For These We Cry: Rabi Chanina ben Chachinai, Rabi Yesheivav the Scribe, Rabi Yehudah ben Damah, Rabi Yehudah ben Bava (The Ten Martyrs, Part VIII)Read Now
Mussaf on Yom Kippur. The strength is starting to wane. A fight is going on inside the soul, to linger over every word in the machzor or save every last bit of energy for the morning’s final Vidui. And we’ve wept for Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabi Yishmael Kohen Gadol, Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon, Rabi Akiva ben Yosef, Rabi Chutzpis the Interpreter and Rabi Elazar ben Shamua. Is it such a terrible thing if we hurry just a little bit over the last four of the Ten Martyrs mentioned in the piyyut Eleh Ezkerah?
We know so little about them—Rabi Chanina ben Chachinai, Rabi Yesheivav the Scribe, Rabi Yehudah ben Damah and Rabi Yehudah ben Bava—other than that they met their deaths at the hands of the Romans because they dared to teach Torah at a time when our enemies wanted to eradicate the study of Torah from the face of the earth.
But perhaps that was the point of the medieval paytan Yehudah “Chazak,” who penned the words of the liturgical poem that we read during Mussaf of Yom Kippur. The piyut Eleh Ezkerah is based upon the Midrash of the same name, as well as an older Midrash, Eichah Rabbah. Yet when Yehudah finishes his poem with a plea to Hashem to be compassionate—to “look down from the heights at the spilled blood of the righteous”—one senses that he didn’t have to look into the faraway past for inspiration. Did he, too, see the spilled blood of the righteous of his generation? Did he witness the deaths of rabbis and teachers who courageously gave up their lives for the sake of Torah, but whose names have not come down to us? Was he thinking of all the martyrs—both the well-known and the unknown—who gave up their lives when he penned the opening words of his piyut:
“These I will recall, and pour out my soul…”
Rabi Chanina ben Chachinai
Rabi Chanina, a talmid of Rabi Akiva, and possibly of Rabi Tarfon, spent twelve years in Rabi Akiva’s yeshiva, without a break. When he finally returned home, the streets of his town were so altered he couldn’t find his house. He ended up by the river, where he heard someone refer to a girl as “the daughter of Chachinai.” He followed her to her family’s house. When his wife saw him, she was so overwhelmed with joy that she fainted.
Read the rest of the article at The Jewish Press.