Jewish Understandings of the Other: An Annotated Sourcebook
Over the millennia, Jews have sought to understand their relationships to their gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) neighbors. Many Jewish teachings generated texts that subsequent generations accepted as authoritative. Despite their authority, these texts often offer a variety of opinions. As Jews seek to understand their place in today's multi-cultural world, they do so in dialogue with these texts. Some of these texts are "difficult." The annotations accompanying them explore ways of reading and understanding them, as historical, theological and legal texts, and as received texts today.
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The Relics of Rabbi Ishmael in The Story of the Ten Martyrs


The Story of the Ten Martyrs is a Hebrew narrative anthology of rabbinic martyr-stories that weaves together a unified tale from pre-existing martyrological material found scattered throughout classical rabbinic literature. The anthology seems to have crystallized as a fully formed literary composition in late Roman/Byzantine Palestine between the fifth and seventh centuries CE. The cycle subsequently circulated in a wide array of both prose and poetry versions throughout the medieval period.

The Story of the Ten Martyrs is profoundly indebted to literary traditions and even liturgical practices that are associated with the Day of Atonement. Since some time in the Middle Ages, it has been customary in central European communities to recite a poetic version of the anthology as a penitential poem, 'Elleh 'Ezkerah, each year on the Day of Atonement during the additional (Mussaf) service (for text, see Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Mahazor la-yamim ha-nora'im: lefi minhagei benei Ashkenaz , 2 vols. [Jerusalem: Koren, 1970], 2:568–73). The recitation of the martyrology is coupled with an elaborate description of the special sacrificial service that, during Temple times, was performed by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (i.e. the Seder 'Avodah ). As we will see below, the martyrology presents the deaths of the ten sages as a unified act of "vicarious atonement" intended as expiation for the sins of Israel. Thus, within this liturgical context, the martyrology similarly functions as a medium of collective, communal atonement appropriate to the occasion.

Basing itself on the scriptural authority of Exod 21:16 (He who kidnaps a man—whether he has sold him or is still holding him—shall be put to death), The Story of the Ten Martyrs considers the sale of the patriarch Joseph by his brothers as recounted in Genesis 38 to be a capital crime. In turn, the cycle presents the sequential deaths of ten rabbinic sages as atonement for this collective sin. The martyrology thus unifies the disparate sources of rabbinic martyrology within a single and quite surprising theological construct that presents martyrdom as expiation for the originary act of national transgression committed by progenitors of the tribes of Israel.

It is worth noting, however, that several recensions of The Story of the Ten Martyrs also attribute the deaths of the rabbinic martyrs to the sages' decision to teach Torah to non-Jews: "Thus, if Israel had not taught Torah to the nations of the world, it would not have been delivered into their hands, God would not have required atonement from Israel, and the nations of the world would not rule them" (I, VI.8.6; also, in briefer form, IV–V, IX.8.6). This secondary etiology strongly supports the conclusion that the "Rome" to which the work refers is specifically Christian—and not "pagan"— Rome, as the historical setting would otherwise suggest. Thus, although the narrative is set during the "Hadrianic persecutions" of the second century ce, it is the Christian-Roman Empire of the authors' own time that serves as the agent of Israel's punishment and as the object of Jewish resentment.

Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, The Story of the Ten Martyrs betrays deep affinities with Christian salvation history at the very same time that it engages in both overt and veiled censure of the religious and political underpinnings of Christian society. This bold confluence of apologetic and polemical aims is perhaps most visible in the text below, which imagines the Romans making ritual use of a physical relic of one of the martyrs, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the High Priest. This passage appears at the end of the account of Rabbi Ishmael’s martyrdom, during which the skin of the sage's face is peeled off by the Roman executioner. According to the narrative, after R. Ishmael's execution, the mask of his face is preserved in the treasury at Rome in defiance of the forces of decay and is brought out of safekeeping every seventy years for use in the following ritual. Before analyzing the text in detail, I present it in its Hebrew original and in translation.


