The students of Rabi Elazar ben Shamua HaKohen once asked him, “What must a person do to be spared the pangs of Mashiach?” He replied, “Let him engage in Torah study and acts of kindness” (Sanhedrin 98b).
Rabi Elazar is one of the Ten Martyrs that we recall during Mussaf of Yom Kippur, when we read the moving piyyut Eleh Ezkerah. He lived after the Beit HaMikdash had been destroyed, at a time whenYerushalayim was desolate and when the Hadrianic decrees against learning and teaching Torah were in full force. Yet rather than be crushed by the harsh times in which he lived, his entire life was dedicated to Torah and he became a pivotal figure in the transmittal of the Oral Torah to the next generation.
Rabi Elazar was one of the five talmidim whom Rabi Akiva taught after the death of his 24,000 students, along with Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah ben Illai, Rabi Yossi ben Halafta, and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Although these five outstanding scholars were being trained to become the future leaders of klal Yisrael, the times were so dangerous that they couldn’t receive semicha. When Rabi Yehudah ben Bava finally ordained them, he was immediately arrested by the Romans and killed for his “crime.”
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