Ten Mishnaic sages were cruelly tortured and murdered by the Romans around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. We read of their martyrdom during the prayers of Yom Kippur, as recorded in the Midrash Eleh Ezkarah; it is praiseworthy to weep over them at that time.

...G‑d put an idea of learning Torah into the heart of Caesar...

"After the destruction of the Holy Temple, there were some corrupt people who said, "What have we really lost with its destruction? We still have wise scholars to guide the world with God’s Torah and His mitzvahs". Immediately, G‑d put an idea of learning Torah into the heart of Caesar in Rome…from the Sages and wise people. They began teaching him from Genesis and he learned through until Parashat Mishpatim.

When he reached the verse: "Someone who kidnaps a man and sells him…" he immediately instructed that his palace should be filled with shoes. He summoned ten Sages of Israel…and said to them, "What is the law for someone who kidnaps his Jewish brother and cruelly sells him?" The Sages answered "He should be put to death". Caesar then said to them, "In that case you are all deserving of death…for the sale of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers...you bear the guilt of your ancestors".

They asked him to give them three days... The Sages left the palace and turned to Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest. They asked him…to ascend to Heaven and find out whether this was a decree from G‑d. …[the angel] Gabriel said, Yishmael, my son, by your life this is what I heard from behind the Heavenly curtain – that ten Sages of Israel will be given to this wicked kingdom to be killed…for the sale of Joseph by his brothers", replied Gavriel, "the Attribute of Justice comes every day before God’s throne and accuses. It says, ‘Did You write even a single superfluous letter in Your Torah? Did not the brothers sell Joseph? Yet You have not yet punished them or their descendants for this!’

What is the connection between their martyrdom and Yom Kippur? And why were they killed at all?

The Sale of Joseph

...Joseph was deserving of being sold!

The story of the sale of Joseph by his own brothers is one of the most enigmatic in the Torah. It becomes even harder to understand together with the Torah’s claim that "Jacob’s bed was complete", meaning that all 12 of his sons were perfectly righteous. [Vayikra Raba 36:5] This means that they were considered so even after this seemingly contemptible act of selling their own flesh and blood into slavery — which seems to indicate that Joseph was deserving of being sold!

Our Sages teach that before the sale, when the brothers saw Joseph approaching, they put him on trial for slander and perjury. They discussed all the details and particulars of the case, including Joseph’s constant tattle-telling to their father, Joseph’s claims that the brothers had transgressed by eating from an animal while still alive - punishable by death for any Noachide. [In truth, they had partaken from an embryo of a ritually slaughtered cow – fully permissible even for a Jew.]

The brothers saw this constant tattle-telling as a treacherous attempt to fully discredit them in Jacob’s eyes, perhaps even causing them to lose their share in this world, the next world, or both.1 They foresaw him fully supplanting them as Jacob’s offspring, in a similar fashion to the "discarding of the chaff" of Esau and Ishmael.

They discussed as well his grandiose claims to kingship, as expressed through his dreams – as we well know, dreams generally express what lies hidden in the subconscious. This desire of his was absolutely contrary to their tradition that Judah was destined to rule.

According to Seforno, they suspected that Joseph came upon them in Dotan entirely of his own volition; the fact that Jacob had sent him was entirely unknown to them. Judging by their past interactions, this could only have meant Joseph trying to dredge up more fodder for his claims – either through additional slander, which conceivably would cause Jacob to curse them, or possibly by causing them to sin in truth –thereby causing them to be liable of the death penalty as a result.

In either case, Torah law mandates: "if one rises up to kill you, you must rise up and kill him first" (Sanhedrin 72a) and thus they ruled, judging him guilty and sentencing him to death. Truly – a mere mortal can only judge by what he sees and hears and according to the proof in front of them, Joseph indeed deserved to be so judged. Nonetheless, Yehuda had mercy and intervened enough to have him sold instead of killed – for a slave’s life is virtually worthless.

...they felt remorse...only in the fact that they hadn’t felt mercy for him at the time...