The Story of the Ten Martyrs, 22.65–73 (according to the edition in Gottfried Reeg, ed., Die Geschichte von den Zehn Märtyrern, TSAJ 10 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1985]). The text appears in a variety of forms in the various recensions of the work (cf. II, IV–VII.22.65–73; IX.54.1–6). I present and translate recension VII here.

ועדיין קלסתר פניו של ר' ישמעאל ברומי הרשעה. ובכל שבעים שנה מביאים אדם שלם ומרכיבין אותו על חיגר ומביאין איש א' וכורז לפניו ואומ' כל מי שיראה יראה וכל שלא יראה לא יראה ונותנין את ראשו של ר' ישמעאל ביד האיש השלם וקוראין לשלם עשו ולחיגר יעקב בשב' שהוא צולע על יריכו. ואומ ' אוי לו כשיקום זה בעון זה. אוי לעשו כשיקום יעקוב בעון ראשו של ר' ישמעאל. שנ׳ ונתתי נקמתי באדום ביד ישראל עמי(יחז' כה, יד)׃ The countenance of R. Ishmael is still kept in wicked Rome. And every seventy years, they (the Romans) take a healthy man and have him ride on [the back of] a cripple; they summon a man who proclaims before him: "Let him who sees, see; and anyone who does not see it, will never see." They place the head of R. Ishmael in the hand of the healthy man. They call the healthy man Esau and the cripple Jacob because of his limp. And they proclaim: "Woe to him when this one rises up for the sin of the other. Woe to Esau, when Jacob rises up for the sin of R. Ishmael’s head," as it is written: I will wreak my vengeance on Edom through My people Israel (Ezek 25:14).


The ritual described in this text is obscure—and certainly does not accurately record actual Roman practice. Instead, the passage reflects Jewish perceptions of Roman barbarism. Other rabbinic sources similarly report that "every Roman legion carries with it several scalps and do not be surprised at this, since they place the scalp of R. Ishmael on the heads of their kings" (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 123a; cf. Tosefta Hulllin 8:16).

A close parallel to the version found in The Story of the Ten Martyrs is found in the Babylonian Talmud in tractate 'Avodah Zarah 11b. Here, however, the ritual is not explicitly linked to a martyrological context but to a lengthy review of what the rabbis know about the festivals celebrated by the Romans. More than a century ago, the Jewish scholar Samuel Rapaport read the version of this passage in Talmud as an allusion to a carnivalesque practice, introduced into the Ludi Saeculares by Emperor Philippus around 247 CE, in which a healthy man rode upon a limping dancer wearing a mask. According to this explanation, the ritual's symbolism reflects the internecine political struggle between Philippus and his rival Decius. Indeed, Saul Lieberman has subsequently shown that the customary formula used by the herald to proclaim the start of the Ludi Saeculares, at least according to the Roman historian Suetonius, is strikingly close to the crier's phraseology in the mask ritual: "The herald invited the people in the usual formula to the games which '‘no one had ever seen or would ever see again' (quos nec spectasset quisquam nec spectaturus esset)" (Suetonius, Claud. 21.1; cf. Herodian 3.8.10).

But whatever the historical origins and cultural background of this ritual display of R. Ishmael’s death mask, The Story of the Ten Martyrs clearly presents this macabre pageant as a Roman celebration of the Jews' bad fortune, and not as a struggle within the imperial family. Paradoxically, the martyrology uses the "mask ritual" in order to make the case that the Romans' hubristic display of R. Ishmael's face is bound to backfire. Within this narrative context, the Romans actually mistake the meaning of their own actions: rather than signifying their power, the ritual in fact enacts the long-held wish that Jacob avenge the crimes of Esau, the legendary ancestor of Edom , which is systematically identified with Rome throughout late antique and medieval Jewish literature.

