Tag Archives: Ten Martyrs

The Ten Martyrs & The Message of Yom Kippur

Tomorrow evening we usher in the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Torah does not make clear why this day in particular (the 10th of Tishrei) should be a day of atonement. The traditional explanation is that on this day God forgave the Israelites for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and presented Moses with a new set of Tablets. Based on the wording of the Torah, the Sages deduce that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai a total of three times, each for forty days: The first time was from Shavuot until the 17th of Tammuz; the second from the 19th of Tammuz until the 29th of Av; the third form Rosh Chodesh Elul until the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur (see Rashi on Exodus 33:11). On that final day, God forgave the people, and established henceforth that each year should be a day of forgiveness.

‘Joseph Sold by His Brethren’ by Gustave Doré

There happens to be another, more ancient, explanation for the origins of Yom Kippur. This one comes from the Book of Jubilees, that mysterious apocryphal work dating back to the Second Temple era. Though not canonized by our Sages (it was by the Sages of Ethiopian Jewry), it still tremendously influenced many traditional Midrashic teachings. According to Jubilees, the sons of Jacob sold their brother Joseph at the start of a new year, and returned to their father on the 10th of Tishrei. On that day, they presented their father with Joseph’s bloodied tunic. So sad was this tragic “revelation” that, according to Jubilees, Dinah and Bilhah died from grief! Jacob henceforth commemorated the 10th of Tishrei as Joseph’s yahrzeit. His sons, meanwhile, feeling forever guilty for their sin, begged God for forgiveness each year on that day. Therefore, Jubilees (34:18) concludes, the 10th of Tishrei became the ultimate Day of Atonement for all of Israel.

This explanation may have indirectly found its way into the Rabbinic tradition. Today, it is customary to read an account of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur. These were ten great sages that were murdered by the Romans. The story appears in a number of Midrashim, which don’t all agree on the details. In brief, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) and/or his Judean governor Tineius Rufus (c. 90-133 CE) summon the ten great rabbis of the time. The rabbis are questioned about the sale of Joseph: doesn’t the Torah prescribe the death penalty for an act of kidnapping? If so, why weren’t the brothers of Joseph put to death for their sin?

The rabbis admit that this is indeed the case. The Romans decide that these ten rabbis should be put to death in place of the ten brothers of Joseph. The rabbis request time to deliberate, and ultimately determine that it has been decreed in Heaven. They submit to the edict. Each one is subsequently tortured to death by the Romans. Some say they were slaughtered on Yom Kippur, or at least one of them was—the most famous among them, Rabbi Akiva.

The Arizal further suggests that these ten rabbis were the reincarnations of the Ten Spies (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36). This was another grave ancient sin the Ten Martyrs had to rectify. The Arizal cites an older Midrash that when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar, it was so hard for him to resist that ten drops of semen emerged “from his fingertips”, and the Ten Spies were the souls of those ten drops, as were the Ten Martyrs, who finally fulfilled all the necessary spiritual rectifications.

Revisiting the Ten Martyrs

There are several major issues with the account of the Ten Martyrs. First of all, the identity of the ten rabbis is different depending on the source. In Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, the ten are listed as: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Rabbi Ishmael (the Priest), Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, Rabbi Yehuda ben Dama, Rabbi Hutzpit (“the Interpreter”), Rabbi Chananiah ben Chakhinai, Rabbi Yeshevav, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. In Midrash Tehillim (9:14), however, we are given the following list; Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (the Priest), Rabbi Yeshevav (the Scribe), Rabbi Hutzpit (“the Interpreter”), Rabbi Yose [ben Halafta], Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, Rabbi Yehuda haNachtom, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, and Rabbi Akiva.

The problem with the latter list (other than having three, or even four, different rabbis) is that Shimon ben Azzai is known from the Talmud to have died by mystically ascending to Pardes (Chagigah 14b). More intriguingly, just about everyone is familiar with the Talmudic account of Rabbi Akiva’s tragic death—where he faithfully recites Shema while being raked with iron combs (Berakhot 61b)—yet Midrash Mishlei (ch. 9) has a different idea: Rabbi Akiva was indeed imprisoned by the Romans, but died peacefully in his cell on a yom tov. His student, Rabbi Yehoshua, with the help of the prophet-angel Eliyahu, got Rabbi Akiva’s body out while all the guards and prisoners miraculously fell into a deep sleep. He is later buried with a proper funeral in Caesarea, and the presiding rabbis say to him, “Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva, who has found a good resting place at the hour of your death.”

