By Rabbi Yehuda Black, Kenton United Synagogue
The story of the Ten Martyrs is one of the most inspiring parts of the Yom Kippur prayers.
The prayer leader has just finished the section outlining the service of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) on Yom Kippur, who would venture directly into the Holy of Holies (a small area in the inner part of the Temple) to perform the once-a-year service.
After exiting in peace from this most sanctified of places, the Kohen Gadol appeared radiant. It was a great delight to witness this event. Yet eventually, tragedy ensued; the destruction of the Temple, resulting in the inability to serve G-d to the full potential. It is with this backdrop that the story of the Ten Martyrs (Eleh Ezkerah) is now related.
The story of these sages who were murdered by their Roman oppressors did not all happen at the same time. It was over a period of more than 60 years that the events took place. Some occurred in the period just following the destruction of the Temple (c. 70 CE). Others were in the wake of the quashing of the Bar Kochba rebellion (c.135 CE).
On Tisha B’Av (9 Av), a parallel kinah (elegy) called Arzei Levanon (Cedars of Lebanon) is recited, describing the tragic death of the Ten Martyrs. On Tisha B’Av we emphasise the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud says that the sadness over the loss of the righteous is greater than over the destruction of the Temple, making the story of these deaths fitting to read.
However, on Yom Kippur the focus when reading this story is not about the loss. Rather the emphasis is on kaparah – atonement. This idea is based on the Talmudic axiom that the death of the righteous serves as atonement for our sins. The text of Eleh Ezkerah also suggests an explanation as to why these men were picked out for martyrdom. One of the Roman Emperors of the period had studied some Torah laws. He put forward a challenge to the sages: “What is the law if a man is found to have kidnapped a member of his Jewish brethren, and he enslaved and sold him?”
The Sages were forced into the answer: “The kidnapper is to die!”
The Emperor used the kidnapping and selling of Yosef (Joseph) as a pretext to justify the murder of these ten sages as retribution.
The prayer describes the stirring incident of Rabbi Yishmael going in to the Holy of Holies to ask the angel Gavriel, “is this supposed to happen?” The angel responded, “accept it upon yourselves, righteous and beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the partition that you have been destined for this”.
This is a powerful statement. It implies that the death of the Ten Martyrs was indeed an atonement for the sin of enmity between brothers. Yom Kippur can only atone for sins between mankind and G-d. However, for sins between mankind and one’s fellow, Yom Kippur can only atone if one makes restitution.