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Kidnapped by the Sicarii - an Editorial Review of "Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill" by Shimon Avish

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

Author Bio:

My name is Shimon Avish (She-mone Ah-veesh), and I was born in center-city Philadelphia, but moved to Jerusalem, Israel, when I was fourteen. I spent my high school years learning mechanical engineering and trying to fit into a society very different from the one I left behind. In Israel, all teenage boys and girls knew they would soon spend two-to-three years serving their country in the military, and for the boys, who typically enlisted in combat units, this meant toughening themselves up physically and mentally to survive their service intact.

I volunteered for a branch of the military called Nahal, which combines active duty military service with establishing a border kibbutz. I spent over two years in uniform, initially learning to be an infantryman, and later, a combat medic. Military command posted me to the Jordanian border, with a unit that patrolled near the Dead Sea several times a day. Almost every morning, after we completed an overnight patrol, our lieutenant would take us on a quick hike up the Snake Path of Masada in full combat gear, or for a quick trip into the desert to look for scorpions. We hated it at the time because we typically only slept on the ground for three hours the night before, but now, with the distance and wisdom of age, I look back and appreciate those times.

I spent the rest of my enlisted time establishing Kibbutz Yahel, which is 160 kilometers south of Masada on the Jordanian border. Most of my time was spent first establishing, and then working in, the metal shop of the kibbutz, repairing and fabricating farm equipment, but I was also lucky enough to work in both the orchards and vegetable fields, where I learned to harvest dates, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. I also served as the Kibbutz Financial Manager for a time, overseeing revenue and expense management.

After serving for three-and-a-half years, I returned to Jerusalem and worked as an incognito security guard at the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel, until I started my industrial design training at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Upon the advice of one of my professors, I applied to universities in the U.S. to complete my undergraduate degree, and attended the University of Pennsylvania for environmental design. Upon graduation I returned to my industrial design roots, and opened a cabinetmaking shop in Philadelphia, where I designed and built custom furniture. After suffering two injuries, my wife and I decided it was time for me to engage in a less dangerous occupation, and so I returned to school.

My interests had become more political over time, and based on my experiences serving in the military, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in national security studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and upon completion I entered Columbia University’s Ph.D. program in political science. I spent nine years in graduate school, and all I can say is, “My wife is a saint.” Our two children were born while I was still in school, which made for an adventure. One was born just in time for the family to spend six months in Jerusalem while I conducted field research for my dissertation, and the other was born just in time for me to finish and defend my dissertation.

Serendipity plays an important role in most peoples’ lives, and it certainly did in mine. There were very few open positions for newly minted political science professors in the year I graduated, but a friend of mine owned an international business consulting firm, and I worked with him for a few years, until American Express’ consulting group recruited me. This was the beginning of a twenty-four-year tenure as a globe-trotting business travel management consultant, which came to a screeching halt with COVID-19’s arrival.

Fortunately, my wife is kind enough to let me pursue my other dream, which is to finish my novel about Masada, and to write a series on significant events in Jewish history, including:

  • Rome and the Jews: Prelude to War (First Jewish–Roman War – 6 BCE–70 CE)

  • Jerusalem: Siege and Destruction (First Jewish–Roman War – 70 CE)

  • Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill (Siege of Masada – 66-73 CE)

  • The Second Jewish Rebellion Against Rome (Kitos War – 115–117 CE)

  • The Third Jewish Rebellion Against Rome (Bar Kokhba Revolt – 132–135 CE)

I hope you will join me as I begin this grand adventure.

Editorial Review:

Every little boy in Israel has heard of the mighty stonghold, and I often played Invade the Fortress with my friends as a youngster. King Herod the Great, a convert to Judaism, built the Masada fort close to one hundred years earlier as a place of retreat if the Jewish population ever turned against him.

Readers will be swept away in this epic struggle of the survivors of the devastation of Jerusalem. The years are 65 to 70 C.E., and the Roman Emperor Nero is wielding a strong hand against Jerusalem. Many Jews collaborate with the Roman armies or hide in the tunnels beneath the Mount, yet all find themselves in dire straits. Eighteen-year-old Daniel, the son of a Temple Priest, and his twin brother, Jonathan, live what seems to be a normal affluent life due to the fact that his father is one of the collaborators. At least, he is in the eyes of the rebels hiding in the caves, the ones known as the Sicarii. These assassins are determined to rid Jerusalem of the Roman soldiers, as well as eliminate all Jews who are prospering by bending to Rome’s authority.

