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Eleazar ben Jair

ELEAZAR BEN JAIR

ELEAZAR BEN JAIR (first cent. c.e.), chief of the Sicarii who captured the fortress of *Masada at the beginning of the Roman war (Jos., Wars, 2:447; 7:275ff.). Eleazar was commander of the besieged fortress from 66 until its fall in 73. According to Josephus he was a descendant of *Judah the Galilean, to whom the founding of the "fourth philosophy" (see *Sicarii) is attributed, though some identify him with Judah b. Hezekiah who, after Herod's death, raised the standard of revolt in Galilee and captured Sepphoris. Apparently Eleazar already had a connection with Masada in the time of *Menahem b. Judah, when he captured it and used the arms that he obtained there for the siege of Jerusalem. Josephus designates Eleazar, "head of the Sicarii … a valiant man," and ascribes to him a speech made to the defenders of Masada after the breach of its walls, first before a handful of fighters and afterward before all the besieged. This speech was possibly reconstructed from what Josephus heard from the woman belonging to Eleazar's family who escaped at Masada by hiding herself in the cistern there; although it has also been pointed out that the ascription of heroic speeches to the heroes of history was a literary device that characterized ancient historiography. These passages are the only sources where Eleazar is mentioned explicitly, and since Josephus is the only source for the final battle of Masada and the last days of the fighters, it should be treated with caution.

The image of Eleazar which emerges is not only multi-faceted but contradictory. His colorful character made it difficult for Josephus to give a uniform or complete picture. He never fails to stress that Eleazar was one of the Sicarii, of whom he continually gives an unfavorable opinion. Yet, at the same time, when he comes to describe in detail the stand of Masada and its fall, he does not refrain from praising Eleazar. Doubts have been cast upon the reliability of Josephus' story of Masada. It has been argued (Ladouceur, but see comments by Rajak) that Eleazar's speech was written to act as a balance to Josephus' own opinions about self-inflicted death (Wars, 3:362–382). Nevertheless, the archaeological excavations at Masada – directed by Y. Yadin – even if they have not produced factual epigraphic testimony of what happened there, do not contradict the narrative. The many traces of fire throughout the whole area of the fortress are a small part of the mute testimony to the end of Masada. But the most remarkable part of the excavation was the discovery of 11 small sherds upon which names and appellations were marked (among them: "Ben ha-Naḥtom," "ha-Amki," "Yo'av," "Ben Ya'ir," etc.). These 11 ostraka have been tenuously connected by Yadin with the statement by Josephus (Wars, 7:395f.): "then, having chosen by lot ten of their number to despatch the rest … these, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom it fell should slay first the nine and then himself last of all." The sherd bearing the name "Ben Ya'ir" strengthens the picture, unique of its kind, of Eleazar ben Jair.

bibliography:

Klausner, Bayit Sheni, 5 (19512), 148, 287–9; S. Zeitlin, in: jqr, 55 (1964/65), 299–317; 57 (1966/67), 251–70; Y. Yadin, Masada (1968). add. bibliography: D.J. Ladouceur, "Masada: A Consideration of the Literary Evidence," in: Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies, 21 (1980), 246–47; S.J.D. Cohen, "Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus," in: jjs, 33 (1982), 385–405; T. Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and his Society (1983), 220; M. Stern, Studies in Jewish History: The Second Temple Period (1991), 313–43; D. Flusser, "The Dead of Masada in the Eyes of their Contemporaries," in: I. Gaphni et al. (eds.), Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple, Mishna and Talmud Period (1993), 116–46; T. Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part i. Palestine 330 b.c.e. –200 c.e. (2002), 65.

[Abraham Lebanon]

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