Rabi Yosi ben Kisma was very ill. Yet, when Rabi Chananya ben Teradyon came to visit him, Rabi Yosi took the opportunity to strongly admonish his colleague for disobeying the Roman edicts.
“Don’t you know that Heaven has decreed that Rome shall reign?” he told Rabi Chananya. “True, this nation has destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and killed Hashem’s Sages, but Rome is firmly established! Yet, what do you do? You sit and occupy yourself with Torah, gather people together and publicly teach them Torah, and even keep a sefer Torah close to your heart.”
“Hashem will have mercy on us,” replied Rabi Chananya.
“I am speaking rationally and you answer me with ‘Hashem will have mercy on us’? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Romans burned you together with a Torah scroll” (Avodah Zarah18a).
As we know, Rabi Yosi’s words were fulfilled. Both the Talmud and the medieval piyyut Eleh Ezkerah, which we read on Yom Kippur during Mussaf, describe the fiery death of Rabi Chananya, one of the Ten Martyrs, at the hands of the Romans. Yet, this same Rabi Chananya, who fearlessly defied the edict of the Romans that forbade the teaching and studying of Torah, understood that not every Jew could be expected to have his courage. He therefore encouraged those who were afraid to learn Torah in public to at least learn in private.
“If two sit together and don’t speak words of Torah, they are a session of scoffers … But if two sit together and words of Torah are spoken between them, the Divine Presence rests upon them” (Pirkei Avos 3:3). He goes on to say that even one person who occupies himself with Torah will be given a reward, “Because it is written: ‘Let him sit alone in silence, since He has laid it upon him’ (Eicha 3:28).” In other words, even someone who sat alone and silently learned was praiseworthy during those terrible times.
Rabi Chananya, a contemporary of Rabi Akiva, was head of the yeshiva in Siknin, located in the Lower Galilee. In addition to his zeal for learning Torah, he was known for his honesty. Indeed, Rabi Eliezer ben Yaakov advised people not to put so much as a pruta in a tzedakkah pouch unless it was supervised by someone as trustworthy as Rabi Chananya ben Teradyon (Bava Batra 10b). An example of his scrupulousness in regards to charity is mentioned in Avodah Zarah 18a, where it says that Rabi Chananya once thought funds put aside for Purim money was ordinary tzedakkah money and he distributed it to the poor. When he realized his mistake, he used his own money on Purim.
He and his wife had two daughters, one of which was the famous Bruriah, wife of Rabi Meir, who was renowned for her great wisdom. He was not so lucky with one of his sons, since the young man fell in with a group of bandits and was killed by his former comrades. His other daughter, as well as his wife, was included in the punishment he received for publicly teaching Torah.
Rabi Chananya’s capture occurred not long after his conversation with Rabi Yosi of Kisma. Rabi Yosi had passed away and many Roman officials attended his funeral. On their return, they found Rabi Chananya teaching Torah in public, with a sefer Torah leaning against his breast. When they asked him why he had disobeyed the imperial edict and persisted in learning Torah, he replied, “I do as the Lord my God commands me.”
The Romans were so angry that they ordered that Rabi Chananya be executed at once. His wife was also condemned to death, while their unfortunate daughter was taken away to a brothel. Fortunately, Rabi Meir was able to bribe the girl’s guard and in this way she escaped.