In the midst of this turmoil, Daniel and Jonathan’s father attempts to continue training them in the ways of priesthood, teaching them the laws as set forth in the Tanakh to pass on the traditions of the Jewish people despite being under Roman rule. Daniel is always questioning the commandments, to his father’s dismay, wanting to know how far one should go to abide by them and if there is ever a reason to bend them.

Quickly, Daniel’s life changes and his training is put to the test when his entire family is killed by the Sicarii and he is taken captive by the assassins, first to the desert and, eventually, to the walled fortress of Masada. It is here that Daniel’s faith is tested, and his adherence to Jewish Law that he learned from his father is abandoned as he adopts the Sicarii way of life, that of thievery and violence, just to survive.

I stood and threw wood on the campfire, causing hundreds of insect-like orange sparks to fly into the sky. I had never experienced this before, and it became an aspect of living in the desert I came to love. We were so far from the city, the sky was black, and we could hear the absolute silence surrounding us. The stillness reminded me of being outside in Jerusalem during a heavy snowfall when the absence of people and the muffling effects of snow amplify the silence.

Before long, this fierce culture becomes his new way of life and he marries Judith, a strong willed young Jewish woman whose beauty and courage builds a desire in Daniel to stand up for his faith.

For a long while in the narrative, a reader is swept into the day-to-day drudgery of living atop this desolate flat plateau as nine hundred Jews fight boredom and starvation, as well as the threat that any day the Roman armies will find and kill them all. There is a intensifying rift between the regular civilians and the fierce Sicarii soldiers, especially between Daniel and Eleazar Ben Yair, the Sicarii leader whose murderous ideals set the stage for a confrontation between the civilians, the soldiers, and the Roman legions.

Daniel is faced with extreme choices in this extreme environment, and the disobedience of the commandment of ‘thou shalt not kill’ comes to the forefront, testing his character, faith, and his own survival, as well as his wife and children.

Why couldn’t I learn to keep my mouth shut? Did I have a need to always be right, or was it because I genuinely believed in the obligation to follow the Ten Commandments and the other six-hundred-thirteen rules in the Tanakh? I could obey the laws myself and not insist others do so, but not confronting others condones their actions, which is the same as me choosing to disobey God’s laws.

For the most part, this tale about Masada is quite interesting and for those familiar (or not familiar) with the account relayed in history by Jospehus, this gives a reader a rare glimpse into the living conditions for those Jews starting with the revolt in 66 C.E.. When Cestius Gallus first assembled the twelfth legion of the Roman army against the Holy City in 66 C.E., the tension and fear mounted, so when they suddenly departed, this gave an opening for most of the Jewish population to flee, dispersing to other safer areas; however, for many who did not heed the warning or sense the danger, the Romans returned in 70 C.E. with the intent of devastating Jerusalem at the behest of Vespasian. The tribulation that ensued was nightmarish. Thousands upon thousands died in the onslaught by the sword or starvation.

During this revolt came the rise of rebels like the Sicarii who wanted to stand their ground and fight the invaders, capturing the garrison at Masada and establishing a base there; and came the rise of those Jews who sought to yield to Roman rule just to save their lives and to protect the only way of life they had ever known. But Rome’s policy of violence was clear, and the protagonist, Daniel, is faced with seeing the difference between obeying God’s laws and succumbing to man’s laws... and the narrative’s message and theme plays out not only for the characters in the novel, but also for the reader. Masada's clear message of the difference in obeying God's laws versus man's laws resonates in the characters lives - a powerful narrative for 2022!

Even in the more lumbering parts of the story, you come to understand that this pace is a necessity to understand the dilemma these Jews who seek refuge atop this mountain are facing. Pangs of hunger, the search for finding ways to fill up their endless tiring days and not being able to leave this refuge, separation from a life they knew before, and families separated by death or distance... somewhat a reminder of how we live today during this pandemic. Daniel’s quest for discovering his own faith and loyalty to his beliefs is a lesson for any reader who reads this book. This is an intriguing tale of one young man's inner need to do what is right, opposing those of his own faith... and that of Rome. Lastly, by reading the author notes and hearing about his history with Masada helps you to truly connect with his reasons for writing the story. The author's knowledge of the area from first-hand experience truly draws the reader into the storyline. A striking narrative interwoven with biblical history and appealing characters - if you loved "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman, then don't miss this one!


“Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill” by Shimon Avish receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company

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