Who murdered the ten Harugei Malchus? The piyutim “Arzei Halevanon” and “Eileh Ezkera” said on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur give no clue to the murderer’s identity. Neither do they say when this event took place and its broader historical significance. Who was responsible for perpetrating their deaths and what were his motivations?
THE GRINDER OF BONES
In answer to the first question, the person responsible for their deaths was the Wicked Andrianus (see Pei’ah 7:1) otherwise known as Hadrian. Chazal regard him as so violently evil that they call him the “Grinder of Bones” (e.g. Bereishis Rabba 10:3). The historical backdrop of the Asara Harugei Malchus was the catastrophical Bar Kochva rebellion that lasted for three and a half years, concluding with the huge massacre at Bar Kochva’s last stronghold in Beitar.
After becoming Caesar in 3877/117, one of Andrianus’ first tasks was to put down the Quietus Rebellion. This was the second Jewish revolt of the time following the first revolt of the biryonim at the time of the Churban and the third Great Rebellion of Bar Kochva.
As the Seder Olam Rabba records: From the War of Aspanyus (Vespasian, i.e. the Churban) until the War of Quietus was fifty two years, and from the War of Quietus until the Last War and the War of Koziva (Bar Kochva) was seventeen years, and the War of Koziva lasted for three and a half years.”
At first Andrianus seemed to be living up to his reputation of being an intelligent, cultured person, the sort of gentle philosopher king described in Greek philosophy. In general, Andrianus’ rule was noted for his lack of conflict, preferring negotiation and compromise. He allowed Jewish life to proceed normally after the Quietus Revolt and even spent time intellectualizing with Chazal.
As the Medrash (Bereishis Raba 28:3) mentions, he asked R. Yehoshua a number of questions including, “From where will the Holy One ressurrect a person in the future to come?” R. Yehoshua answered, “From the luz bone of the spine.” In another discussion, Andrianus said to R. Yehoshua, “Great is the sheep which survives among seventy wolves,” to which R. Yehoshua replied, “Great is the shepherd who saves and breaks them before them” (Esther Rabba 10:11).
THE GREAT REBELLION
Thirteen years into his reign after visiting Yerushalayim for the first time, Andrianus made an offer that seemed too good to be true – the Jews were welcome to rebuild their Beis Hamikdash! As the Medrash (Bereishis Rabba 64:10) reports:
“In the days of R. Yehoshua ben Chananya, the wicked kingdom decreed that the Beis Hamikdash should be built. Papus and Lulianus (two brothers who later gave up their lives in order to save the Jews of Lod from a libel – Ta’anis 18) set up tables from Acco until Antochia and provided people coming up from the exile (to help rebuild the Beis Hamikdash) with silver and gold and all their needs.” However, the Medrash goes on to say how the Kusim warned Andrianus that the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash would inspire the Jews to rebel against him.
“‘He said to them, ‘What can I do? I have already decreed (that it can be rebuilt).’ “‘They said to him, ‘Send and tell them to either move it from its place or add five amos (to its height) or take away five amos. Then they will change their minds (and not rebuild it).”
This was one cause of the Bar Kochva rebellion.
According to the Roman historian, Cassius Dio, another catalyst of the rebellion was Andrianus’ decision to build a Greek styled city on Yerushalayim’s ruins. He named it Aelia Capitolina after himself (his second name was Aelius) and after a Greek avoda zara. The most famous remnant of this Greek city is the popular “Cardo” shopping center in the Old City not far from the Kossel. This served as Yerushalayim’s main street for several centuries until Andrianus’ city was destroyed. After the Six Day War, archeologists dug up the Cardo with the help of old maps, and architects transformed it into a modernistic tourist trap.
Cassius (volume 5) claims that this idolatrous city, too, motivated the Jewish rebellion:
“In Jerusalem he founded a city in place of the one razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina and on the site of the temple of the G-d he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war that was not slight nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites be planted there.”
The resulting Mered Hagadol (Great Revolt) of 3892/132 was initially successful until a giant Roman army greater than that of the Churban conquered Beitar in 3895/135. The slaughter there was so great that “horses were sunk in blood to their nostrils” (Yerushalmi Taanis 4:5).
Cassius Dio reports: “Fifty of their most important garrisons and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most renowned towns were blotted out. 580,000 men were slaughtered in the course of the invasions and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine and disease and fire was past all investigating. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate.”
