The Ten Martyrs (Hebrew: עשרת הרוגי מלכות Aseret Harugei Malchut) were ten rabbis living during the era of the Mishnah who were martyred by the Roman Empire in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. Their story is detailed in Midrash Eleh Ezkerah.
Although not killed at the same time (since two of the rabbis listed lived well before the other eight), a dramatic poem (known as Eleh Ezkera) tells their story as if they were killed together. This poem is recited on Yom Kippur, and a variation of it on Tisha BeAv.
Story as told in Eleh Ezkerah
In the story, the Roman emperor Hadrian decides to martyr ten rabbis as 'punishment' for the ten brothers listed in the Torah who sold their brother Joseph to Ancient Egypt. He justifies this by saying that the penalty for this was death. Though this crime took place almost 2000 years earlier, and Jewish law does not allow for the descendants of sinners to be punished, the Roman commander goes ahead with the executions because (he says) there are 'none like you' ten who are capable of rectifying this crime.
According to the poem, the first two to be executed were Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen Gadol. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel was beheaded, and while Rabbi Yishmael wept, the Roman ruler's daughter coveted Rabbi Yishmael for his physical beauty. When she was told that he would have to be executed as well, she asked that the skin of his head be flayed while he was alive, so she could stuff the skin and look at his face.
The most well known martyr is Rabbi Akiva, whose skin was raked with iron combs. Despite the pain consuming him, he was still able to proclaim God's providence in the world by reciting the Shema, drawing out the final Echad - "One".
Another sage martyred was Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. Damp wool was packed into his chest to ensure he would not die quickly. When he was being burnt, he told his students that he could see the letters of the sacred torah "flying up" to heaven.
The others mentioned in the poem are Rabbi Hutzpit the Interpreter (so named, because he would interpret the words of the Rosh Yeshiva - the head of the Yeshiva - for the masses, who could not follow all his words); Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua; Rabbi Hanina ben Hakinai; Rabbi Yesheivav the Scribe; Rabbi Judah ben Dama; and Rabbi Judah ben Baba.
- Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel
- Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen Gadol
- Rabbi Akiva
- Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion
- Rabbi Hutzpit the Interpreter
- Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua
- Rabbi Hanina ben Hakinai
- Rabbi Yesheivav the Scribe
- Rabbi Judah ben Dama
- Rabbi Judah ben Baba.
Contrary to the accounts given in the Talmud and in Midrash Rabbah, which clearly state that there were intervals between the executions of the ten teachers, the poem Eleh Ezkerah describes their martyrdom as occurring on the same day, probably in order to produce a greater effect upon the mind of the reader.
Popular imagination seized upon this episode in Jewish history, and embellished it with various legends relating the virtues of the martyrs and the fortitude shown by them during their execution. These legends became in the geonic period the subject of a special midrash—the Midrash 'Asarah Haruge Malkut, or Midrash Eleh Ezkerah. The deaths are described as being gruesome, including allegedly being wrapped in Torah scrolls and then being set aflame.
Use in ritual
The poem Eleh Ezkerah is best known as part of the Yom Kippur mussaf recital in the Ashkenazi ritual. This was made part of these services because of the impact losing so many pillars of Judaism would have to the masses. As such, it has become one of the 'highlights' of the day, marking a point when the congregation should reflect on their own lives and the sacrifices that were made for their sake.
In contemporary times, the moral of this poem has taken on a new meaning with the deaths of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Many Jews followed Rabbi Akiva's example reciting the Shema as they were being led to the gas chambers. A liturgical link was made explicit in the Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a 1972 project of the Rabbinical Assembly which is the primary rabbinical association for Conservative Judaism. In an elaborate reworking of the traditional text, the martyrology was interwoven with material from Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Hillel Bavli, and other sources, connecting the Roman persecutions to later persecutions such as those by the Russian Tsars and the Nazis. The section climaxes with a special version of Mourner's Kaddish which names sites of persecution and Jewish flourishing.
- Text of Eleh Ezkerah
- Genesis 37
- According to Jewish law, one who kidnaps his fellow Jew and sells him into slavery is punished with death (Exodus 21:16)
- Deuteronomy 24:16
- 'Avodah Zarah 17b, 18a; Berachot 61b; Sanhedrin 14a; Lamentations Rabbah 2:2; Proverbs Rabbah 1:13
- Jewish Encyclopedia: The Ten Martyrs