The Ten Martyrs liturgy describes Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest and Raban [=nasi or "chief rabbi"] Shimon ben Gamliel as killed by the Romans at the same time. Rabbi Yishmael served as cohen gadol in the Temple's last years (~70 CE), and was killed some times afterwards.

If my understanding of the period is correct, around the year 60-something, it was Raban Gamliel who was nasi, but he fled Jerusalem for Yavneh, leaving Raban Yochanan ben Zakai as emergency (acting?) nassi; Raban Yochanan ben Zakai led the people during the destruction, including negotiating for Raban Gamliel's safety. It seems that a few decades later (the "classic" Mishnaic period), Raban Yochanan has given back his title; Raban Gamliel is nasi in Yavneh; and Rabbi Akiva (who had been a young barely-literate man around the year 70) has just emerged as a scholar.

So who was this Raban Shimon ben Gamliel who was martyred sometime between oh, 70 and 100 CE? Raban Gamliel's father? He would have been an old man, and a retired nasi. Is that right?

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The most widespread opinion is that it was indeed the first Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (father of Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh), and that the Romans killed him (along with R' Yishmael) during, or shortly after, the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash - i.e., around 3830 (70 CE). The chronology of the nesi'im, then, would be something like this:

  • Rabban Gamliel Hazaken (d. around 3810 / 50 CE)
  • Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (martyred in 3830 / 70 CE)
  • Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (acting nassi, d. around 3835 / 75 CE)
  • Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh (d. around 3880 / 120 CE)

The problem with this is that all of the other eight of the Ten Martyrs were contemporaries of R' Gamliel of Yavneh or of his son, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II, and were killed during Hadrian's persecutions in the aftermath of Bar Kochba's revolt (in the 3890s / 130s CE). Accordingly, the usual explanation is that the liturgy (or actually, the midrash on which it's based) is historiosophical rather than historical: it puts these ten Sages together in order to make a point (about the terrible consequences of the sale of Yosef, and so that we should mourn them more deeply), but not to say that they actually lived at the same time.

However, R' Y.I. Halevi (Doros Harishonim) argues, based on various lines of evidence, that the first of the Ten Martyrs should in fact be R' Shimon ben HaSegan rather than R' Shimon ben Gamliel. (He claims that the substitution arose by misreading רשב"ג for רשבהס"ג.) The second, he says, is not R' Yishmael Kohen Gadol but rather his grandson, also named R' Yishmael, the colleague (and frequent disputant) of R' Akiva. This indeed then places all ten of these Sages in the same time period.

(R' Halevi does allow that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel I didn't survive the siege of Jerusalem, since after all he was still alive at the beginning of the revolt - Josephus refers to him serving as nassi - yet Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai didn't ask Vespasian to save his life. He claims, then, that either Rabban Shimon died a natural death, or that he was killed by one of the Zealot factions who were fighting each other for control of the city.)

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    Are you sure you mean "historiographical" and not "hagiographical"?
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 0:33
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    See my edit - wasn't thinking of either one, actually.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 0:45
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    Fascinating; though when I hear that Rabbi Yishmael uttered the Name and ascended to Heaven, I'd assume that was the Rabbi Yishmael who had served in the Temple. But not necessarily.
    – Shalom
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 2:30
  • I guess another possibility is that Raban Shimon fled to Yavneh with his son Gamliel, and upon arriving in Yavneh, retired and gave the post to Gamliel. If so, when Raban Yochanan ben Zakai asked for Raban Gamliel, did he imply "and his retired father", or did he feel he could only ask for one person, so he chose the current nasi? The period was filled with difficult questions.
    – Shalom
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 14:26
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    Incidentally, about the "one person" - the request was for "the lineage of Rabban Gamliel," and R' Halevi argues that this refers to Rabban Gamliel the Elder - in other words, Rabban Yochanan was asking for all of his living descendants.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 15:34

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