Musaf on Yom Kippur contains the tragic story of the ten martyred sages of the Roman period, put to death because they defied the ban on teaching of the Torah.
They led an ages-long procession of Jews who sacrificed all for the sake of the sanctification of the Divine name.
These are some of the stories about them in the Talmud and Midrash.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Ishmael were on the way to execution. Shimon said to Ishmael, “I do not know why I am to be executed.” Ishmael replied, “Perhaps someone came to you to hear judgment or to consult you, and you kept him waiting until you had emptied your goblet, fastened your shoes or put on your cloak.” Shimon said, “You have consoled me, O Rabbi!”
A Roman noblewoman gazed at Rabbi Ishmael and said to the executioner, “Tell him to raise his head so that I can see his handsomeness, and I shall grant him his life.” Ishmael answered, “Shall I forfeit the bliss of eternal life for an hour of pleasures?” When the woman heard this, she said, “Flay him!”
When the executioners came to his forehead where the tefillin are fastened, Ishmael let out a piercing scream, “Lord of the universe, will You not have mercy upon me?” A voice from heaven answered, “If you accept the suffering, it is well: if not, the world will lapse into chaos.” Then Ishmael willingly suffered martyrdom.
Rabbi Akiva taught that when the Shema says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”, the words “with all your soul” mean, “Even when He takes your soul from you.”
When Akiva was led out to be executed, they gashed his flesh with iron combs but he recited the first line of the Shema. The breath of life left him when he reached the word Echad - “One”.
Rabbi Chanania ben Teradyon was caught teaching from the Torah scroll. They wrapped him in the scroll and set him on fire.
His disciples asked, “Rabbi, what do you see?” He replied, “I see parchment consumed by fire, but letters soaring aloft!”
Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi remarked, “One person can win eternal life in an hour while another needs many years.”
Chutzpit the interpreter was a very old man and the emperor was asked to show mercy to him. The emperor said to him, “What difference does it make whether you die today or tomorrow?” Chutzpit answered, “There are two commandments I would like to carry out once more to say ‘Hear, O Israel’ this evening and tomorrow morning, so that I may once more avow Almighty God.” The emperor said, “How long will you cling to your God who has no power to save you?”
When Chutzpit heard these words he tore his garments and said, “What will you do, O prince, on the day of judgment, when the Lord punishes Rome and your gods?” The emperor said, “How long must I stand this old man?” and he bade the officials slay him.
The day when Chanina ben Hachinai was to be executed was the eve of Shabbat. He began to pronounce the blessing ushering in the day and reached the words, “And God hallowed it”, when he was killed. A voice came from heaven and said, “Happy are you, Chanina, a holy man whose soul flew on high at the word ‘hallowed’!”
When Y’hudah ben Dama was about to be put to death, the emperor asked, “Do you uphold the belief that there is a God who gave you the Torah?” Y’hudah said, “Yes!” the emperor said, “And what reward does your faith promise you?” Y’hudah quoted the verse, “How abundant is Your goodness which You have laid up for them that revere You” (Psalm 31:20). The emperor said, “There are no fools greater than you who believe in life after death”. To which Rabbi Y’hudah replied, “There are no fools greater than you who deny the living God!”
The emperor was enraged and ordered that the rabbi be tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through the streets of Rome.