Unlike Aspanyus (General Vespasian) who had allowed Raban Yochanan ben Zakai to rebuild Torah in Yavneh after the Churban, Andrianus decided that the best way to deal with the Jews was to totally destroy Torah observance. This was also because of his infatuation with Greek culture. In his younger years Andrianus had loved Greek writings so much that people called him Graeculus (the Little Greek) and during his rule he unsuccessfully attempted to unite Greece’s city states under one parliament.
In a frenzy of suppression and revenge, Andrianus made a number of anti-Torah gezeiros that initiated the Dor Hashmad (the generation of spiritual destruction). It is not clear exactly which decrees he made before the revolt and which afterwards.
In addition to basic bans against the bris mila, Shabbos, taharas mishpacha, and Krias Shema, he abolished many more everyday mitzvos. As the Medrash (Vayikra Rabba ch. 32) records: “R. Nosson says – ‘To those who love Me and keep My mitzvos.’ These are Yisroel who live in Eretz Yisroel and give their lives for the mitzvos. “‘Why are you going out to be executed?’ ‘Because I circumcised my son.’ “‘Why are you going out to be burnt?’ ‘Because I read in the Torah.’ “‘Why are you going out to be crucified?’ ‘Because I ate matzah.’ “‘Why are you being hit with a whip?’ ‘Because I took a lulav, because I made a sukkah, because I put on tefillin, because I put in techeiles’ (Mechilta d’R. Yishmael Yisro 6, Vayikra Rabba 32:1).
Andrianus banned Jews from entering Yerushalayim, and no Jew could daven at the Makom Hamikdash for over 300 years except on Tisha B’Av. He also renamed Eretz Yisroel Syria-Palaestina (after the Plishtim), a name that persisted until the end of the British Mandate in 5708/1948 and has helped to further the mistaken notion that the modern Palestinians have some connection to the ancient Plishtim.
When he ran out of excuses for killing Jews, Andrianus was perfectly happy to kill them for no reason at all. As the Medrash (Eichah Rabba 3:1) says:
“A Jew one day passed Andrianus and greeted him. “He said to him, ‘Who are you?’ “He said to him, ‘A Jew.’ “He said to him, ‘Did you see a Jew pass before Andrianus and greet him? … Go and take off his head!’ “Another Jew passed who saw what happened to the previous one and did not greet him. “He said, ‘… Did you see a Jew pass before Andrianus and not greet him? … Go and take off his head!’ “His officer said to him, ‘We do not understand what you are doing. Someone who greets you is killed, someone who does not greet you is killed!’ “He said to him, ‘Do you want to advise me how to kill my enemies?’”
It was during these years that Andrianus perpetrated the murder of the Ten Tanna’im, although according to many opinions some of the ten Harugei Malchus were killed at other times.
Rav Avraham Zakut (Yuchsin Hashalem pages 25, 38) writes, for example, “Remember this so that you do not err regarding the incident of the Harugei Malchus, as the Kinos written in the Machzorim give the impression that he (R. Akiva) was together with Raban Shimon ben Gamliel at one time, and this is not so. Raban Shimon, the fi rst one, was killed at the time of the Churban, and R. Akiva almost sixty years after him. The five last ones were killed at the time Beitar was conquered, seventy-two years after the Churban.”
As mentioned earlier, Andrianus generally preferred diplomacy and strategy to war, and in most of his empire people enjoyed peace and tranquility. The Jewish revolt was the only major war of his reign. Instead of battling against the barbarian tribes of Europe and Britain he built a giant fortification system to keep them out, similar to the giant wall presently going up in Israel. In Europe his forts and walls were built from wood, but when it came to building a wall in North England to keep out the Caledonians (the Scots), there was not enough wood available and his soldiers build the fortifications of stone. This survives as the famous Hadrian’s Wall within an easy drive of Gateshead Yeshiva in northern England.
As for the Jews of Eretz Yisroel, they survived and went on to put the Mishna and Talmud Yerushalmi in writing.
This dramatic recovery was largely due to the mesirus nefesh of R. Yehuda ben Bava, one of the Asara Harugei Malchus. As the Gemara (Sanhedrin 14a) relates, when Andrianus forbade smicha, he conferred smicha to five of his talmidim in defiance of the ban and was speared by Romans as he barred the road with his body to enable them to escape.
These five talmidim, R. Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Shimon bar Yochai, R. Yosi and R. Elazar ben Shamua were instrumental in the Torah’s survival and recovery after Andrianus’ death in 3898/138. Fifty years later in about 3949/189, R. Yehuda HaNassi was completing the Mishna that has preserved the Torah Shebe’al Peh ever since.
(Credit: Some sources from Vilner, Alter. Asseres Harugei Malchus baMidrash uvePiyut. Yerushalayim: Mossad Harav Kook, 2005.)