Monday, August 01, 2011

The Legend of the Ten Martyrs


By: Rabbi Eli C. Aboud
(Community Magazine)

One of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history was the ruthless torture and murder of ten Jewish sages by the merciless Roman Empire in the years following the destruction of the second Bet Hamikdash. This period was marked by particular sorrow and suffering for our people. They had been roundly defeated by the invading Roman army in their desperate attempt to protect Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash. The city lay in ruins, with the Bet Hamikdash burned to the ground, and the victorious Romans, dissolved any Jewish authority and ruled the land exclusively. The Romans then vented their full fury on the broken nation, and life became more difficult with each passing day. They passed laws forbidding Torah observance, and plundered the people’s possessions.

But most tragic of all was the Romans’ unspeakable brutality against ten of the greatest sages of the time (among many others) – known as the “Asara Harugei Malchut” – whom they tortured and killed in the most sadistic , barbaric methods imaginable.

A Reckoning for the Sale of Yosef

Our sages tell us that Hashem allowed the Romans to kill these ten righteous scholars as atonement for the ten sons of Yaakov who sold their brother Yosef into slavery – a crime for which the Torah assigns the death penalty (“One who kidnaps a person and sells him…shall die” – Shemot 21:16). For many centuries, the brothers’ sin went unaccounted for. Finally, during the Mishnaic period, there were ten righteous sadikim on the caliber of the sons of Yaakov whose death would be able to atone for this grave misdeed. Thereupon it was decreed in heaven that the Romans would be allowed to execute these ten spiritual giants. Nevertheless, there will come a day when this crime will be avenged and Hashem will bring full retribution upon the Romans for their brutality against the Jewish people. Furthermore, as the Midrash teaches, Hashem promised that the merits of these great sadikim and their suffering will stand for the Jewish nation until the end of days and relieve them from much suffering in this long and bitter exile.

It has become customary throughout the Jewish world to relate this tragic story in detail on Tisha Be’av (during the recitation of the Kinot), to mourn this great loss and to beg Hashem to avenge their suffering and bring an end to our exile in the merit of the ten martyrs. Many Ashkenazic communities have the custom to tell this story on the holy day of Yom Kippur (during the hazzan’s repetition of musaf), as well.

Historically, many scholars note that the ten sages were not killed all at once. They lived in different places and at different times, and the tragedy of the Asara Harugei Malchut actually transpired over the span of a century (between 70 CE-170 CE), during the bloody rule of the Roman Empire over Israel and its Jewish inhabitants in the post-Second Temple era.

We find some variation between the different sources that list the ten fallen sages. However, the list that appears in the traditional Kinot text recited on Tisha Be’av is assumed to be the most authentic, and this is the list that we present here.

This version of the story follows.

But there are other versions, including one that is particularly on my mind right now for obvious reasons. The Hekhalot Rabbati has a rather different and, in a macabre way, more cheerful account of the story. In this rendering, the evil Roman emperor who persecuted the sages is (the non-existent) Lupinus Caesar. When he set out on his program of persecution at the behest of Sammael, the evil angel of Rome, God inflicted various torments on the emperor and Rome. Undeterred, Lupinus Caesar persevered in his efforts to kill the ten sages, so God gave Lupinus' appearance to one of the sages, R. Hananiah ben Tardion, who then spent six months masquerading as the emperor and executing thousands of the leaders of the army.

Meanwhile, God altered Lupinus's appearance to be identical to another of the ten, whereupon he was tortured to death by his own Roman minions, then resurrected in the form of yet another of the ten, whom the Romans then killed, and so on until Lupinus had been slaughtered as each of the ten sages (who themselves were at home, safe and sound). Then he was sent off to his well-deserved eternal torment in the flames of Gehinnom.

You can read the story here, in a handout for my 2008 SBL paper which contains a draft translation of the relevant passage (§§107-120) from my forthcoming translation of the Hekhalot literature.