Without arguing either the historicity or the historical accuracy of the midrash of Eleh Ezkerah, the 10 Martyrs, I am wondering about the details of the story as told. According to the version on the Chabad website, the ten are asked

What is the law with regards to he who kidnaps a man from the Jewish nation and sells him [into slavery]?” The rabbis replied that Torah mandates that such a man be put to death. “If so,” continued Turnusrufus, “where are your forbearers who sold their brother into slavery? Had they been here, I would have prosecuted them before your eyes. As for you, accept the decree of heaven, for since the times [of the 12 tribes] there have never been 10 sages of your stature [alive at one time]. Take upon yourself to die in accordance with your law; for Joseph the son of Jacob was kidnapped and sold by his 10 brothers, and their punishment has never been exacted.

What troubles me is the rashi on Bamidbar 7:22 which references the medrash Rabba and reads

One young he-goat: to atone for the sale of Joseph, about which it says, “and they slaughtered a kid” (Gen. 37:31).

In terms of the narrative, the Rabbis had a perfect answer -- the kidnapping was atoned for by the specific offerings in the desert. Now, while God might have intended them to be killed for other reasons and the voice from behind the curtain might have intended things to end as they did, it seems that the rabbis in the story should have objected to the charge as having been resolved generations before. However, it seems that according to the language of the Eleh Ezkerah, the required punishment is death so the claim in rashi, that an offering atoned, could not be true.

Is the rashi/M"Rabbah wrong or did the composer of the Eleh Ezkerah ignore the fact for literary reasons, or is there another halachic wrinkle involved?

  • The ten martyrs didn't actually overlap: we know they lived at different times. The specific deaths DID occur, but the narrative thread is poetic fiction. It's about inspiring anguish and teshuvah, not a full recounting of history. Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


The difficulty in understanding the Rashi on a simplistic level is that no sacrifice atones for intentional sin. However, if you look at the actual text of the Midrash which Rashi is basing himself off of (Bamidbar Rabba 13:14), the atonement of this sacrifice was for something much more specific. The Medrash recounts how Yehuda was responsible for dipping the coat belonging to Yosef in blood and bringing it to his father. The Medrash concludes:

ולכך נאמר בזה החטאת שהביאוהו כפרה עליו על שציער את אביו

And therefore it says by this [goat] "sin offering," as he brought it for atonement for causing his father suffering."

The purpose of this offering was to atone for the suffering which Yehuda had caused his father, which was not intentional. The sin of selling Yosef which deserves a death penalty was not, and could not be, the subject of this atonement.


I really don't understand your question as you referenced yourself, they knew this was a heavenly decree. Had the Angel Gavriel told them it was not, perhaps they would have used your very logic to try to free themselves. But realizing that it was a heavenly decree.allowed them to be completely passive about the situation.

I'll quote from that site for those that are not familiar.

Rather than pleading for their lives, they asked the wicked prefect to grant them three days to verify whether their martyrdom had indeed been sanctioned by the heavenly court.

Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest invoked the Holy Name of G‑d, which it is prohibited to utter or write (under normal circumstances), and ascended to heaven to ascertain the verity of the decree.

Rabbi Yishmael was greeted by the angel Gavriel, who said to him, “Yishmael, my son, I swear by your life that I have heard from behind the veil11 that 10 sages have been delivered to be killed by the wicked kingdom.”

“But why so?” Rabbi Yishmael asked. And the angel confirmed what Turnusrufus had said—that they were to stand in place of the 10 brothers who sold Joseph into slavery and suffer their punishment.

Upon his return to his colleagues, Rabbi Yishmael related what he had heard from Gavriel the angel and urged his fellow sages to accept that this was a heavenly decree.

  • I understand the decree, but not the logic. Before they decided to confirm it, they could have responded that the case was closed. The artifice behind Turnusrufus's decision could have been undermined (and the later statement "And the angel confirmed what Turnusrufus had said—that they were to stand in place of the 10 brothers who sold Joseph into slavery and suffer their punishment." would also be averted.
    – rosends
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 19:59
  • @Danno I guess that's why they were chosen and not you and I :/
    – user6591
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 20:10

Not many answers work on a people who produce emperors such as this one in the following Medrash (Eicha 3:41):

ראיתה ה' עותתי שפטה משפטי
חד יהודאי עבר קדם אדריאנוס ושאל בשלמיה. אמר ליה: מאן את? אמר ליה: יהודאי.
אמר ליה: ואית יהודאי עבר קדם אדריאנוס ושאיל בשלמיה? אמר: איזילו וסבו ראשיה.
עבר אוחרן חמא מה איעביד בקדמייא ולא שאל בשלמיה. אמר ליה: מאן את?
אמר ליה: יהודאי. אמר ליה: ואית יהודאי עבר קדם אדריאנוס ולא שאל בשלמיה? אמר ליה: איזילו וסבו רישיה.
אמר לו סנקליטין שלו: לית אנן ידעין מה אילין עובדי דאת עביד. דשאיל בשלמך מיתקטיל, דלא שאיל בשלמך מתקטיל.
אמר להון: ואתון בעיין מלכה יתי איך אנא בעי למקטלה בשנאי?
ורוח הקדש צווחת ואומרת: ראיתה ה' עותתי ראיתה כל נקמתם וגו':

A Jew went passed Hadrian and greeted him. Hadrian asked him who he is, to which he replied that he is Jewish. Said the Emperor, "A Jew may pass me and greet me? Cut off his head." Another Jew, having seen what happened to the first, did not greet the Hadrian when he passed. Said the Emperor to the Jew, "Who are you?" "A Jew", answered the man. To this the Emperor said, "Can a Jew pass me and not greet me? Chop off his head!" His advisers couldn't understand him. They asked, which way is it? When they greet you they die and when they don't they die. He answered them, "Are you trying to advise me on how to get rid of my enemies?"

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