The description of the "mask-ritual" constitutes a prime example of what David Biale has insightfully termed "counter-history." This polemical strategy, which is characteristic of much Jewish literature in the Byzantine period, resists the dominant narrative of Christian triumph by appropriating elements of this discourse for its own ends. Already in the late fourth century, Christian travel to the "Holy Land" and the literature that grew up around Christian pilgrimage practice had begun to play an integral role in the reconfiguration of Palestine as a privileged site for the articulation of Christian imperial ideology (Elsner). Over the next two centuries (400–600 CE), the Roman-Christian state, assisted by a host of Christian writers, travelers, and ecclesiastical authorities, gradually consolidated both its rhetorical and its physical hold over the geography of Palestine (although it should be stressed that, for the most part, there are few signs of overt persecution of the Jewish population before the political crises of the early seventh century). In my reading, the striking account of the "mask ritual" in The Story of the Ten Martyrs reverses this imperial dynamic in both spatial and theological terms. The Jewish "discovery" of R. Ishmael’s face in the treasury at Rome parodies the emerging Christian cult of relics. And Roman spectacle performed in the heart of the metropolis is unwittingly appropriated for the articulation of a radically different history of salvation within which a resistant Jewish identity could be fashioned.




Editions and translations:

J. D. Eisenstein, ed., "Midrash Ele Ezkera," in Ozar Midrashim, 2 vols. (New York: J. D. Eisenstein, 1915–1918), 2:440–43.

Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Mahazor la-yamim ha-nora'im: lefi minhagei benei Ashkenaz , 2 vols. (Jerusalem: Koren, 1970), 2:568–73.

Adolf Jellinek, ed., Midrasch Ele Eskerá: Nach einer Handschrift der Hamburger Stadt-Bibliothek (Cod. hebr. CXXXVI) (Leipzig: Fridrikh Nies, 1853).

_____. "Midrash Ele Ezkera," in Beit ha-Midrash, 6 vols. (Leipzig: Fridrikh Nies, 1853–1877; repr., Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1967), 2:64–72.

Gottfried Reeg, ed., Die Geschichte von den Zehn Märtyrern, TSAJ 10 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1985). [Definitive edition of all extant manuscripts organized into ten recensions presented synoptically.]

David Stern, trans., "Midrash Eleh Ezkerah; or, The Legend of the Ten Martyrs," in Rabbinic Fantasies, ed. D. Stern and M. J. Mirsky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 143–65. [Follows the text of Jellinek.]

Secondary literature:

David Biale, "Counter-History and Jewish Polemics against Christianity: The Sefer Toldot Yeshu and the Sefer Zerubavel," Jewish Social Studies n.s. 6 (1999): 130–45.

Ra'anan S. Boustan, From Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism, TSAJ 112 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), chapter 3. Portions reprinted here with permission.

Gerson D. Cohen, "Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought," in Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 19–48.

Jas Elsner, "The Itinerarium Burdigalense: Politics and Salvation in the Geography of Constantine’s Empire," The Journal of Roman Studies 90 (2000): 181–95.

Andrew S. Jacobs, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

Samuel Krauss, Persia and Rome in the Talmud and Midrash (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1947), 283–84.

Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1942), 145 n. 7.

Samuel Rapaport, Erekh Millin (Warsaw, 1852; repr., Jerusalem: Makor, 1970), 57–63 (s.v. איד ).

Hagit Sivan, "From Byzantine to Persian Jerusalem: Jewish Perspectives and Jewish–Christian Polemics," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 41 (2000): 277–306.

Günter Stemberger, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land: Palestine in the Fourth Century, trans. R. Tuschling ( Edinburgh : T & T Clark, 2000).

Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, "Religious Contacts in Byzantine Palestine," Numen 36 (1989): 16–42.

Lieve M. Teugels, "The Background of the Anti-Christian Polemics in Aggadat Bereshit," Journal for the Study of Judaism 30 (1999): 178–208.

Israel Jacob Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb": Perceptions of Jews and Christians (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2000).
Text and commentary prepared by Ra'anan S. Boustan.