Eleh Ezkera-The Midrash of the Ten Martyrs is a book published to awaken the masses to atone for their sins. This English volume, with the Hebrew original text (without vowels) on facing pages, brings to life an ancient story for the modern reader.
Eleh Ezkera is the most moving part of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) liturgy. This mystical story is read just after recalling the High Priest service in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem before its destruction. A similar poem is recited on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the two Holy Temples which stood in Jerusalem, seventy years apart, almost two thousand years ago.
With an explanatory introduction by Rabbi Yaacov Haber, a flowing translation from Rabbi David Sedley and traditional commentary, the story of the Ten Martyrs offers the reader a glimpse into the harrowing circumstances in which Jews have found themselves from time immemorial.
“This is a story about heroism and dedication to God,” said Rabbi Haber. “It is about divine reaction to a world that is sometimes gruesome and hideous.”
The Ten Martyrs are known for their outstanding holiness and biblical knowledge. Though not contemporaries, they were all brutally murdered by the Romans during the Hadrian era around the year 70 AD as punishment for the cruelty of the ten brothers of Joseph, who kidnapped and sold him into slavery in Egypt because of their jealousy towards him.
As the story goes, the wicked Roman emperor, Turnusrufus, who was well-versed in Jewish literature, found the following verse in Exodus 21:16: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” Turnusrufus used this biblical statement to commit the most heinous of crimes. From this, the Talmud (Jewish Oral Law) draws the teaching, “The death of the righteous serves as atonement for our sins.”
Grouped together for the purposes of this prayer, the martyrs represent the historical greatness of Jews who were willing to pay the ultimate price to bring awareness of God into the world. For today’s generation, those who were murdered during the Holocaust, with their firm belief in the Creator of the World intact, are often compared to the Ten Martyrs.
Though the book describes gruesome deaths, it also awakens one’s soul through the heart-wrenching dialogues the martyrs conduct with their followers as well as through the descriptions of the angel Elijah, who comes to collect their souls and take them to their final resting place in the World to Come.
The murder of the Ten Martyrs is the historical turning point marking the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land and the beginning of the subsequent exile of the Jewish people. Reading Eleh Ezkera-The Midrash of the Ten Martyrs reminds us that our suffering has an ultimate purpose – to bring unity to all people and peace to the land.
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