Day of Atonement

A sister text to "A Myrtle Among Reeds"; a prayer-by-prayer analysis of the traditional service for Yom Kippur.

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This excerpt is from the section known as "The Ten Martyrs":

   We enter, not for the first time, the realm of man-made myth. The tale of ten Rabbis, martyred by the Romans for their constancy to the Jewish faith and God – only, despite what's recorded in the anonymous piyyut (the payatan signs his poem Yehudah ha-Chazak acrostically in the stanza "zechor be-rachamecha", but this isn't a name, not even a nickname or a nom de plume; at most it's a sobriquet), the ten weren't all martyred at the same time - two of the eight lived at an entirely different epoch, long after the others had been killed - so this cannot be construed as history, even though it generally is. Two versions, then: first, the one we read on Yom Kippur and again on Tisha b'Av, the 9th of Av commemoration of the destruction of the Temple; then, what may really have happened.

   First, the story as given in the piyyut. A Roman governor of Israel, possibly Lulianus, insisted on studying the Torah at the feet of the Rabbis, so as to be better informed of Jewish law; and then, having learned enough of it for his purposes, used it to destroy the Jews. He ordered that his palace be filled with shoes. Then he summoned the Sages, and asked them to clarify that the Jewish law prescribed the death penalty for the crime of kidnapping; which they did. The governor then noted that Joseph's brothers remained unpunished for the crime of kidnapping their brother more than sixteen hundred years before; and asked for clarification that in Jewish law the sins of the fathers were normally visited upon the sons (the shoes, incidentally, were a banal and obscure analogy which the Sages surely couldn't have been expected to read as a clue: some versions of the Joseph story – with the Prophet Amos as the source - have his brothers using the coins they received from the Ishmaelites to buy shoes).

   The Sages requested three days, to appeal to God as the supreme authority on the matter and to gain His Judgement. Rabbi Yishma'el as Kohen ha-Gadol was the man most suited to the task, and he duly purified himself and pronounced the secret name of God, then ascended the heavenly ladder and spoke personally with the Archangel Gabriel, who advised him that God required the conclusion of this unfortunate business, and that the Sages should therefore accept the verdict. Rabbi Yishma'el and Shimon ben Gamli'el were taken first, Shimon asking that his head be cut off before Yishma'el’s, to save him having to witness the sacrifice of the chief sacrificer; and so it fell out, though it required the drawing of lots first. Watching Rabbi Yishma'el go next, the Governo's daughter went into ecstasies of physical passion at his beauty and begged her father to spare him; when he refused, she insisted on the flesh of his face being flayed, so that she could stuff and preserve it as a bedside ornament – presumably as an aide-de-branler; a response which Rabbi Freud has never investigated, though his opinion on the matter would be worth the reading.

   While Yishma'el quivered under the lash, the angels in Heaven protested to the Almighty against his treatment, but were ordered into silence. These actions confirmed God's Laws, and thus they could not be contravened or countermanded. As with the Kaddish, we are called upon to justify the judgement.

   Next, Rabbi Akiva, although there's a hint in the verse before Akiva's arrest of a small-scale massacre of either other Jewish leaders or even, possibly, of Roman torturers who refused. After Akiva – who went lacerating his own flesh with sharp-toothed combs – Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon, who was burned, with saturated woollen sponges placed on his chest to slow the death-process as much as possible; his personal Torah Scroll was burned alongside him. Next, Rabbi Chutzpis the Interpreter, then Rabbi Elazar ben Shamu'a, Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai, Rabbi Yesheivav the Scribe, Rabbi Yehudah ben Damah, and finally Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava, of whom the precise method of murdering isn't described, but only the fact.

    Conflict of dates and known historic accounts reduce this to mere legend, an invention of the middle ages. Yet several of the ten did die as martyrs, each in their own time, and place, and manner. Who were they really?

