Ten Martyrs, The

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TEN MARTYRS, THE (Heb. עֲשָׂרָה הֲרוּגֵי מַלְכוּת, asarah harugei malkhut), name given to ten sages put to death by the Romans. A number of late Midrashim, such as Elleh Ezkerah (A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 2 (19382), 64–72; 6 (19382), 19–35), relate that the Roman emperor decided to execute ten great Jewish sages, corresponding to the ten sons of Jacob who had sold Joseph. After one of those sages ascended to Heaven and heard that it had been a heavenly decree irrevocably sealed, they accepted it, and by the emperor's orders were, one after another, tortured and executed in various violent manners. Among them were *Akiva and *Hananiah b. Teradyon, who, according to tannaitic sources, were tortured and put to death at the time of the Hadrianic persecutions. There is no mention in early sources, however, of a collective sentence passed upon a group of sages tried together. Moreover, neither tannaitic literature nor the Jerusalem Talmud and the early amoraic aggadic Midrashim know the term harugei malkhut in this aggadic connection, while in halakhic sources this term denoted people condemned and put to death by a Jewish king (Sanh. 48b). A list of ten martyrs is first enumerated in Lamentations Rabbah (2:2) with no description of the manner in which they were put to death, and without being referred to as harugei malkhut, this appellation (with no mention of the number ten), the list, or the story itself being employed, meaning martyrs, in Song of Songs Rabbah (8:9) and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sot. 48b; bb 10b). The story of the "ten" appears for the first time in Heikhalot Rabbati, composed in the circles of the "Ba'alei ha-Merkavah" (the mystics who studied Ezekiel's vision of the Heavenly Chariot, in which circles were, even later still, composed of the particular Midrashim of the Ten Martyrs, including Elleh Ezkerah).

The various versions of the legend, all bearing a distinct mystical stamp, contradict one another in certain details and are often at variance with early accounts. For example, the description of the martyrdom of *Judah b. Bava conflicts with the early tradition according to which he was killed by Roman soldiers after ordaining students between Usha and Shefaram (Sanh. 14a). The list of the martyrs differs in practically all of the sources, and not all of the alleged victims are contemporaries. As early as the tenth century the legend could not be accepted at its face value (Iggeret de-Rav Sherira Ga'on, ed. Lewin, 74–75). Some of the Jewish chroniclers of the 16th century, such as Abraham Zacuto (Yuḥasin ha-Shalem, 38 (ed. Filipowski, 1857), Gedaliah ibn Yaḥya (Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah, s.v.Akiva), and David Gans (Ẓemaḥ David, for the year 3838), who considered the question of the historical veracity of this legend, all came to the conclusion that it does not conform to historical fact or stand up to critical examination (Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah states that only some of the sages mentioned were actually put to death). Modern research accords with this view, after the attempts of some scholars to make the legend conform to historical fact have been unsatisfactory.

It seems that the martyrdom of different sages during the times of the Hadrianic religious persecutions served as the themes of different aggadot. Over the generations there was a blurring of the boundaries between accounts of events in the time of Hadrian and traditions concerning individuals killed during the War of Destruction and in the time of Trajan. These various traditions were combined. The occupation of some of the martyrs with mystic speculation, a fact which earned for them an important role in the heikhalot literature, led the circles of the mystics known as the "Ba'alei ha-Merkavah" to create a legendary aggadah which entered the later Midrashim and which described the successive tortures and executions of ten martyrs, giving as reason for all this the sin of Jacob's sons in selling their brother Joseph into slavery (Mid. Prov. to 1:13 – the attribution to R. Joshua b. Levi is evidently pseudepigraphic). This legend soon became very important. It was added by copyists of the Middle Ages to several manuscripts of early aggadic Midrashim. It served as a much favored theme for piyyutim from the time of *Kallir, the best known being "Elleh Ezkerah" (which is found in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement and the Sephardi liturgy of the Ninth of Av) and "Arzei ha-Levanon Addirei ha-Torah" (included in the Ashkenazi kinot of the Ninth of Av).

In the Middle Ages Jews killed by gentiles were named harugei malkhut, and there was even a codifier who learned from the legend the law that martyrs are not to have a funeral oration (Tur, yd 345, but cf. Beit Yosef, ad loc.; cf. also "Chapter of Fast-days" (in Halakhot Gedolot et al.)). The legend of the Ten Martyrs mystically united various affairs, creating an artificial harmonization, while obliterating real actual and historical background. This is no wonder, for its creators had no interest in historical accuracy, but were mystics. The creators of this legend meant to create a mystical legend, but in fact handed down to future generations an epic work which filled an important role in the life of the Jews in the Middle Ages. In a world of religious persecution and its attendant acts of martyrdom, the aggadah of the Ten Martyrs became most popular, as it set before the oppressed and the persecuted an example of the exalted images of the greatest of the sages, who, though innocent, submitted themselves to martyrdom and in the very extremity of their torture voiced with love the justice of Heaven's decree. Especially from the time of the First Crusade, the Ten Martyrs served as a model for contemporaneous martyrs, who were also called harugei malkhut. The Ten Martyrs, along with *Hannah and her seven sons, became the archetypes of Jewish martyrology.


Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, 66, 312–4 (sources and bibliography); Krauss, in: Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 44 (1925), 10–22, 106–17, 221–33; Finkelstein, in: Essays… L.R. Miller (1938), 29–55; Zeitlin, in: jqr, 36 (1945/46), 1–16; Urbach, in: Sefer Y. Baer (1960), 57–58; J. Katz, Bein Yehudim le-Goyim (1960), 91–92; L. Ginzberg, Perushim be-Ḥiddushim ba-Yerushalmi, 4 (1961), 48–49.

[Moshe David Herr]