True to the principle current in rabbinical literature—"live through them [the laws], but do not die through them" (Yoma 85b, based on Lev. xviii. 5)—the Rabbis endeavored to restrain the desire for martyrdom on the part of the zealous. During the period of the Hadrianic persecutions such a restraint was obviously necessary. Akiba is related to have courted martyrdom rather than give up the teaching of the Law, in spite of the warning given to him by Papus (Ber. 61b); as did also Hananiah b. Teradion, in spite of the counsel of Jose ben Ḳisma ('Ab. Zarah 18a). R. Ishmael, on the other hand, was of the opinion that one may even worship idolsin order to save one's life, although he admits that martyrdom should be preferred to a public profession of idolatry (Sanh. 74a; 'Ab. Zarah 24b). Probably it was during this period that the following principle was adopted, at a sitting of rabbis in the house of a certain Nitzah in Lydia: "All negative commandments of the Bible, except those with regard to idolatry, adultery, and murder, may be transgressed if there is danger of life" (Sanh. 74a; Yer. Sanh. iii. 6; Yer. Sheb. iv. 1; comp. Pesiḳ. R., ed. Friedmann, p. 55a). At the same meeting the question whether the study of the Law is more important than the practise of the Law was decided in the affirmative, for the reason that study leads to practise (Ḳid. 40b; Cant. R. ii. 31; Sifre, Deut. 41). This question was of practical importance to the rabbis of that time, and the decision meant that one must submit to martyrdom rather than forsake the study and the teaching of the Law (see B. Ḳ. 17a). The later rabbis, while disregarding this last decision, adopted and developed to meet various cases the general principle governing submission to martyrdom for the practise of the Law (comp. Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., iv., note 17, ii. ; Weiss, "Dor," ii. 131).

Conditions of Martyrdom.

If the intention of the persecutor is not so much to benefit himself as to compel the Jew to transgress the laws of Judaism in public ( = παῤῥησία, explained to mean "in the presence of ten Israelites"), the Jew should rather submit to martyrdom than commit even the smallest transgression. In a time of general persecution of Jews one should prefer martyrdom when required to transgress a law even in private (Sanh. 74a, b; Maimonides, "Yad," Yesode ha-Torah, v. 1-3; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 157, 1). In a case in which a Jew is permitted to transgress a law when the alternative is death, he may submit to martyrdom, if he prefer martyrdom to the transgression; some authorities, however, forbid this, regarding it as a forfeiting of life to no avail ("Yad," Yesode ha-Torah, v. 4; comp. Mishneh le-Melek ad loc.; Yer. Sheb. iv. 2; 'Ab. Zarah 27b; Tos. ib. s.v. "Yakol"; Yoreh De'ah, l.c.). If he can redeem himself by giving up all his possessions he should part with all he has rather than transgress a negative law of the Bible (R. Nissim on Alfasi to Suk. iii. 2, s.v. "Dabar"; Isserles to Yoreh De'ah, l.c.; "Pitḥe Teshubah," ad loc.; comp. "Sefer Ḥasidim," ed. Wistinetzki, § 1365). One who transgresses the Law instead of submitting to martyrdom where martyrdom is enjoined, can not be punished in the courts, since the transgression is committed under duress, but he must be regarded as a defiler of God's name; and if he persists in living in the same place and in continuing the transgression when he can escape, he forfeits his portion in the future world and will be assigned to the lowest chambers of Gehenna ("Yad," l.c.). At no time is it permitted to a Jew to commit suicide or to kill his children in anticipation of religious persecution; he must wait until the persecutor comes and submit to the death inflicted upon him ("Be'er ha-Golah" to Yoreh De'ah, 157, 1, end, quoting the "Bedeḳ ha-Bayit").

Other Cases.

The same laws that apply to cases of religious persecution apply also to other cases which involve danger to life. At the order of a physician a sick man is permitted to break all the laws of the Bible except the three mentioned above—idolatry, adultery, and murder—if his life depends on the breaking of these laws (Pes. 25a; "Yad," l.c. v. 6-8). But, anxious for the chastity of Jewish women, the rabbis decided that even when adultery is not involved, as when the woman is unmarried, one should be left to die from the intensity of his passion rather than that the purity of a Jewish woman should be defiled. In an instance related in the Talmud conversation between the sick man and the object of his desire was forbidden (Sanh. 75b; "Yad," l.c. v. 9). Martyrdom is enjoined only when the transgression of the Law would involve a deliberate act. Thus, a woman is not obliged to undergo martyrdom if attacked with an immoral intent (comp. Sanh. 74b; Tos. ib. s. v. "Weha"; R. Nissim on Alfasi to Pes. ii. 1, s. v. "Ḥuẓ"; Isserles to Yoreh De'ah, l.c.).

If a number of Jews are threatened with death if they do not deliver one among them to be slain, they all should submit to the alternative of martyrdom. There is a difference of opinion, however, in a case where the one demanded is indicated by name. Some authorities hold the view that in such a case they may surrender the one thus specified in order to save themselves from death; while others are of the opinion that they may surrender him only when he is guilty of some act that involves the death-penalty. The same is true if one among a number of women is demanded for immoral purposes (Ter. viii. 12; Yer. Ter. viii. 4, end; Tosef. ib. vii. 23; comp. Rashi to Sanh. 72b, s.v. "Yaẓa"; "Yad," l.c. v. 5; and "Kesef Mishneh," ad loc.; Yoreh De'ah, l.c.; "Sefer Ḥasidim," §§ 253, 254).

In times of persecution a Jew may not say that he is a Gentile in order to save himself from death, although he may mislead his persecutors into an understanding that he is not a Jew (ROSh to 'Ab. Zarah ii. 4; Yoreh De'ah, 157, 2). In such a case it is permitted to the Jew to put on garments with "sha'atnez" (wool and flax) in them, or to shave his beard, and for a woman to attire herself in male garments, or in those worn by nuns, in order to deceive the persecutors ("Ḥatam Sofer" to Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 159; "Sefer Ḥasidim," §§ 202-207, 259-262). Although it is forbidden to a Jew to be alone with a non-Jew ('Ab. Zarah 22a), in case of persecution a Jew may seek protection at the house of a non-Jew (ROSh, Responsa, xix. 17; Yoreh De'ah, l.c. 3; comp. "Sefer Ḥasidim," § 251).

  • Hamburger, R. B. T. ii., s.v. Rabbinismus; Supplement, i., s.v. Märtyrer.
S. S. J. H. G.
Images of pages