   The first was Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel ha-Nasi. The Gamliels were one of the great families of Israel in the Roman era, descended from Rabbi Hillel, the greatest of all Talmudic Rabbis, who came as leader of the Babylonian community to lead the Jews in the yishuv. No less than six Gamliels figure amongst the alumni of Israel in the early Christian centuries, of whom the first of all was Gamliel ha-Zakan ("the Elder" or "the Wise"; in Hebrew the two are interchangeable), Hillel's grandson. The second was his son, Shimon ben Gamliel of Yavneh, who succeeded Yochanan ben Zakkai as Nasi - leader of the Sanhedrin - around 80 CE, when the Temple had only recently been destroyed and ben Zakkai had persuaded Titus and Vespasian to allow a single yeshiva at Yavneh as the remnant of Judaism in the land. Shimon was much admired by Josephus – ironically, since Shimon had nothing but detestation for his admirer – who described him as "a man highly gifted with intelligence and judgement", and said of him that he could "by sheer genius retrieve an unfortunate situation in affairs of state" – a skill Josephus could recognise in others but not, alas, imitate himself. Mishnah also records his feats of valour, notably his prudence in the matter of the cost of birds purchased by women for ante-natal sacrifice, his capacity to juggle no less than eight flaming torches, and his athleticism in returning from the prostrate to the standing position in prayer with the use of just one finger on the ground. Shimon is himself quoted in "Pirkei Avot" ("The Ethics of the Fathers" 1:17): "All my life I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing of better service than silence; not learning but doing is the chief thing; and he who is profuse of words can cause sin." Caveat scriptor!

   There were, of course, other members of the family who also took the name Shimon ben Gamliel, and at least one other – he of Yavneh – who bore the honorary title Nasi, Prince of Judah; but most authorities agree that the one intended by this piyyut is the one I've described here, and this despite the fact that no one knows how he came to meet his death.

   After Shimon, Rabbi Yishma'el the High Priest. The astute will have noticed a conundrum in that name, for it was most unusual in that world torn between Pharisees and Sadducees to find a Rabbi appointed, or perhaps that should read anointed High Priest. Yishma'el ben Elisha was the exception. A child at the time of the destruction of the Temple, he was taken as a captive to Rome but later ransomed by Rabbi Joshua, who became his teacher, alongside Nehunya ha-Kanah, at the yeshiva at Kfar Aziz, south of Hebron. As an adult Yishma'el became a leading voice at Yavneh, the principal Rabbinical seminary; he was present on the day that Rabban Gamliel was deposed and Eleazar ben Azariah appointed Nasi in his place.

   Yishma'el's presence in the unhistoric tale of the Ten Martyrs isn't without particular significance, for in addition to his development of hermeneutics as the means of deducing God's commandments from the scriptures, he became embroiled in one especial controversy, precisely over the commandments for which suffering martyrdom was acceptable and those which prohibited it; Yishma'el insisted that worshiping idols was acceptable if it were necessary to save a person's life, provided it wasn't done in public; a response which would become hugely significant amongst marrano and converso communities in Europe for the next two thousand years. As far as we know, Rabbi Yishma'el died peacefully in his own bed, a martyr only to infirmity and old age.

   Who else wasn't present on the date when the murder of the Ten Martyrs didn't actually take place?

   Rabbi Akiva's death is perhaps the most renowned, though it too happened elsewhen, in the year 135 CE to be precise, more than half a century after Gamliel and Yishma'el. Following the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans were seeking all the leaders of Israel, and found Akiva reciting the morning Shema; throughout the long hours of his torturing, he never ceased reciting the Shema over and over. The Roman Commander Turnus Rufus was so astonished by this that he asked Akiva, "Have you no feeling of pain that you can laugh in the face of such intense suffering!" (every account of this that I've ever seen ends Rufus' statement with an exclamation rather than a question mark). Akiva is said to have replied, remarkably lucidly for a man in chains and beaten almost to the point of death: "All my life I have been concerned over a particular phrase of Torah. We are taught in the Shema to accept God's sovereignty and decrees 'with all our soul', which means obeying God even at the expense of our lives. This is an extraordinary thing to ask of any man, and I have often wondered if I would be given the privilege of performing it. Now that the chance has come, should I not grasp it with joy?" Saying which he uttered one last time the opening phrase of the Shema, drew out the Echad like an expression of derision for his persecutors, and died. Bravado? Of course bravado. Fiction? Of course fiction. But exemplary bravado, exemplary fiction, the sort from which archetypes are formed and future generations given courage to endure their personal torturings.

   Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon, the head of the academy at Siknin, acquired such a reputation for extraordinary acts of charity that Elazar ben Yakov instructed his own followers that they should not give money to any charity unless it was administered to the standards set by Chananya. Charity wasn't afforded to Chananya however, only by him. Like Akiva, he was rounded up in the wake of the Bar Kochba revolt; his wife also sentenced to death, and his daughter to slavery. The formal pretext was that he had violated a Roman edict against teaching the Torah in public – to which he could only, and proudly, plead guilty. The scroll he had used for the purpose was unrolled, and then wrapped around him like a shawl – though I can't help but wonder if they were mocking him or testing him, for they must have sensed that they were cladding him in spiritual armour, and that he might not burn. But burn he did, despite the saturated woollen sponges. Chananya too was guilty of bravado. As he burned, the letters written on the scroll became dislodged, fragments of half-charred parchment floating up into the air. "See," he called out to his daughter and disciples, "the human parchment is destroyed, but the sacred letters return to their creator" (sadly, I've made up these words: accounts of Chananya's death record only the ambience, not the specifics, of his bravado). However, we do know the words of the Roman executioner, who was deeply impressed by whatever it was Chananya said: "If I remove the wool from your heart, will I have a share in the World to Come?" I like this phrase, and not only for itself, but for the Jewish light it casts back on the Gospel stories of King Jesus. But that's by the by; Chananya confirmed the Roman's wish, the Roman swapped the wool for extra fuel, and then, somewhat in the manner of a worshipper of Mithras, threw himself into the same fire and was consumed. The two, it's said, entered Paradise locked in each other's arms.

   Next, Rabbi Chutzpis the Interpreter. An Interpreter wasn't a translator from one language to another, though the need for such in Aramaic-speaking, Roman-governed Israel was great; rather, he was the man who explained to the bewildered congregation what the Rosh Yeshiva, the Rabbi, had intended, in the esoterica of his Talmudic responsum or his Shabbat sermon. Chutzpis – this being a piece of Biblical apocrypha we should expect Biblical numerology – was a day short of his 130th birthday when he was killed; he did ask for the extra day, but it was denied.

   Rabbi Elazar ben Shamu'a. Or Eleazar ben Shammu'a. Or plain Eleazar, without the patronymic, because everyone knows who is intended. Another of that small group of Kohen-Rabbis, he was one of the five principal students of Rabbi Akiva, and appears regularly as a source of authority in the Mishnah, usually endorsed by some anecdote or comment by Akiva. Eleazar doesn't belong on this list of martyrs, for he lived to an overripe old age and died in his bed; but perhaps he's included to honour the Rabbi who ordained him, Yehudah ben Bava, who was indeed martyred by the Romans. Eleazar may have been the founder of that potent movement in modern Judaism, which I will call "sentimental Zionism" and of which I am myself a member in good standing – a commitment to the Land and State of Israel that includes owning or renting a holiday home in Herzliya, joining an occasional Jewish Agency mission, and providing philanthropic support for clinics for wounded veterans of Israel's wars, but doesn't extend quite so far as the carrying out of the desire, prayed for daily and apparently now granted by the Almighty, of gathering in the exiles from the four corners of the universe and re-establishing the Jewish community, not next but this year in Israel. Eleazar's founding contribution? It's recounted (Sifrey Deuteronomy 80) that he and Yochanan ha-Sandler were sent to study amongst the Phoenicians, but got no further than Sidon, in southern Lebanon. Tears streaming from his eyes, Eleazar turned around and persuaded Yochanan to accompany him home. "Living in Eretz Yisrael," he declared, "is equivalent to all the mitzvot of the Torah." This isn't a statement that goes down well, in Crown Heights, or in Golders Green, or on Bathurst Street.

   Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai. Not one of the famous five, but still one of Akiva's earliest students. Chanina's character would have appealed to Shlomo Agnon, I'm sure, though I've found no explicit reference in his writings – perhaps an obscure allusion: the uncomplaining wife of Reb Yudel Bok, in "The Bridal Canopy", the best book about stadtl Jewry ever written. Chanina's wife was so devoted to her husband, to the Torah, and to her husband's devotion to the Torah (either that or it was the best ruse ever thought up by a woman cuckolding a man), that she encouraged him to stay at Akiva's yeshiva full thirteen years.