This Midrash fits with a Talmudic passage that describes how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai learned from Rabbi Akiva during the latter’s imprisonment (Pesachim 112a). In that passage, Rabbi Shimon incredibly blackmails his master by saying that if he won’t agree to teach, Rabbi Shimon will pull some strings to have Rabbi Akiva executed! Rabbi Akiva goes on to relay five teachings. This suggests that Rabbi Akiva was not scheduled for execution at all, and his punishment for participating in the Bar Kochva Revolt was only imprisonment. It also fits with the accepted tradition that Rabbi Akiva lived to 120 years. It is highly unlikely that the Romans conveniently executed him on his 120th birthday, and far more likely that he died peacefully after living to 120.

Another well-known issue with the account of the Ten Martyrs is that these ten figures lived in different time periods. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel and Rabbi Ishmael were alive at the end of the Second Temple era. If they were killed by the Romans, it would have been during the Great Revolt, which ended with the Temple’s destruction. The other rabbis lived decades later. They were active in the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and would have died around that time (c. 135 CE), some 65 years after the Temple’s destruction. Interestingly, the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 CE), who was an eyewitness to the Temple’s destruction, wrote that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel was killed not by the Romans, but by the Jewish Zealots, one of the extremist factions that terrorized Jerusalem.

Some say that there were two Rabbi Ishmael haKohens. The first was Rabbi Ishmael ben Eliyahu, and he was the one who served as a priest at the end of the Second Temple era. The other was his grandson, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. It isn’t clear which of these Rabbi Ishmaels was martyred. According to Midrash Tehillim, it was Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, which makes sense since it would have been in the times of the Hadrianic persecution, during the Bar Kochva Revolt. (To further complicate things, the Talmud [Gittin 58a] says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah once ransomed a young Ishmael ben Elisha out of a prison in Rome!)

The Talmud states that during the Water-Drawing Ceremony of Sukkot, the greatest celebration of the year in Temple times, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel I would juggle with fire! His descendant, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II, taught “Great is peace, for Aaron the Priest became famous only because he sought peace.”
(Illustration by Ilene Winn-Lederer)

Similarly, there are two Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliels. While the second one was alive during the Bar Kochva Revolt, we know he survived that conflict, and went on to head the new Sanhedrin in Usha. It is possible that he was eventually killed by the Romans. He himself stated how terribly unbearable the persecutions were in his day (Shabbat 13b, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 3:3). In that case, perhaps the list in Midrash Eleh Ezkerah is accurate. If it was Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II (not I, who was killed by Zealots), and Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (not ben Eliyahu), then all Ten Martyrs lived around the same time. Still, they wouldn’t have been executed in one event, but that isn’t necessarily a requirement. We know that Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, for example, survived for some time after Rabbi Akiva, and ordained five of the latter’s students (Sanhedrin 14a). The list in Midrash Tehillim must be mistaken, as is the alternate account of Rabbi Akiva’s death in Midrash Mishlei. (There is little doubt that Rabbi Akiva was a victim of the Romans, considering he was a key supporter of the Bar Kochva Revolt.)

The Message

Going back to our original question, the Ten Martyrs died as a spiritual rectification for the sale of Joseph. The two are linked by the Yom Kippur holiday, which is said to be the day of Joseph’s false “yahrzeit”, and the day that the Ten Martyrs were murdered (or their fate decreed). The key lesson in all of this is that from the very beginning, the number one problem plaguing Israel is sinat hinam, baseless self-hatred and infighting. This was the issue with the very first, literal, Bnei Israel, the sons of Jacob, who conspired against one of their own, and continues to be the primary issue to this very day.

If we want true atonement and repentance, along with the Final Redemption, we must completely put an end to the incessant conflicts within our singular nation. This applies to both personal conflicts among family and friends, as well as larger political or cultural ones. We have to start seeing beyond the divides—Ashkenazi/Sephardi, secular/religious, Litvish/Hassidic, Orthodox/non-Orthodox, Israeli/Diaspora, liberal/conservative—and fully embrace one another. Long ago, the Arizal instituted an important practice of reciting each morning: “I accept upon myself the mitzvah of ‘and you shall love your fellow as yourself’, and I love each and every one within Bnei Israel as my own soul.” (הֲרֵינִי מְקַבֵּל עָלַי מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁל: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוךָ, וַהֲרֵינִי אוהֵב כָּל אֶחָד מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּנַפְשִׁי וּמְאודִי) Centuries earlier, it was Rabbi Akiva himself—first among martyrs—who declared this mitzvah to be the greatest in the Torah.

