Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Martyrdom, in Hebrew Kiddush Ha-Shem (‘Sanctification of the Divine Name’), is defined as giving up life rather than being false to the Jewish religion.
There is considerable discussion in the Talmudic literature on when martyrdom is demanded of the Jew and when it is not, much of it purely academic but some of it severely practical.
The Mishnah (Berakhot9:5) interprets the command to love God ‘with all thy soul’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) to mean ‘with all thy life’, that is, love Him even at the cost of your very life. But against this is the verse (Leviticus 18:5): ‘by the pursuit of which man shall live’, understood in the tradition to mean live and not die, implying that martyrdom is not demanded in pursuit of the precepts of the Torah.
Dying for What?
The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that a Jew is required to give his life for some of precepts but not for others. The question is then where to draw the line.
Generally from the Talmudic discussions (e.g. Sanhedrin 74a) the rule emerges that all the other precepts of the Torah can be set aside rather than martyrdom be suffered, but a Jew is required to give up life rather than offend against three basic commandments. These are: idolatry, the forbidden sexual relations recorded in the book of Leviticus, and murder.
Following the further details in the Talmudic discussion, Maimonides (Yesodey Ha-Torah, 5.1-9) rules that a Jew may transgress the precepts of the Torah in order to save his life but that this does not apply to the three offences nor does it apply where the intention of heathens is to compel a Jew to commit an offence in order to demonstrate his disloyalty to the Jewish religion.
Similarly, where there is a government decree against Jewish observance the Jew is obliged to suffer martyrdom rather than transgress a ‘light precept’ even in private. Where martyrdom is not demanded it is forbidden for a Jew to suffer martyrdom, according to Maimonides, and if he does he is guilty of the offence of suicide.
Obviously the above discussions are from the purely legal point of view. It is hard to imagine that in the actual situations in which Jews were called upon to give their lives for their religion they looked up the rules in the Talmud and the Codes.
In Jewish History
History records many examples of Jewish martyrdom in which the martyrs offered up their lives regardless of whether the law required them to do so. The converse is also true, that Jews whom the law required to be martyrs failed to be strong enough in their loyalty to their faith.
Moreover, in the Middle Ages, the period of the Crusades, for example, Jews were killed for professing the Jewish religion regardless of whether they were ready to submit to the sorry fate or escape it by surrendering. The awesome drama was always worked out against the particular situation.
By a consensus among Jews, the six million victims of the Holocaust are given the accolade of martyrdom and are known as kedoshim (‘holy ones’), the name otherwise reserved for martyrs; they were, after all, murdered because they were Jews.
Maimonides, when faced with the threatened destruction of Jewish communities by Muslim rulers, gave the ruling that since Islam is not an idolatrous religion, martyrdom is not required if Jews are faced with the option of conversion to Islam or death.
Other authorities took issue with Maimonides here, arguing that conversion to Islam involves a denial of the Torah of Moses and martyrdom is demanded for this very reason. The decision was naturally left to the individuals themselves.
With regard to Christianity, the advice of the Rabbis was that martyrdom should be avoided by fleeing the places in which it was a threat and the tolerant attitude emerged according to which those who had been forcibly converted should be treated with respect as unwitting offenders and welcomed back into the fold, as happened with the Marranos.
Longing for Martyrdom?
In the Talmudic tale (Berakhot 61b) Rabbi Akiba, as he was being tortured to death for teaching the Torah, declared: ‘All my life I said: when will I have the opportunity of suffering martyrdom and now that it has come should I not rejoice?’
In the mystical diary kept by Joseph Karo, this saint longed to be a martyr for the glory of God. But this longing for martyrdom is very unusual in the literature of Jewish piety. The more realistic attitude was to accept in love martyrdom if the need arose but not positively to long for it to come about.
The prayer of Isaiah Horowitz is germane:
‘O Holy God! If it will be Thy will to bring me to this test, sanctify me and purify me and put into my thoughts and my mouth to sanctify Thy name in public, as did the ten holy martyrs (the Rabbis who are said to have been executed during Hadrian’s persecution of the Jews) and myriads and thousands of Israel’s saints…’
‘Our sages have taught us that whoever offers himself as a martyr for the sake of the sanctification of Thy name feels nothing of the great pain inflicted upon him. However, it is impossible to rely on these words of the sages. But come what may, be Thou with me that the torment should not prevent me having my thoughts on Thee and let me rejoice in my heart at the very moment of torture.’
Dirges for the martyrs were introduced into the liturgy of the synagogue for recital on certain Sabbaths of the year and on Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.