When a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvahs, one should sacrifice one's life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvahs.”
Since the time of our forefather Abraham, and throughout a long history of suffering and oppression, the Jewish people have been imbued with the ability and the willpower to lay down their lives for G‑d.
One of the most moving narratives to emerge from our history of martyrdom is the account of the Ten Martyrs—the heart-rending narrative describing in graphic detail the deaths of 10 Mishnaic-era Torah luminaries who were slaughtered on the altar of senseless hatred.
Ashkenazic Jews read the account of the Ten Martyrs in the Yom Kippur liturgy after the description of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, and Sephardic Jews read it on Tisha B’Av, a day when we mourn the destruction of both Holy Temples.
What do we know about these 10 sages and how they met their fate?
There is some disagreement among the rabbis as to who the 10 sages were and when they were killed. The widely accepted source for the account of the Ten Martyrs, the famous poetic lamentation of Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, seems to indicate that the 10 sages were all summoned by a Roman governor and killed at once. However, most agree that the 10 sages could not have been killed at the same time, or even in near succession, since they were not contemporaries.
All other accounts of the Ten Martyrs conclude that two of them were killed during the Great Revolt, which was staged by the Jews against the Roman oppressors between the years 66 and 74 CE, while the rest were killed in the Bar Kochba Revolt some 60 years later, between 132 and 136 CE.
During the Great Revolt, which ultimately lead to the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), Jewish blood was spilled in barbaric ways and at staggering rates, yet the final blow to the morale of the people was dealt with the tragic martyrdom of the Jewish leaders, who were publicly tortured and executed. This is why only their deaths are meticulously recorded and described.
Who Were They?
The dispute over when the deaths of the Ten Martyrs occurred hinges on a disagreement as to their identity.
Midrash Eleh Ezkerah lists the following sages as the Ten Martyrs:
- Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha the High Priest
- Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel Hazaken
- Rabbi Chanina Ben Tradyon
- Rabbi Akiva
- Rabbi Yehudah Ben Bava
- Rabbi Chutzpit Hameturgeman
- Rabbi Yeshevav Hasofer
- Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua
- Rabbi Chanina Ben Chachinai
- Rabbi Yehudah Ben Dama
As mentioned above, many of these sages were not contemporaries, and could therefore not have been killed at the same time.
Some sources deal with this issue by coming to different conclusions about who some of the martyrs were: they mention Bar Kappara, Rabbi Shimon Ben Azzai and Rabbi Yehuda Hanachtom as possible martyrs, which would diminish the chronological gaps.
The Story Behind the Story
The sages also disagree regarding the reason for the punishment of the Ten Martyrs. However, the reasons given are not mutually exclusive, and can all be embraced as different facets of the same concept. Indeed it is written, “There are 70 faces to Torah” —meaning that differing opinions can, and indeed do, offer more insight into one incident than a single explanation could.
The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues visited a dying Rabbi Eliezer, the latter said that he would be “surprised if they [his visitors] would die a natural death.” When Rabbi Akiva asked him what kind of death he would suffer, Rabbi Eliezer answered, “Yours will be worse than theirs.”
However, according to Eleh Ezkerah, and thus according to most opinions, the story of the Ten Martyrs has its roots in an incident involving the Roman prefect of Jerusalem, the wicked Turnusrufus, who was well-versed in Jewish literature.
He had been learning the passage in Exodus that states, “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, and [the victim] is found in his possession, he shall surely be put to death.” Turnusrufus immediately realized that his interpretation of this law offered him a golden opportunity to humiliate the Jewish faith and murder its chief exponents.
Turnusrufus summoned Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel and his colleagues and presented a question before them:
What is the law with regards to he who kidnaps a man from the Jewish nation and sells him [into slavery]?” The rabbis replied that Torah mandates that such a man be put to death. “If so,” continued Turnusrufus, “where are your forbearers who sold their brother into slavery? Had they been here, I would have prosecuted them before your eyes. As for you, accept the decree of heaven, for since the times [of the 12 tribes] there have never been 10 sages of your stature [alive at one time]. Take upon yourself to die in accordance with your law; for Joseph the son of Jacob was kidnapped and sold by his 10 brothers, and their punishment has never been exacted.
The holy men listened, and rather than dismissing this claim as a mere pretext for murder, rather than pleading for their lives, they asked the wicked prefect to grant them three days to verify whether their martyrdom had indeed been sanctioned by the heavenly court.
Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest invoked the Holy Name of G‑d, which it is prohibited to utter or write (under normal circumstances), and ascended to heaven to ascertain the verity of the decree.
Rabbi Yishmael was greeted by the angel Gavriel, who said to him, “Yishmael, my son, I swear by your life that I have heard from behind the veil that 10 sages have been delivered to be killed by the wicked kingdom.”
“But why so?” Rabbi Yishmael asked. And the angel confirmed what Turnusrufus had said—that they were to stand in place of the 10 brothers who sold Joseph into slavery and suffer their punishment.
Upon his return to his colleagues, Rabbi Yishmael related what he had heard from Gavriel the angel and urged his fellow sages to accept that this was a heavenly decree.
The Angels Protest
Even after the decree had been issued, the martyrs remained steadfast in their adherence to the Torah, which only enraged Turnusrufus further.
Eleh Ezkerah describes in detail how each of the sages was killed while he was in the middle of performing a mitzvah, and thus returned his soul to her Maker in purity and holiness. Elijah the Prophet came to collect their souls when they departed their bodies, and divine proclamations announced their individual merits to the world.
The Midrash relates that as heaven and earth stormed with the sacrifice of these lofty souls, the angels wept and protested before G‑d against such brutality. G‑d responded by telling the angels to be silent, making this story one of the most powerful paradigms describing the incomprehensible mystery of G‑d’s ways.
The story of the Ten Martyrs is the story of the Jewish soul, which “wants not and cannot be severed from the living G‑d,” even if for just one instant, and will endure any suffering to keep that connection intact.
This is the story of the world until its inherent goodness will be brought to the fore, “and all wickedness will go up in smoke, when You will remove the rule of evil from the world.”
The murder of the Ten Martyrs marked the beginning of the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people onto foreign soil. This is the exile that envelops us until today, and from which we yearn to be redeemed with the immediate coming of Moshiach.