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The Yom Kippur martyrology liturgy recounts graphically the deaths of 10 rabbis at the hands of Roman authorities. The following article, reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by the Oxford University Press, explores this liturgy in tradition and in modern scholarship.
The 10 teachers, among them Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Ishmael, and Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, who suffered a martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans: The story of the 10 martyrs is told in a late Midrash, and poetic versions of it are part of the liturgy for the Ninth of Av–Tisha B’Av–and Yom Kippur.
According to this legend, the Roman emperor wished to put to death 10 of the foremost scholars in expiation of the sin of Joseph’s brethren who had sold him (Genesis 37), since the Torah states: “He that stealeth a man and selleth him … shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). These 10 were selected to atone for the sin of their ancestors. Rabbi Ishmael purified himself and ascended on high, where he was informed that the decree of death had indeed been pronounced, and the 10 submitted to their fate.
Scholars have found the whole legend puzzling on a number of counts. While there are references in the Talmud to Rabbi Akiba and one or two of the others suffering a martyr’s death, they could not all have been executed, as in the legend, on the same day, since they did not all live at the same time. And it is certainly contrary to Jewish theological thought that innocent men should die for a sin committed by their forebears, to say nothing of the fact that it is the emperor who is determined to obey the laws of the Torah.
Some scholars have suggested that the whole legend consists of a veiled attack on the Church, which persecuted the Jews who remained faithful to their religion for the sin of their ancestors who supposedly were responsible for the death of Jesus. In any event, Jews have read the legend as a tribute to Jewish martyrdom throughout the ages.
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