D'var Torah for Yom Kippur
2002This upcoming week marks the anniversary of September 11th and finds us in the midst of preparing for Yom Kippur this Sunday night. As part of the Yom Kippur Musaf service we read of the ten Rabbinic Martyrs who were executed by the Romans in the year 135 CE. This powerful narrative is usually sped through since it happens toward the end of the long Musaf service. Looking at one of the martyr's stories in depth may help us pay attention to this compelling, but often overlooked part of the service. The images of fire and the message he leaves with us have particular resonance in the wake of the images so ubiquitously branded on our television drunk consciousness.
A Martyr of a Different Kind
Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 18a
Narrator: In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and took control of the region. This story takes place during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian who squashed the Bar Kochba rebellion and sought to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city in his honor. During the infamous Hadrianic persecutions Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem, study Torah and observe the commandments. It was during this time that the most prominent Talmudic scholars were publicly executed. Rabbi Chanina Ben Tradyon was one of ten who have been memorialized in High Holiday liturgy.
This is his story:
Narrator: Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma fell ill, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon went to visit him. Rabbi Yossi said to him:
Rabbi Yossi: Hanina, my brother, don't you know that Heaven has ordained this Roman nation to reign? Even though she has laid waste to God's House, burnt His Temple, killed His pious ones and caused His best ones to perish, she continues to stand! Yet, what is this I hear about you? That even though you know it is forbidden, you are gathering large crowds in public to teach them with a Torah scroll in your lap.
Hanina: Let the heavens have mercy.
Rabbi Yossi: I speak to you words that make sense and you say, let the heavens have mercy? I wouldn't be surprised if they burn both you and your Torah at the stake...
Narrator: It wasn't long before Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma died and the Romans eulogized him with great fanfare. When they returned from the funeral they found Rabbi Hanina teaching Torah to the multitudes with a Torah scroll in his lap. They tied him together with his Torah and surrounded him with kindling wood. The executioner took sponges of wool and soaked them in water, and placed them on Hanina's heart so he would not die quickly. The executioner lit the fire and Hanina's daughter cried,
Beruriah, Rabbi Hanina's Daughter: Father, is this what you deserve?
Hanina: This might be difficult if I was being burned alone, but the one who would disgrace the Torah may as well disgrace me."
Narrator: His students asked,
Students: Rebbe what do you see?"
Hanina: The parchments are burning, but the letters are flying free.
They replied: You too, open your mouth and let the flames take you.
Hanina answered: "Let the one who gave me life take it away and let me not harm myself.
The Executioner then said to him: Rabbi, if I raise the flame and remove the woolen sponges from over your heart, will you bring me to [your] olam haba (world to come)?'
Rabbi Hanina replied: Yes.
The Executioner: Swear to me.
Narrator: Rabbi Hanina swore to him. So, he increased the flames and removed the wool from Hanina's heart and Hanina expired quickly. Then, suddenly, the Executioner himself jumped into the flames and died.
A bat-kol (voice from Heaven) exclaimed: Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon and the Executioner have been welcomed in the world to come.
[Upon witnessing this] Rebbe wept and said: There are those who earn their world to come in a single moment, and those for whom it takes many years.
Your Talmud Navigator
1. What is meant by Rabbi Hanina's words, "The parchments are burning but the letters are flying free"?
2. Why does Hanina refuse to hasten his own death?
3. How does the Executioner earn his place in olam haba?
4. Compare the martyrdom of R. Hanina Ben Tradyon to that of the executioner.
5. How do you understand the weeping of Rabbi Yehuda the Chief?
6. Relate this passage to your own notions of martyrdom.
As we reflect back on the year that was and the horrors of September 11, and as we prepare for Yom Kippur this passage resonates very strongly with us. Rabbi Hanina's willful martyrdom does not necessarily parallel the innocent victims of September 11th. But his message, "The parchments are burning but the letters are flying free" embodies one of the central messages heard in the wake of September 11: While there is physical destruction, the spirit lives on. In our Talmudic passage, the Romans are ultimately defeated because that which they wanted to destroy could not be destroyed. "The letters are flying free!" So too with September 11. The terrorists can never crush the American spirit. The legacy of the victims will endure forever.
Prepared by Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Director, Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning and Elliot Kaplowitz, Iyyun Fellow, Hillel's Schusterman International Center.