Sunrise at Masada
Sunrise at MasadaIsrael News Photo: (Hana Levi Julian)

For the first time in two thousand years, the ancient synagogue atop the Judean desert fortress of Masada will ring out at dawn with the rare blessing of the sun.

The blessing, recited only once in every 28 years, will be uttered by Jews around the world at the first appearance of the sun on the morning that precedes the Passover seder. Rabbi Shimon Elharar, director of the Dead Sea Chabad House, will lead a group in the sunrise ceremony atop the Judean clifftop fortress of Masada.

The Israel Nature Society at Masada has teamed up with Chabad to host a public celebration for the rare event, which will take place on Wednesday, April 8, at the time of the vernal equinox.

When the blessing is recited, the sun will be in the same position, on the same day of the week and the same approximate hour, as it was when it was created. This “starting position” actually occurs the previous evening, but we recite the blessing over the sun to mark this anniversary only when it is visible – that is, the next morning.

Judaism marks the event as the starting point of the creation of the sun. According to Jewish tradition, this year the blessing will be recited for the 206th time.

The special blessing – “Blessed are You… Who fashions the work of Creation” - acknowledges and honors the vast greatness of G-d’s Creation.

The last time this special blessing was recited, on April 8, 1981, special gatherings were held across the globe for the public recital of the prayer – including atop one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, which was destroyed 20 years later in a massive attack on America by the al Qaeda terrorist organization.

Jewish Presence on Masada

The Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, who lived in the first century of the Common Era, wrote that King Herod ordered the construction of the desert fortress of Masada between 37 and 31 BCE to serve as a refuge in the event of a revolt. Herod’s fears were realized when Jews from the rebellious Sicarri group overcame the Roman garrison in Masada in 66 CE. Roman troops attempted to regain Masada by building a ramp and dragging a battering ram up to the top in an effort to break through the walls.

Josephus is the only historian that documented the Jews’ last days on Masada. The Romans used their Jewish slaves to build the ramp and begin the siege of the fortress, thus forcing their brethren inside Masada to choose between killing their own people, or surrendering.

When the Jews realized that their fate was doomed, they committed mass suicide, refusing to surrender to the hands of the Romans. Josephus’ account is based on testimony that he heard from two women and five children, who hid in one of huge cisterns of the palace during the suicide. Judaism forbids taking one’s life, and the episode does not appear in the Talmud.

Nevertheless, archaeological evidence corroborates that there indeed existed a Jewish presence on Masada. Through publication of the excavations of the famed late Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Masada became widely known.

In addition to finding two mikvaot (ritual baths) and a synagogue that was used by Masada's defenders, Yadin uncovered twenty-five skeletons of men, women, and children. In 1969, they were buried at Masada with full military honors.

The ancient synagogue once used by Masada's Jewish defenders was recently restored by Rabbi Elharar, and now is used to celebrate Jewish life cycle occasions, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.