The Talmud recounts that the wicked Roman government once issued an edict against the Jewish people prohibiting the study of Torah (B. Berachot 61b). Rabbi Akiva disobeyed this injunction and publicly convened assemblies where he taught Torah.
When Rabbi Akiva's contemporary, Papus the son of Yehuda, discovered this deliberate disregard for the Roman decree, he wondered: "Akiva, are you not afraid of the regime?" With a colorful parable, Rabbi Akiva explained that Torah study was the lifeblood of Jewish existence; that without it we are like fish on dry land, with no chance to survive.
The Talmud goes on to relate that it was not long before Rabbi Akiva was arrested and thrown into prison for the dissemination of Torah. As he sat in jail, another person was thrown in. Rabbi Akiva exclaimed: "Papus, what has brought you here!?" Rabbi Akiva was well aware that Papus had not dared flout the Roman edict against Torah study and was thus surprised to find that his friend had been arrested too.
Without answering the question, Papus bemoaned his fate: "Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, for you were apprehended on account of the words of Torah. Woe is Papus, who was arrested for meaningless matters."
What was Papus's crime? What "meaningless matters" is he referring to? The Talmud does not tell us of Papus's deeds, but elsewhere in the Talmud the tale of two brothers, Papus and Lulianus, is told. If this is the same Papus - an assumption mentioned in some sources, though supported only by scant evidence - then we can know of his deeds.
The Talmud reports that Papus and Lulianus were executed by the Roman Turyanus (B. Ta'anit 18b). The Talmud here, too, does not tell us the nature of their crime. Rashi (11th century, France), however, fills the gap: The daughter of a Roman emperor was found dead and the Romans accused the Jews of killing her and threatened the entire Jewish people with retribution. At that point Papus and Lulianus - who were entirely innocent - stepped forward to take sole responsibility for a crime they never committed. Their goal in this courageous act was clear: To save the Jewish people from a Roman onslaught.
If the assumption about the identity of Papus is correct, then indeed he was a person of stature; as commentators point out, he and his brother were completely righteous (Rashi). Elsewhere in rabbinic literature Rabbi Akiva refers to the two brothers - Papus the son of Yehuda and Lulianus the Alexandrian - as "the pride of Israel" (Sifra, Behukotai 5:2). We can therefore understand how Papus could be contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, going so far as to address him as a peer, without his rabbinic title. Indeed, Papus was a Torah scholar and some of the discussions he conducted with Rabbi Akiva have been preserved (see for instance Mechilta, Beshalah, Vayehi 6).
One question remains: Why did Papus say that he was incarcerated for "meaningless matters"? Can there be anything greater than saving the entire Jewish nation from the collective punishment the Romans sought to wreak? The answer to this question may lie in the final exchange between the brothers and the Roman Turyanus. As Papus and Lulianus stood in Ludkia - the city of Lod - Turyanus turned to them and mocked: "If you are from the nation of Hananya, Mishael and Azarya, let your God come and save you from my hand, as He saved them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar!" Turyanus was referring to when Nebuchadnezzar threw Hananya, Mishael and Azarya into a fiery furnace and they emerged unharmed (see Daniel 3:19-27).
Papus and Lulianus responded: "Hananya, Mishael and Azarya were perfectly righteous people and they were worthy that a miracle should be wrought for their sake. Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar was a fair king who deserved that miracles be wrought through him." While Nebuchadnezzar was certainly a wicked ruler, after Hananya, Mishael and Azarya emerged from the furnace, he praised the Almighty and in this particular instance his response was worthy (see Daniel 3:28-30).
Papus and Lulianus continued, perhaps turning to those assembled: "But that evil one," referring to their captor Turyanus, "is a mere commoner who is undeserving that a miracle should be wrought through him. And as for us, we are liable for death for sinning against the Almighty and if you do not kill us the Omnipresent has many executioners, and the Omnipresent has many bears and lions in this world who could attack us and kill us."
In a final show of defiance, the brothers concluded: "The only reason that the Holy One, blessed be He, placed us in your hand, is in order to eventually avenge our blood from your hand!" These bold last words, full of confidence and pride, exhibiting trust in the Almighty and in ultimate justice, must have incensed Turyanus. Despite the promise of divine retribution for this unjustified act, Turyanus killed the brothers without hesitation.
The Talmud recounts that before anyone could move - perhaps as they stood staring in stunned silence at the slain bodies of the Papus and Lulianus, with blood still dripping from the sword of Turyanus - a pair of officers arrived from Rome with an imperial edict against Turyanus. The messengers promptly clubbed Turyanus to death; an immediate fulfillment of the brother's final, prophetic words.
That day, the 12th of Adar, became known as Turyanus Day and for a time was commemorated as a minor festival on account of the immediate slaying of the wicked tyrant after his brutal and unjust treatment of the falsely accused, and in recognition that the Jews had been saved thanks to the sacrifice of Papus and Lulianus.
Just as Papus and Lulianus modestly claimed to be incomparable to Hananya, Mishael and Azarya, so too Papus had seen his act of self-sacrifice for the nation as a "meaningless matter." It appears that Papus, in addition to being prepared to give his life for the Jewish people, was modest about his contribution.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.