His name was Yehudah and he lived sometime during the Middle Ages. Perhaps he witnessed the massacre of innocent Jewish communities during the First Crusade and saw a need to find a deeper meaning for the tragedy within the context of Jewish history. Or perhaps he lived a few hundred years later, when the Catholic Church was applying pressure to convert, and he wished to help his fellow Jews remain firm in their decision to accept martyrdom rather than abandon their faith. The truth is that we do not know why Yehudah Chazak—Yehudah, may he be strong—penned his stirring liturgical poem Eleh Ezkerah (These I Will Remember), since we know nothing else about him.
Yet we do know that this piyut about the Ten Martyrs, which is read during Mussaf of Yom Kippur, has strengthened and inspired countless kehillos during the centuries that have followed. It is therefore worth a closer look, both at the piyut and the lives of the Aseret Harugei Malchut, during these weeks of preparation for the Yamim Noraim.
The piyut Eleh Ezkerah is based upon much older sources, including Eichah Rabbah, one of the oldest midrashic works, and Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, which tells the story of the Ten Martyrs in detail. In the latter midrash, the account opens with a nameless Roman leader leafing through the pages of Tanach, when he chances upon the story of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. After discovering that the brothers were never punished for kidnapping Yosef, a deed that would normally incur the death penalty under Torah law, the Roman ruler decrees that ten of Israel’s greatest Sages must be executed in place of the brothers. In the stanzas that follow, the poet recounts the cruel and violent means of death that is meted out to each of the Torah scholars. The piyut concludes with a plea to Hashem to be compassionate and gracious to His people.
The poem is not a strictly historical account. As others have pointed out, it’s hard to imagine a Roman Caesar spending his free afternoons learning Torah. Also, the Ten Martyrs mentioned – Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabi Yishmael Kohen Gadol, Rabi Akiva ben Yosef, Rabi Chananya ben Tradyon, Rabi Chutzpis the Interpreter, Rabi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabi Chanina ben Chachinai, Rabi Yesheivav the Scribe, Rabi Yehudah ben Damah and Rabi Yehudah ben Bava – lived at different times. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabi Yishmael, for instance, were murdered shortly after Churban Bayis Sheini, while Rabi Akiva and the other seven martyrs were killed more than 60 years later, after the Bar Kochba Revolt.
There is also a disagreement in the sources about how many martyrs there were and their names. Arzei Levanon, the kinah read on Tisha B’Av, mentions only eight names, leaving out Rabi Chanina ben Chachinai and Rabi Yehudah ben Damah. Other sources substitute some of the names in Arzei Levanon and Eleh Ezkerah with those of Rabi Chananya the Deputy High Priest, Rabi Yehudah ben Teima, Rabi Yehudah the Baker and Rabi Tarfon.
Yet there is no disagreement about the historical background of Eleh Ezkerah. The Jews suffered terribly during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled over Judea from 117 to 138 CE. The fall of Beitar. The leveling of Jerusalem. The decrees against teaching Torah. These, too, we remember.
After The Churban
The destruction of Bayis Sheni was certainly one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed during the Great Revolt, the war the Jews waged against Rome. Of those who survived, many were sold into slavery. When Masada, the last Jewish stronghold, fell in 73 CE, the Romans were certain that this was the end of Judea.