    Rabbi Yesheivav the Scribe was a friend and rival, though not a pupil of Akiva, so renowned for his generosity that Akiva once restrained him from giving overmuch. Their chief disagreement, and I shall state immediately that I side with Yesheivav on this, was over the issue of mamzerim. No, that needs re-phrasing, because "issue" has two meanings. The issue of the issue of mamzerim. The offspring of all prohibited unions, according to Akiva, should be counted as mamzerim. Yesheivav disagreed, regarding the legacy of sins to be a matter for God to decide, "even unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me", and not something for mere mortals to determine. During the Hadrianic persecutions following the Bar Kochba revolt, he hid at Sepphoris in the Galil with several other Rabbis; but to no avail. The Romans found him, and executed him. He was ninety. His parting message to his disciples was "Support one another. Love Peace and Justice. Perhaps there is hope."

   Rabbi Yehudah ben Damah belonged to the group of scholars known as Tanna'im, as opposed to their colleagues and rivals the Amora'im. The word Tanna is of Aramaic origin, and though it's used to mean "to study" and "to teach", its etymology is clearly linked to the oral tradition, for that is the precise meaning of the Aramaic teni. The Tannaitic period began with Hillel and Shammai around 20 CE, and ended with the final redaction of the Mishnah by Judah ha-Nasi around 200 CE. Within that epoch, the two significant dates are 70 CE, when the Temple fell and the seminary at Yavneh gave the Tanna'im a new pre-eminence; and 135, the year of the fall of Betar, following the Bar Kochba revolt, after which the writing down of the oral tradition, already understood as critical to the survival of Judaism as a religion, was extended into an urgent need for study and interpretation, lest what was now written down be misunderstood – a task that would lead to the creation of the Gemara and the supplanting of the Tanna'im by the Amora'im. Yehudah ben Damah belonged to the last generation of Tanna'im from the Mishnah period. We don't know how he died, except for his name being included, almost certainly apocryphally, in this list.

   Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava was yet another of Akiva's colleagues. A pious man as well as a great scholar, he too defied the Roman law and taught Torah publicly (the modern mirror of this story is told in my novel "Going To The Wall": the Soviet Union institutionalised anti-semitism in precisely the same way as the Romans). But the act for which the Romans finally took his life was his ordination of the last five of Akiva's students: Meir, Yehudah, Shimon, Yose and Elazar. No sooner were they ordained than a Roman patrol tried to arrest them; as the Talmud records the tale (Sanhedrin 14a) ben Bava obstructed the patrol to ensure the students' get-away, but he himself was stabbed to death by Roman spears.

   Ten separate acts of death, some but not all of them through martyrdom, two in one period, eight in another, all of them separate, many of them legendary or simply fictional; but united as though a single act of martyrdom in this piyyut. Twelve stanzas in all, each stanza is divided in two parts, and the first letter of each part provides an alphabetical acrostic; except for the last stanza which, as I've said already, spells out the acronym Yehudah ha-Chazak. The stanzas are separated by the refrain Chatanu tsureynu, selach lanu yotsreynu, a mirror of the Vidu'i which allows the modern congregation both to treat the martyrdom as a burnt offering and thereby absolve its own sins vicariously, and also to acknowledge the key conceit that binds the Ten Martyrs, the notion that, however seemingly unjust, even barbaric, the fate of martyred Jews, it nonetheless "justifies the judgement", which is to say that it's decreed through the mouth of the Archangel Gabriel as the ordinance of God. In this, some might argue, lies a mitigation of the Holocaust.

   But it's also more than that. The very last words, recited by the chazzan on behalf of the congregation, are:

   "Look down from the heights at the spilled blood of the righteous, see it from Your chamber and remove the stains."

   Which stains? The stains of blood? Or the stains of sin? It's left, deliberately I think, ambiguous.

   Though nothing ambiguous in the implied criticism of the Almighty.



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