Mussaf on Yom Kippur. We have recalled the glory of the Temple Service, the majestic appearance of the Kohen Gadol as the joyous crowd accompanied him home. In Eleh Ezkerah, the piyyut about the Ten Martyrs that follows, we recall a very different scene – when the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael came to an end. When it became a crime punishable by death to teach Torah.
Because Eleh Ezkerah is written in such a way that it seems that all ten of the martyrs lived and died at around the same time – only one nameless Roman ruler is mentioned – there is a difference of opinion about the identity of the first of the martyrs to be killed, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, Nasi (Prince) of Israel. If the piyyut is referring to a sage who lived at the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt and was a contemporary of Rabi Akiva, then the poem is referring to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II. However, most historians believe that the medieval paytan Yehudah Chazak was referring to an earlier leader of Israel, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel I, who was killed soon after Churban Bayis Sheni.
By the time Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel I became a leader of Israel, the nasi no longer wielded political power. Herod, who died in 4 BCE, had basically sold Judea to Rome for the privilege of being king. During the century that followed Herod’s death, Judea became a Roman province; its subsequent kings sometimes had more power and sometimes less, but the real authority rested in Roman hands. The nasi’s power was therefore constrained to the religious realm. To distinguish the nasi from the other rabbanim, he was given the honorary title of Rabban, Our Master.
Rabban Shimon, a grandson of Hillel, was the last nasi to serve while the Beis HaMikdash still stood. Thus, he was present during Sukkot’s joyous Water Drawing celebrations, and “It is taught: They said of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel that when he rejoiced at the simchat beit hasho’eva, he used to take eight lighted torches [and throw them in the air] and catch one and throw one and they did not touch one another” (Sukkot 53a).
Mishnah Keritot 1:7 shows another side of this Sage who lived during one of the most troubled times of Jewish history. At one point the price of birds used for the korbanot brought by women who had suffered a miscarriage rose to the exorbitant price of one gold dinar for just one pair of doves. “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘I will not sleep tonight until their price is a silver dinar.’” That very day the prices fell—to just one fourth of a silver dinar.
Rabban Shimon is quoted in Mishnah 1:17 of Pirkei Avot as saying, “All my days I have grown up among the Sages, and have found nothing better for man than silence; and not the expounding of Torah is the chief thing, but practice; and he who talks profusely occasions sin.”
True to this mishnah, there are few other references to Rabban Shimon in the Talmud, despite his prominent position. But we do know from the historian Josephus that although Rabban Shimon at first maintained close relations with the Roman rulers, following the policy of his father, Rabban Gamliel I, by the time of the Great Revolt, conditions had become so oppressive that he joined the war party against Rome. It was a decision that would prove to be fatal.
According to one tradition, the sage Shmuel HaKatan prophesized on his deathbed, “Shimon and Yishmael will die by the sword, and their colleagues are destined to be murdered, and the rest of the nation will be plundered and great persecutions are destined to befall the nation” (Sanhedrin 11a). Rabban Shimon and Rabi Yishmael Kohen Gadol decided to inform others about this prediction, and, while they were traveling, were arrested by Roman officers, accused of treason and condemned to death.