Martyrs – the ten

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? 

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). 

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.)

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