One particularly moving part of the Yom Kippur Mussaf service is the story of the Ten Martyrs. Ten great tzaddikim were tragically killed by the Roman government, and their deaths serve as atonement for Klal Yisrael. It would seem from a plain reading of Eileh Ezkerah that all ten tzaddikim lived at the same time. However, Rav Yaakov Emden suggests that the author of Eileh Ezkara used poetic license to make it appear that way. He opines that they lived at different times. One of his proofs is from a Gemara in Menachos (18a) and Yevamos (84a).
The Gemara in Yevamos records: “Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi says: When I went to learn Torah from Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua, his students joined together against me like the roosters of Beit Bukya (highly aggressive animals that do not allow other creatures to remain among them), and they did not let me learn there. Therefore, I managed to learn only one thing in our Mishnah.”
Yet, the Gemara in Menachos records that Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi did successfully learn much Torah from Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua. Tosfos raises this apparent contradiction. Tosfos suggests that the passage in the Gemara in Menachos occurred later in Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi’s life. After Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi was already an accomplished scholar, the students of Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua allowed him to join them.
Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi was counted among the last of the generation of Tannaim. When he was already an accomplished scholar, he studied under Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua. Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua himself became a talmid of Rebbe Akiva, after 24,000 of his students perished. So if Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua was still living to teach Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi, Rav Yaakov Emden concludes, it would seem that he did not die at the same time as Rebbe Akiva and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel who surely died earlier. Indeed, Rabbeinu Bachye also concludes likewise.
When Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi was finally accepted among the students of Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua, he witnessed the following incident: Yosef the Babylonian was sitting before Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua when Yosef the Babylonian said to him, “My teacher, with regard to one who slaughters an offering with the intention to leave some of its blood for the next day, what is the halachah? Does that intention invalidate the offering?”
Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua said to him, “I hold that the offering is fit, but Rabbi Eliezer deems it unfit.” Yosef the Babylonian’s face lit up with joy. Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua’s eyes streamed with tears, and he said. “Happy are you, Torah scholars, for whom matters of Torah are exceedingly dear.”
Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua recited this verse about Yosef the Babylonian: “Mah ahavti Torasecha … O, how I love Your Torah; it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalms 119:97)
The Ben Yehoyada wonders why Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua didn’t quote a seemingly more appropriate verse from Tehillim: “I rejoice on your words [of Torah] like someone who finds a large treasure.” (119:162) This pasuk discusses rejoicing over Torah, while the pasuk Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua quoted just discusses the love of Torah. The Ben Yehoyada explains that it is clear that Dovid HaMelech rejoiced over Torah just as someone would rejoice over treasure. This can be gleaned from the verse “I rejoice on your words [of Torah] like someone who finds a large treasure.” However, the word “Mah” in “Mah ahavti” signifies something small. Moshe and Aharon said, “And we are “mah,” meaning insignificant. Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua marveled at his student that even learning one new piece of Torah caused his face to radiate with joy. This was the lesson Dovid HaMelech was teaching us. We should love each part of Torah, no matter how small.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.