Gmar chatima tova!

The Unusual Connection between Jacob, Issachar, and Rabbi Akiva  

This week’s Torah reading is Vayetze, which recounts how Jacob – following the advice of his parents – leaves the Holy Land and journeys to the land of Charan. There he meets Rachel, with whom he falls in love instantly, and agrees to labour for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. As the well-known story goes, we see how Jacob’s father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying Leah, Rachel’s elder sister. Jacob is forced to work yet another seven years for his beloved Rachel. The Torah then gives us a detailed account of the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah, setting the foundations for the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who descend from each of the children.

In his commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim), the Arizal focuses specifically on Issachar, the fifth son of Leah. He begins by quoting a verse in Tanakh (I Chronicles 12:33) that describes the tribe of Issachar as yod’ei binah, knowledgeable and wise people. He then draws from the midrash which states that Rabbi Akiva, the famous 2nd century Jewish sage, was Issachar, and that, in addition to being among the greatest rabbis of all time, he was among the aseret harugei malkhut, “The Ten Martyrs” of Israel. These were ten Talmudic sages that were killed mercilessly by the Romans.

Reincarnation and the Ten Martyrs

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

The narrative of the Ten Martyrs appears in many Jewish texts and goes something like this: a certain Roman emperor took an interest in learning the laws and stories of the Torah. He discovered that while the Torah is clear on the rule that kidnapping is punishable by death, the sons of Jacob who kidnapped their half-brother Joseph were never punished for their sin. Technically, by Torah law they should have been put to death.

And so, the emperor summoned ten of the greatest rabbis of the day, among them being Rabbi Akiva and Ishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest. He presented them with this conundrum and they agreed with his conclusion. The emperor decided that the ten rabbis should suffer the fate that was meant to befall the ten sons of Jacob. He decreed a death penalty upon them and had them imprisoned.

During the rabbis’ confinement, Ishmael ben Elisha invoked God’s Ineffable Name to receive communication from Heaven, and found out that this punishment was indeed decreed upon them from Above. The ten rabbis ended up being tragically martyred at the hands of Rome.

The Arizal explains that this punishment was decreed upon them from Heaven because these ten rabbis were none other than the reincarnations of the ten sons of Jacob! In that sense, they deserved their deaths as a rectification for their sins in their past lives. Each of the ten sages paralleled one of the ten sons of Jacob, and Rabbi Akiva was the reincarnation of Issachar.

The Uniqueness of Issachar

The Arizal brings up an interesting grammatical anomaly in the Torah’s text regarding Issachar’s conception. The text reads v’ishkav ima b’lilah hu, which is typically translated as “And he [Jacob] lay with her [Leah] on that night.” However, such a translation would require the text to say b’lilah hahu, whereas the text actually says b’lilah hu, which may be read “at night, he.” The Arizal explains that on that night, he [Jacob] transferred a major part of his own soul into the newly conceived child. Of all the children, Issachar was most like his father, and this is why he (and his descendants) were so wise and knowledgeable, like the patriarch Jacob himself.

Therefore, since Issachar had such a major share in Jacob’s soul, his reincarnation into Rabbi Akiva meant that Rabbi Akiva had a major part of Jacob’s soul, too. And this is why, the Arizal explains, they share a name, since Akiva is simply an Aramaic rendition of Yakov, “Jacob”. This is also why Rabbi Akiva was so exceedingly wise, like Jacob and Issachar.

The Arizal presents a further proof for this by quoting from the text of Jacob’s blessings to his children before his passing. Jacob’s blessing to Issachar was that he should be a chamor gorem, “a large-boned donkey” (Genesis 49:14). In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva tells the story of how before he was himself an observant Torah scholar, he despised all the Torah scholars. He said that he would wish for them to have their bones crushed by the bite of a donkey! The Arizal tells us this is the deeper secret within Jacob’s prophetic blessings, as the similarity of words tie together the lives of Issachar and Rabbi Akiva.

Ultimately, Jacob became Israel and fathered the Jewish people, while the tribe of Issachar was the one that kept Torah wisdom alive throughout Israel’s early history; and finally, it is Rabbi Akiva who is most often credited with saving Judaism from near extinction following the devastating Roman-Jewish wars. Jacob, Issachar, Akiva: three wise figures sharing one soul, and playing a crucial role in the history of the Jewish people.