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By: Rabbi Eli C. Aboud

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.


The Ten Sages


Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel

Rabban Shimon was of royal lineage, a descendant of David Hamelech. A great-grandson of the famous Nasi (Prince) Hillel, Rabban Shimon served as Nasi at the time of the hurban (Temple’s destruction).


When the Romans took Rabban Shimon to be killed, they brought him together with his close friend, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha. These two great sages fought for the “right” to be killed first, as each desperately wished to be spared the sight of their friend’s death. The wicked Romans drew lots, and Rabbi Shimon was selected to be killed first. The Romans then proceeded to publicly behead the sage. As his holy head fell to the ground, Rabbi Yishmael fell beside it and cried, “Woe, that the mouth which poured forth pearls of wisdom is now licking the dust!”


Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, the Kohen Gadol

Rabbi Yishmael was exceptionally handsome, and his entire being shone with a heavenly radiance. He was a holy and lofty sadik, who is said to have possessed the soul of Yosef Hasadik. Rabbi Yishmael had the ability to ascend to heaven using the divine name of Hashem, and was privy to heavenly secrets. When the sages were informed of the Romans’ intent to kill the ten greatest scholars, they asked him to ascend to heaven and determine whether this decree had indeed been issued. While in heaven, the angels revealed to him that this tragic fate had in fact been ordained from on high as atonement for the sons of Yaakov, and they should all accept upon themselves the divine will.


As Rabbi Yishmael was led to his execution, the Roman Emperor’s daughter was taken by his beauty and pleaded with her father to spare him for her. The Emperor refused, but agreed to peel the skin from the rabbi’s face before his execution to give to his daughter. When the executioners reached the place of Rabbi Yishmael’s tefillin, he gave forth an anguished cry over the loss of this missva, which was heard even in the heavens. He then let out a second cry which shook the heavenly throne and caused the heavenly angels to weep and appeal to Hashem on his behalf. When he wished to cry a third time, the angel Gavriel appeared to him and said, “Restrain your cry, which has the power to destroy the world, and accept your fate, for indescribable goodness and reward awaits you soon and your immense suffering will stand as a great merit for the Jewish people in future years.” Rabbi Yishmael remained silent until his soul left his body and ascended to heaven.


Rabbi Akiva (Ben Yosef)

The Talmud teaches that Rabbi Akiva was such a great sage that he would have been worthy to receive the Torah at Har Sinai, like Moshe Rabbenu. He taught thousands of students and refused to stop teaching even after the Romans decreed death upon anyone caught teaching Torah. Rabbi Akiva was captured, imprisoned, and later publicly executed. He was 120 years old at the time of his death, like Moshe Rabbenu.


When he was asked why he disobeyed the Romans’ ban on teaching Torah, he replied with the famous analogy to a fish frantically fleeing from the fishermen’s nets. The fox on the shore called out to the fish, “Why don’t you come here, onto the dry land, where the fishermen cannot catch you, and we will live together in harmony?”


The fish replied, “If even in the water, where I can live, I am not safe, then certainly on dry land, where I cannot live, I will be worried for my safety!”


The Torah, Rabbi Akiva explained, is for the Jewish nation what water is for the fish. Our nation cannot survive without the Torah. Without Torah learning, we are even more vulnerable than we are under religious persecution.


The Romans ruthlessly raked his flesh with iron combs until he died. While the Romans mercilessly tortured him, he calmly prepared to recite “Shema Yisrael,” accepting upon himself the sovereignty of Hashem.


Rabbi Akiva’s students, who witnessed the scene, asked their esteemed rabbi, “Even in such a state you must recite the Shema?”


To which he replied, “All my life I wished for the opportunity to give my life for the sake of Hashem, and finally, my chance has come to do it.”


His lofty soul left his body as he recited the final word of the verse, “Ehad.”

A heavenly voice then called out, “Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, that you are ready for the eternal life in the next world!”


After Rabbi Akiva’s death, Eliyahu Hanavi, together with another student of Rabbi Akiva, carried his body away from the prison and gave him a proper and holy burial.


Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava

Rabbi Yehuda was an exceptionally righteous and humble sadik, and even referred to his students as “my teachers.” He was killed by the Romans on a Thursday while steeped in fasting and prayer on the occasion of his 70thbirthday.


The Talmud describes the circumstances that led to his death. The Romans had issued a strict ban against conferring semicha (rabbinic ordination), warning that violators would be tortured and killed. Rabbi Yehuda, unwaveringly committed to the perpetuation of the rabbinic tradition, ordained a number of his disciples in defiance of the edict. He was caught in the process, and he instructed his students to flee while he, who was too feeble to run, stayed in place. The wicked soldiers pierced Rabbi Yehuda’s frail body with 300 spears. He was buried there, at the very place where he was brutally murdered, and his tomb is still intact and visible today in Northern Israel.


Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon

Rabbi Hanina, the father-in-law of the famous Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes, was caught holding a Sefer Torah and teaching from it in public, in violation of the Romans’ ban on teaching Torah. The Romans wrapped the great sage with the Sefer Torah he was holding and set him ablaze. His daughter stood there, watching his suffering, and wailed, “Woe unto me, that I have to see you this way!”


Rabbi Hanina replied to his daughter, “If I was being burned alone, you would be correct. But now that the Torah is being burned with me, He who will avenge the honor of the Torah will avenge mine, as well.” He also commented then to his students that he saw the letters of the Torah scroll ascending to the heavens as the parchment was being burned.


Before setting Rabbi Hanina on fire, the Romans had placed wet sponges on his heart to prolong his death and thereby increase his suffering. The executioner, who was inspired by the rabbi’s holiness, asked the sage, “If I remove the sponges and ease the pain, will you guarantee me a share in the next world?”


Rabbi Haninah agreed, and the executioner removed the sponges and increased the fire to hasten the rabbi’s death and spare him further suffering. The executioner then jumped into the fire and was burned together with the great sage. A heavenly voice came forth and declared, “Fortunate are you, Rabbi Hanina, and your executioner, that you are both ready to enter the world to come!”


Rabbi Yeshevav Hasofer (“the Scribe”)

Rabbi Yeshevav was 90 years old and steeped in fasting and prayer when the Romans came to kill him. After his execution, the Romans threw his body to the dogs, denying him even from a proper burial.


Rabbi Elazar (or Yehuda) ben Dama

The Midrash tells that the Roman Emperor personally ordered that this sage be tied to the tail of a horse and dragged around the city until he died from his wounds. After Rabbi Elazar died, the Roman officials took his body, cut it up into many pieces, and left them there, unburied. But Hashem sent Eliyahu Hanavi to gather the pieces and give the sage a proper, respectful burial.


Rabbi Hanina Ben Hachinoi

Rabbi Hanina was 95 years old at the time of his death. He lived his life in holiness, fasting on most days, and he was killed on a Friday night by the Romans while saying the word “Vayekadesh – and He made holy.”


Rabbi Husspit Hameturgeman (“the Translator”)

Rabbi Husspit, who was fluent in 70 languages, served as a translator, translating the Torah readings in the synagogue to the congregation in a language they would understand, as was customary in those days. He was so great that birds which flew over his head while he was learning Torah were burned from the fire of his learning. When he was 130 years old, the Roman authorities brutally killed him and his students.


Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua

Rabbi Elazar was one of the five great students of Rabbi Akiva who survived the tragic plague that took the lives of Rabbi Akiva’s other disciples. His Talmudic arguments and halachot are mentioned hundreds of times throughout the Talmud. He was killed by the Romans on a Friday night in front of his students while reciting kiddush, as he uttered the word “Elokim.”


In recalling these tragic events during the period before our national day of mourning, Tisha Be’av, we grieve for the suffering of these sages and lament over the other great calamities that have befallen our people since the Temple’s destruction. It is our fervent hope and prayer that Hashem will recall the merit of these great sadikim, and bring a speedy end to our long exile.