Rabbi Meir Lamberski has made a career of synthesizing epic events in history into easy to follow, chronologically written stories. His series of seforim in Hebrew, on Chanukah, Purim, the Churban, and Matan Torah are immensely popular. The stories of the Churban and Purim, On Your Walls O Jerusalem, and Al Hanissim, respectively, have been adapted into English. In time for Chanukah comes the newest adaptation into English, Through Your Hands – The Complete Story of Chanukah. The book can be purchased in better Judaica stores everywhere, or online.
The following is an excerpt from the book:
Elazar the Kohein
The absolute wickedness and cruelty knew no bounds, and Philipus didn’t give himself a moment’s rest from trying to harm those who were loyal to the Torah in Yerushalayim.
One example is the story of Elazar the kohein. Elazar was about ninety years old. A tremendous talmid chochom of sterling character, he was one of the respected members of the community. He was a judge in the Sanhedrin and a rosh yeshiva.
Philipus summoned him one day. He began by flattering Elazar. “Elazar,” he said, “I know you are a wise and understanding man. I’ve always liked you, from the first time we met when you came to translate the Torah in the days of Talmi. Still, I have no choice but to ask you, as well as all the inhabitants of Yerushalayim, to fulfill the king’s command. You must bow down to the idol and eat of the meat of its sacrifices.”
Elazar never considered listening to him for a second. “Never! Your command contradicts the command of the One who created the world! It is an abomination to me! Why would I ignore the words of the King who is eternal, and instead listen to the king whose days are like a fleeting shadow?”
When Philipus heard Elazar’s response, he realized that Elazar would never bend. He tried a different tactic. “You know what I’ll do? I’ll bring in totally kosher meat, that you’ll be able to eat without a problem. But when my officers see you eating it, they’ll assume that it’s non-kosher meat and I’ll have done my duty to the king.”
Elazar responded, “I cannot do as you have offered. You see, I am one of the leaders of the community. People will take my actions as a lesson. If they see me eat meat that they think is non-kosher, even though it indeed is okay to eat, they will assume that they should act similarly. If I, an old man, was willing to eat non-kosher meat to save my last days, the young people, who have their whole life ahead of them, will feel that they may eat non-kosher meat also. It will be a terrible desecration of Hashem’s name.
“No, I will not eat of the meat. I am willing to die, even a painful death. Instead of a chilul Hashem, my end will sanctify the name of God. If not, I may save myself from you, but how will I save myself from God’s judgment?
Philipus was livid and decided to punish him harshly. He inflicted horrible suffering on him and made him impure with every kind of impurity. Elazar, though, went to his death peacefully, his heart full of love for his Creator.
Before he died, he offered up a prayer. “Master of the Universe, You let me live until old age, and You could have saved me now also. But I didn’t want You to, because of my love for You! These wicked men are beating me so harshly that I cannot hold up against the pain. But their beatings mean nothing to me, because I love You so much!
“I bear the suffering silently, joyously and bravely. I have one request, though. Have mercy on Your people! Save them immediately from their enemies. Leave Your anger and retract the evil that is upon Your nation!”
When Elazar finished his prayer, his pure soul left him, sanctifying Hashem’s name and serving an example to the rest of the people.
Yakum Ish Tzeruros
Yosi ben Yoezer, the respected and admired nasi, was killed al kiddush Hashem during this time period. He was crucified in the town square, hung on a tall gallows before a massive mob of bloodthirsty people.
An account of what happened is brought in Chazal. The day the Greeks chose for his execution was a Yom Kippur that fell on Shabbos. On that holiest of days, thousands of Rabbi Yosi ben Yoezer’s students, along with tens of thousands of Jews who were loyal to Hashem, gathered around the jail where he was incarcerated, sobbing uncontrollably. The situation was horrible – their great rav and leader was about to be killed.
The dreaded hour came. The gates of the jailhouse were opened, and a solemn procession made its way out.
First the executor, dressed in red clothing and carrying the hanging pole on his back, came out. He was followed by Yosi ben Yoezer, whose hands and feet were bound in shackles, but with the light of the Shechina emanating from his face. He was forced to walk right behind the executioner, so he would see the gallows before him.
He was followed by solemn soldiers, who were followed by the masses of Torah-true Jews, their eyes lowered with hot tears streaming down their faces.
They all made their way to the square where the execution was to take place.
While they were on their way, Rabbi Yosi ben Yoezer’s students discerned a dignified looking man riding on a horse with a flag that showed his high status in the Greek government.
When he came closer, they saw it was Rabbi Yosi ben Yoezer’s nephew, Yakum Ish Tzeruros. “Certainly he is coming to make our rav’s sentence lighter,” they said to themselves, full of hope. “He must have used his connections to help his great uncle.”
They were wrong. When Yakum, remaining on his horse on that very holy day, came close to his uncle, he turned to him, haughty and arrogant. “Look, my uncle,” he said, “at the horse my masters, the Greeks, have given to me. Look, on the other hand, at the horse your Master has given you – gallows for you to die on!
“Look at the wonderful life I lead, the villa I live in, the pleasures of my daily existence, the delights… And look at you and your bitter end. You – who served God so faithfully your whole life! Tell me, what exactly have you gained from all your holy worship to this God whom you are willing to give up your life for?”
Rabbi Yosi didn’t answer at length. He was certainly deep in thought that last hour of his life, analyzing his life and preparing to enter the next world. He did give his nephew a short answer, though. “If the Creator of the world gives so much pleasure to someone who goes against His will, you can only imagine what pleasure awaits me in Gan Eden!”
Yakum wasn’t convinced, and wouldn’t even leave his uncle alone. “What good are you talking about?” he asked scornfully. “You certainly have truly served God. The reward that awaits you is crucifixion. It doesn’t seem like such a great deal to me.”
Rabbi Yosi understood that his mocking nephew couldn’t grasp the type of pleasure in Gan Eden that he was referring to, so he made the point in the opposite way. “If I am meeting such a bitter end, I must have sinned in some very, very small way that I don’t know about. You can surely figure out, therefore, what is going to be with those who rebel against Hashem and mock His mitzvos!”
The realization suddenly hit Yakum that his uncle was speaking the truth. He became terribly afraid of Hashem’s wrath. Shaking in fear, he made a decision.
He immediately went on his way, his lips never ceasing to repeat his uncle’s words. “If this is what happens to those who anger Him, how much more so to those who do His will. If this is what happens to those who do His will, how much more so to those who anger Him.”
He arrived home and began to prepare what he needed to atone for himself. He set up a pole to hang himself on. Underneath, he started a fire burning, and nearby he built a shaky hedge of stones. In the middle of all this, he stuck a sword in the ground, with the blade sticking up.
Having finished his preparations, he climbed up to the pole and declared, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” He hanged himself with the rope, all the while repeating his uncle’s lesson.
The weight of his body snapped the rope and he fell on the sword below him. The flames then began to burn him, igniting the stones as well and making them fall on him. Thus, Yakum inflicted all four deaths that beis din may decree on a person in his quest to atone for his many sins.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosi ben Yoezer was still on his way to his death. He dozed off for a moment, and, surprisingly, his students saw him smile in satisfaction. When he awoke, they asked him what had brought him to smile at such a time. He replied, “My nephew, Yakum Ish Tzeruros, beat me by a few minutes to Gan Eden.”
The students were taken aback, and his words made their way from person to person in the crowd. It was only later when they found his body that they understood that he had done complete teshuva and atoned for all his sins through his death.