusalem's honey-colored stones this day. I also knew my twin brother, Jonathan, and I would struggle to study; the weather’s fug and oppressiveness would be a source of distraction. But Father did not rest for sandstorms, and I was sure he had already left our study assignments for the day.

Dread of the approaching storm was much like the frequent apprehension I felt from living in turbulent times; not knowing if today would be the day the Jewish rebels or our Roman overlords would change our lives forever. Thank God the Roman occupation rarely touched my life unless the Sicarii assassinated a priest. Then Mother would become hysterical, and Father would disappear into himself for days.

Jonathan and I were eighteen and spent our days studying from dawn to dusk, learning the holy scrolls and our responsibilities as future Temple priests. After completing his daily priestly duties, Father returned from the Temple to grill Jonathan and me about our lessons before allowing us our evening meal. I'm reasonably sure boys in other priestly homes were not subjected to such daily abuse. The only good thing about these torturous examination sessions is that Father would also not eat until we completed the oral examination to his satisfaction. Many an evening, I suspect the depth of his questioning depended on how hungry he was, and sometimes I heard his stomach rumble while waiting for me to finish explaining a more nuanced point of law. Nevertheless, I do have to admit, it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to inflict on him an equal measure of discomfort to the discomfort he imposed on Jonathan and me.

Ours was not a truly happy household, and sometimes, it felt more like a battlefield as our parents tried to shape us into what they thought we should be to bestow honor upon them and be a credit to our family. To illustrate, Mother had recently announced that Jonathan and I were to be married.

"Jonathan will marry Rivka, and Daniel will marry Rachel, her younger sister. They are the daughters of Mattathias and will maintain the purity of our bloodline and ensure our descendants will be priests forevermore."

Jonathan and I already knew of the young ladies and objected vociferously but to no avail. As Mother explained in her clipped speech, "There will be no discussion. Only these two young ladies meet all the criteria Father and I require of your future wives."

Lying quietly on my pallet as I struggled to wake up, I heard the sounds of morning in our household. Crows cawed incessantly outside my window, and the kitchen staff chatted and banged away as they prepared the morning meal.

"Daniel, Daniel?"

My brother's voice, as always, interrupted my thoughts. Knowing I would be spending the next eight hours closeted in a room with him, studying whatever esoteric texts Father had chosen for us, I decided to ignore him and rolled over.

"Daniel," Jonathan said again, this time louder. I sighed and rolled over to face him.

Jonathan, whose hair was a lighter shade of brown than my own but whose eyes resembled mine in their intense blueness, appeared anxious as he tried to get my attention.

"What was that sound?"

"I didn't hear anything," I said, just as I, too, heard a racket from downstairs.

"Stop, thief!" a voice rang out.

"Come on. We’d better go find out what's happening," I said as I dragged myself off my pallet, with Jonathan following close behind. We descended the marble stairs in our bare feet and crossed the honeysuckle-scented atrium to the kitchens, where the shouting continued. Mother's chef was holding onto the wrist of a beggar she had captured.

"Look what I caught," said Cook, as she was losing the battle to restrain the thief while he dragged her along the slick white marble floor, struggling to escape with the loaf of bread he clutched in his bony hands. "Stop trying to escape! And quit dragging me!"

"What's this all about?" I asked as I entered the kitchen while Jonathan took up position in the passageway from the dining room. Meanwhile, with a frantic look on his face, the unfortunate man desperately tried to flee before Jonathan and I got involved and brought the authorities.

"I caught this thief stealing bread from the cooling rack," Cook explained more animatedly than I could have managed so early in the morning.

I stepped back to look at the scoundrel and positioned myself between him and the alley doorway.

"Why, Cook," I said, "look at him. He's wasting away. His cheeks are sunken, his beard scraggly, and his arms are stick-thin. The dirt on his tunic weighs more than he does."

I disentangled the vagrant from Cook's grip, and he stood before me; his eyes locked on my face; his expression a mix of pride and fear.

"What are you doing here? I asked.

"I'm taking food to feed my family," he said.

I blocked his exit. "What makes you think you can just take our food?"

"You have a lot of bread, and out there, we have none."

"Out where?"

"Outside your door, there is no flour for bread. Don't you know that? People are starving to death. Haven't you heard?" the thief said while looking me up and down. "No. You don't look like you've ever missed a meal a day in your life."

