Every year, on Yom Kippur and 9 Av, we recall the death of the Asara Harugei Malchus – the Ten Martyrs
One of the reasons revealed about their death is in the prayer itself, quoting the Midrash that the Ten Martyrs died as an atonement for Yakov’s sons abducting Yosef. It’s a powerful notion; but the there were Ten Martyrs and only nine brothers who sold Yosef. Reuven had returned home, and Binyamin hadn’t left with them, and Yosef was not party to his own sale. What is the discrepancy; if the Martyrs were to absolve the brothers of their sin, there ought to only have been 9
R’ Shimshon Ostropolier answers that after the brothers sold Yosef they agreed a Cheirum – an excommunication order on anyone who revealed the truth to their father.
But, as mentioned above, there were only nine brothers present and for the order to come into effect there would need to be ten present – a minyan. The Midrash says that Hashem joined to be the tenth and to formalise the order. This is easily proven by the fact that Yosef’s outcome was withheld from Yakov, in spite of his prophecy.
Nine Martyrs gave up their lives as an atonement for the nine brothers. But one of the Martyrs gave up his life for the tenth member of the minyan to. R’ Shimshon tells us that it was R’ Akiva, but why was R’ Akiva in particular selected for this honour?
The Gemara in Bava Kama 41b discusses how there were two Tanaaim who expounded on all instances of the word ”את” appearing in the Torah. They hypothesised that את implies a secondary law. Their observation worked until they reached “את ה’ תראה” – ‘Hashem your G-d you shall fear’. They weren’t sure what to derive from this “את”. What is supplementary or secondary to God? They were unable to complete their project from lack of being able to expound upon this particular “את”.
Generations later Rabbi Akiva figured out the explanation. He said the “את” was including Talmidei Chachamim, that one must fear the Talmidei Chachamim as he fears G-d.
Rabbi Akiva demonstrably proved the importance of honouring Sages. Not that they are remotely equal or even similar, but to say that a Talmid Chacham must be revered just as we revere Hashem. By extending the honour of the Torah, he merited being the Tenth Martyr.