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 B'Av.
Story as told in the poem Eleh Ezkerah
In the poem, 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.
The poem lists the first two to be executed: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen Gadol. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel was beheaded, and while Rabbi Yishmael grieved, weeping over his severed head, 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. When the servants began to strip away the skin on the forehead where the phylactery is placed, Yishmael cried aloud and died. Next to die was 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". The next sage martyred was Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. Wet sponges of wool were placed on 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.
In the poem, the remaining martyrs listed are Hutzpit the Interpreter, Elazar ben Shamua, Hanina ben Hakinai, Yesheivav the Scribe, Judah ben Dama and Judah ben Baba, in that order. In Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, the order is somewhat different.
- Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel
- Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen
- 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
Popular imagination seized upon this episode in Jewish history, and embellished it with various stories 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 Harugei Malkut, or Midrash Eleh Ezkerah. The deaths are described therein as being gruesome.
Contrary to the accounts given in the Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, and Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, 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.
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.
The Tisha B'av text (kinot #21), which is shorter than Yom Kippur's Eleh Ezkerah
- places Judah ben Baba and Yesheivav the Scribe in a different order
- says that there are ten, but omits Judah ben Dama and Hanina ben Hakinai
- and adds that
- the body of Yesheivav the Scribe was fed to dogs; he "was not buried in a proper grave."
- Elazar ben Shamua was killed while, on a Friday night, he was saying Kiddush.
- Text of Eleh Ezkerah poem
- 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
- Artscroll, p. 933
- Avodah Zarah 17b, 18a; Berachot 61b; Sanhedrin 14a; Lamentations Rabbah 2:2; Proverbs Rabbah 1:13
- Jewish Encyclopedia: The Ten Martyrs
- Artscroll Complete Tisha B'Av Service, p. 255