An elegy in the Tishah B’Av liturgy commemorates ten rabbinic martyrs, great in stature as the cedars of Lebanon, who continued teaching the Torah in defiance of the Roman edicts. The Yom Kippur service has a more elaborate elegy and there are several other versions deriving from midrashic sources.
The story of the Asarah Harugei Malchut, “The Ten Slain by the Government”, was a widespread concern of medieval Jewish authors, in tribute to the martyrs themselves and as an encouragement to Jews to stand by their tradition despite the Crusaders and the missionaries.
All versions of the poem have their difficulties. This note addresses only the Tishah B’Av and Yom Kippur renderings because they are the best known.
The Tishah B’Av Version – Arzei Levanon
Only eight of the ten rabbis are listed:
1. Rabban Shim’on (ben Gamli’el II)
2. A kohen (Rabbi Yishma’el the High Priest)
3. Rabbi Akiva
4. Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava
5. Rabbi Chanina (Chananyah) ben Teradyon
6. Rabbi Yeshevav the Scribe
7. Rabbi Chutzpit
8. Rabbi Elazar ben Shammu’a
Where are the other two? It is possible, since the alphabetical acrostic of the poem goes only up to resh, that there were originally two more lines beginning respectively shin and tav, and these named the ninth and tenth martyrs.
The author may be Me’ir ben Yechi’el of the 12th century CE, though Zunz disputes this. The poet has bound his story together with intricate skill, but though all his eight rabbis were certainly martyred by the Romans, they did not all live, or die, at the same period.
The Yom Kippur Version – Eileh Ezkerah
This is an alphabetical acrostic which reaches the end of the aleph-bet up to shin and tav. However, here too we are not given ten but only eight names, and those we have are not identical with the list in Arzei Levanon.
This is the list:
1. Rabbi Yishma’el the high priest
2. Rabban Shim’on ben Gamli’el the head of the Sanhedrin
3. Rabbi Akiva
4. Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradyon
5. Rabbi Chutzpit the Interpreter
6. Rabbi Elazar ben Shammu’a
7. Rabbi Chanina ben Hachinai
8. Rabbi Yehudah ben Damah
It is unlikely that the lack of a ninth and tenth rabbi undermines the original number of ten martyrs. The memory of ten martyrs is too well entrenched for that, and the prose and poetical versions all mention the number ten. One could argue that ten is merely a convenient round figure without any basis in fact, but this is mere conjecture which does not outweigh or refute the popular tradition.
The author, in this case one Yehudah, whose name appears in acrostic form, probably inherited or chose a particular list of names, did not critically compare them with other versions, and wove his story together in the way that he deemed effective.
In all the poems the martyrs suffer martyrdom one after the other on the same day, which gives dramatic effect to the story but does not acknowledge that we are dealing with a series of events that were spread out over a long period.
A third poem which is available for comparison is by Yehosef Ezovi, 13th century, whose list of nine is closer to Eileh Ezkerah.