"Why is there no flour?" I asked, looking at Cook, who nodded in agreement with the thief. "So, where do we get our flour?"

Obviously not wanting to say in front of the thief, Cook whispered, "We draw our flour from the Temple stores."

"And I can't," said the thief, "and my family is starving. We've only had a rotten onion to share between the three of us. How is it you don't know people are starving?"

"What is happening here?" Mother had arrived and stood in the hall outside the kitchen behind Jonathan. I had not yet offered my morning devotions, yet Mother appeared perfectly coiffed, dressed in a blue silk tunic, with a string of pearls at her neck. Her graying hair was done up in some intricate arrangement, and she smelled like a costly perfume. "Who is this creature, and why is he in our kitchen?"

"I caught—" Cook said, but I interrupted her.

"He is a brother Jew down on his luck, Mother, so I offered him a loaf of bread from the generosity of our home."

Mother took a step toward me but couldn't get past Jonathan. She gave him her notorious glare, but he held fast.

"Yes, Mother?" Jonathan was ever the wit, but Mother pushed past him.

"You are giving away our food?" she managed, planting herself in front of me and gracing me with a penetrating stare.

"Mother, it's just this one occasion. Right, Cook?" I said while I winked at Cook and the other kitchen staff over the thief's shoulder.

"Yes, Mother," chimed in Jonathan, not happy Mother had slipped by him to confront me.

"Just wait until I tell your father about this at supper."

Suddenly, the kitchen door burst open, and three Roman soldiers rushed in.

"Is this the rebel?" asked the commander as they grabbed the thief and threw him to the ground.

"What's happening here? Who called you?" I demanded.

"A servant brought us an urgent message saying a rebel was here," the centurion said gruffly. Mother had apparently heard the ruckus while still in her rooms and sent a servant to fetch the Roman soldiers.

"I sent the messenger, Daniel," Mother interjected imperiously. "Now, let these men do their duty and take him away. These rebels are a blight on us all."

"But he's not a rebel. He's just a starving Jew, Mother. What have you done?"

"You don't know that, Daniel. And he's a thief. So, take him away," she said in a tone that allowed for no more discussion.

Turning to the commander, I asked, "What will happen to him?"

"It doesn't matter if he's a rebel or a thief. Either way, he's a criminal, and he'll be found guilty and crucified, just like all the other criminals." Then, signaling to his men, he said, "Lift him up and bind him and let's get going. We've spent enough time with these Jews."

They had to drag the thief to a standing position to tie his arms behind his back. Not so hostile now, the fellow appeared just a poor Jew, unable to feed his family because of circumstances beyond his control. And my mother, from her rigid place of privilege that didn't let her see past her own powdered nose, had just sentenced him to death. Jonathan and I were mortified and cast our eyes to the floor as the squad of Roman soldiers dragged the poor fellow off to meet his fate. Just one of so many other Jews to be crucified that day.
*
"I cannot believe she called the Romans and not King Agrippa's troops." Agrippa's palace is closer than the Antonia Fortress, where the Roman troops are stationed. "And why did she lie about him being a rebel? The Romans will crucify him."

Jonathan and I were supposed to be studying, but I found it impossible. Not after what had just happened. Instead, we returned to our room, and Jonathan sat quietly on his pallet as I ranted and paced back and forth furiously. "I won't ever pretend to understand Mother. How could she call another human being a blight? He is a starving father with a family."

"With every new assassination of a priest, Mother becomes more afraid," he said. "What would she do if something happened to Father? What is she without him?"

"Brother dear, you always try to find the best in people, don't you?" I said, as pleasantly surprised by Jonathan's generosity of spirit as ever.

"Yes, Daniel, I have to find the best because if I don't, all I'm left with is the worst. And I don't want that. Come, let's go see what Father has left for us today."

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SHIMON AVISH writes about significant events in ancient Jewish history. His work draws on his adventures in soldiering, farming, product design, cabinet making, political science, international business consulting and living in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. His love of Masada derives from being stationed in the area for more than a year while serving with an Israel Defense Forces patrol unit. After completing nighttime patrols, his lieutenant would often have the team climb the Snake Path to the top, which was despised at the time, coming after night-long patrols. But today, those are cherished memories, providing, as they do, an intimate knowledge of Masada. He's been fascinated with it ever since and hopes you will enjoy his speculations about what could have happened there as much as he has enjoyed writing them.

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