Ten great sages were brutally tortured and executed by the Romans. Although two of them were killed at the time of the churban, and the others during Shaas Hashmad, all 10 are grouped together in the liturgy of Tisha B'Av and Yom Kippur. (The Midrash states that all 10 were killed as a Divine, national punishment for the sale of Joseph by his 10 brothers.) Several Midrashic versions exist as to the identity of the 10 sages, including:

Rabbi Akiva

The greatest of the Tannaim, Rabbi Akiva approached the level of Moses. Of humble origins, and a descendant of converts, Rabbi Akiva was an ignorant shepherd up until the age of 40. However, his wealthy employer's daughter, Rachel, saw his refinement of character and potential for greatness, and proposed to marry him if he would study Torah. Her father, not in favor of the marriage, forbade the couple the use of his property, and as a result they lived in abject poverty. So that he could study properly, Rachel sent Rabbi Akiva away and did not see him for 24 years, until he returned as a great sage accompanied by 24,000 disciples.

As Rabbi Akiva indefatigably served the Jewish people a true sage, Rabbi Akiva indefatigably served the Jewish people, traveling all over the Jewish world to aid outlying communities in spiritual need, and to raise funds for the poor and for Torah institutions. At that time, he suffered a tragedy that would have broken a lesser man — the eradication of his life's work. All 24,000 students died in a Divine plague for not showing each other proper respect. (Since this misfortune occurred during the seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuos, it is customary for Jews to observe some mourning practices during that time.) Undaunted, Rabbi Akiva taught five new students, who became the nucleus of the Torah leadership for the next generation.

In a famous story related in the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva publicly flouted the Roman decree against Torah study. The Romans arrested him, then flayed his flesh with iron combs. Impervious to the pain, Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema, joyously anticipating the opportunity to sanctify G‑d's name with his life. As he was pronouncing the word Echad, which signifies the unity of G‑d, Rabbi Akiva’s soul departed. Although his murder was a tragedy, Rabbi Akiva's sacrifice has served as an inspiration for countless Jewish martyrs throughout the centuries.

Rabbi Hananiah Ben Tradyon

When Rabbi Hananiah ben Tradyon was caught teaching Torah in public, the Romans decided to make an example of him. Accordingly, Rabbi Hananiah was wrapped in a Torah scroll, which was then set afire. As if this torture were not sufficient, strips of water-soaked wool were placed on his body to prolong his agony. While his distraught students looked on helplessly, Rabbi Hananiah inspired them with his famous utterance, "The parchment is burning but the letters are flying off," meaning that enemies can crush the Jewish body but not the spirit. Although Rabbi Hananiah refused to shorten his life by breathing in the fumes, he did consent when asked by the executioner if he should remove the wool. Deeply moved by the spiritual greatness he was witnessing, the Roman official took off the wool and then jumped into the fire himself. Through his courageous act, the executioner also attained eternity in Heaven.

Rabbi Judah Ben Bava

To prevent the emergence of a new generation of Torah scholars, the Romans outlawed semicha or rabbinic ordination. This draconian law called for a severe punishment — the execution of all parties involved in any semicha, and leveling the towns in the area. Nevertheless, in order to keep semicha alive, Rabbi Judah took five disciples to a mountainous, uninhabited area and ordained them. Constantly on the alert for such transgressions, the Roman forces rapidly approached them. Heroically, Rabbi Judah sent his students away but refused to flee – as his body was riddled by 300 spears.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel Hanasi and Rabbi Ishmael Kohen Gadol

These two martyrs were slain during the time of the churban, 65 years before the others. When each sage begged to be killed first, so as not to witness the execution of his distinguished colleague, the Romans sadistically cast lots, and Rabbi Shimon was murdered first. As Rabbi Ishmael was bemoaning the loss of his close The executioner's daughter implored her father to keep him alive friend, the executioner's daughter, attracted by the rabbi’s physical beauty, implored her father to keep him alive. When the Roman refused, his daughter asked instead that Rabbi Ishmael's facial skin be removed so that she could always gaze at its beauty. This unspeakably barbaric request was fulfilled, and Rabbi Ishmael's face was skinned while he was still alive. As a further insult, the skin was kept in Roman storage, to be worn by legions as for good luck during battle. Rabbi Ishmael’s face was also displayed in a ceremony performed once every 70 years in the streets of Rome to celebrate the ascendancy of Esau over his brother Jacob.

According to the Yom Kippur liturgy, the other five martyrs are Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabbi Haninah ben Hachinai, Rabbi Jeshevav the Scribe, Rabbi Judah ben Damah, and Rabbi Hutzpith HaMeturgeman. The Midrash describes the gruesome manner in which the Romans killed each one.