Awesome may be an overused word in our day, but how else can we describe the task given to Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha, Kohen Gadol? The cruel Roman emperor had decreed that ten Sages of Israel must die. How were they to know if this was a heavenly decree that could be rescinded by doing teshuvah or if the decree was an unalterable expression of Hashem’s Will? The others asked Rabi Yishmael to ascend to Shamayim and find out.
As with Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the first Sage to be martyred, there is some doubt as to which Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha was one of the Ten Martyrs mentioned in both Midrash Eleh Ezkerah and the piyyut by the same name. Was this the Rabi Yishmael who served in the Second Beis HaMikdash as Kohen Gadol, and who was a friend of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel? Or was it the Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha who came from a family of Kohanim Gedolim but who lived at the time of Rabi Akiva – after Churban Bayis Sheni? Although a compelling argument can be made for either claim, we will follow the opinion of those who believe that it was the Rabi Yishmael who served in Bayis Sheni as Kohen Gadol.
The Talmud states that the Kohen Gadol has to be greater than the other Kohanim in strength, physical beauty, wisdom and wealth so that he will be respected by all (Yoma 18a). Rabi Yishmael was known for his exceptionally beautiful physical appearance and, according to Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, he had a face like an angel. Where did such beauty come from?
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