In truth, the only real objection the Sages expressed against the brothers was that they saw nothing wrong in sitting down to eat a full meal immediately afterwards, unlike the behavior expected from a court deciding on capital matters. They were so righteous that when they examined the actions of all their lives years later, when Joseph began to torment them and they wondered what they had done to deserve such treatment, this was the only act they thought of that wasn’t entirely innocent and true – they felt remorse not for their judgment of him nor for the actual sale but only in the fact that they hadn’t felt mercy for him at the time, that they hadn’t regretted the drastic step they felt they had to take to protect themselves from the threat he posed to them. (Seforno 37:18)

Not only that, but in hindsight even Joseph himself saw that it was the sale that enabled him to rule and save the entire region from famine, as well.

One of the basic beliefs in Judaism is that absolutely all that happens in this world is orchestrated by our Creator for our own good. Indeed, Joseph reached his unusual level of righteousness - so much that he is called "The Righteous", a title not bestowed upon any of our other ancestors, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob & Moses – only after successfully resisting Potifar’s wife’s advances in Egypt. He also merited to actualize his potential as the provider of sustenance – a characteristic of his embodiment of the sefira of yesod. [The sefira of yesod also channels the previous sefirot to become a foundation for malchut; we see that indeed Joseph become the Grand Vizier, whereas Pharaoh remained king.]

Joseph as Grand Vizier

Years later, the brothers all met up again in a very different scenario – Joseph a powerful vizier and his brothers coming pitifully for food to stave off starvation. He then proceeds to single them out for very special treatment.

According to Seforno, Joseph’s intent was to prove [or bring about] the brothers’ full repentance by creating a duplicate situation to that preceding his sale, this time concerning Binyamin – his only full brother – and indeed, they passed this test with flying colors, to the extent of offering themselves in his place. Ramban posits that Joseph’s intent was to actualize his dreams, which necessitated all of his brothers (including Benjamin) together with Jacob to come down to Egypt and bow down to him. Others claim that his intent was to inflict punishment to cleanse them from divine retribution.

After Jacob’s death and burial, the brothers sent messengers to Joseph saying that he had commanded his sons before his death begging that Joseph forgive his brothers their sin. [Gen. 50:16-17] This bequest demands further explanation. It is clear that Jacob did nothing of the kind. Indeed, he never knew of the sale, even until his own death, for no one dared to tell him the secret, not even his own father Isaac, who did know of it throughout.

Furthermore, if the brothers truly repented their actions, why did they wait until now to beg Joseph’s forgiveness? Thus we see that they were compelled by fear, not remorse. True repentance must include a verbal acknowledgment towards the one wronged, as well as compensation of some kind [usually monetary]. But we see no explicit statement by them of full regret , nor evidence of compensation to Joseph for their actions – however justified they had seemed at the time.

Joseph saw Divine Providence, saying: "G‑d designed it...to keep a great populace alive."

Clearly Joseph saw Divine Providence from the beginning to the end, saying: "Indeed, you intended evil against me , [but] G‑d designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive." [Gen. 50:20] It was the Divine Hand that brought him to Egypt; nonetheless, the brothers’ intent truly was evil and necessitated remuneration .

Rectification from on High

"…sins between man and his fellow; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until: 1) he gives his colleague what he owes him and 2) appeases him." (Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah – Chapter 2, Halacha 9)

The Meshech Chochma states that in every generation the sin of selling Joseph still exists. He explains that of all suffering in this world is caused by two sins alone: the Golden Calf and the brothers selling Joseph; the entire service in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur was primarily to effect atonement for these two sins. Whenever the Jews sin in the context of sins between man and God, they are also punished for the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. For all sins in the context of sins between man and his fellow-man, they are also punished for the sin of the sale of Joseph.

When the Temple was destroyed [due to causeless hatred, as the Jews at that time had reached the greatest level of sins between man and his fellow], it became necessary for G‑d to rectify his sale through martyrdom by the Romans of ten righteous counterparts, thus finally erasing this enduring blot on the entire Jewish people.