Most people find it fascinating to discover that the great tzadikim,Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah, learned from the frogs in this week’s parsha that there is a mitzvah to die al kiddush Hashem. Stay tuned to find out…
Question: Amphibious actions!
Where do we find that the deeds of amphibians affect a halachic decision?
The book of Daniel tells us the story of the great tzadikim, Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to prostrate themselves before the statue that Nevuchadnetzar had erected (see Daniel 3:1-30). The Gemara (Pesachim 53b) explains that their decision was based on the actions of the frogs in Mitzrayim. How and what Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah derived from the frogs will be discussed shortly, but we first need to understand some halachic background on this topic.
In general, the observance of mitzvos is superseded when life is threatened. We are well familiar with the law that, in the case of a medical, fire or other emergency, Shabbos observance is suspended to the extent necessary to protect life. The Gemara (Yoma 85a-b) quotes several halachic sources that demonstrate this concept. The conclusion is that we derive the rule that Shabbos observance is suspended to protect life from the pasuk, Vechai bahem (Vayikra 18:5),that the purpose of the mitzvos is to cherish life.
On the other hand, there is a mitzvah of the Torah, Venikdashti besoch B’nei Yisroel, in which Hashem commanded us to sanctify His presence within the Jewish people. This law teaches that, when an evil malefactor wants Jews to desecrate the Torah, we are sometimes required to sacrifice our lives. When ten Jews are aware that, under these circumstances, a Jew is being coerced to break any commandment, Kiddush Hashem requires that he surrender his life (Sanhedrin 74b). In this situation, someone who did not surrender his life violated not only the positive mitzvah (mitzvas aseh) of Venikdashti besoch B’nei Yisroel, but he also violated a negative command (mitzvas lo sa’aseh) of Velo sechalelu es shem kodshi.
However, when an evil malefactor is coercing a Jew to violate the Torah, but ten Jews are unaware that this is happening, the Jew is not obligated to give up his life, and, according to many authorities, he is not permitted to. There are other exceptions when one is not required or permitted to give up one’s life, which we will learn about shortly.
The ruling requiring surrendering one’s life is only when the goal of the oppressor is exclusively to get Jews to violate the mitzvos. However, if his goal is to get some benefit or pleasure for himself, there is no obligation to surrender one’s life. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 74b) presents the following theoretical example to define the difference.
Rava said, “An idol worshipper who tells a Jew, ‘Cut that hay on Shabbos and feed it to the animals, or I will kill you,’ the Jew should cut the hay and not allow himself to be killed. On the other hand, if the idol worshipper demands of him, ‘Cut that hay on Shabbos and throw it into the fire,’ the Jew should allow himself to be killed and not cut the hay. What is the difference? In the latter case, the goal of the malevolent command is to have the Jew violate the mitzvah.”
Rashi notes that Rava was discussing a situation that took place in the presence of ten Jews or, as we will soon explain, during a time of persecution. Otherwise, a Jew is not required, and, according to some opinions, not permitted to give up his life.
What about idols?
Aside from the law of Kiddush Hashem that I just discussed, there are other situations in which one is required to surrender one’s life, rather than breach the Torah. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) cites a dispute among tana’im concerning what is the halacha when someone’s life is threatened should he refuse to worship an idol. Rabbi Yishmael rules that, if the situation is in private, Vechai bahem applies, even regarding the prohibition of avodah zarah. In his opinion, one may perform the external motions that appear to be idolatrous to save one’s life. However, when the situation is in public, meaning that ten Jews know about it, Rabbi Yishmael agrees that the pasuk of Velo sechalelu es shem kodshi requires surrendering one’s life, rather than violating the Torah.
Rabbi Eliezer disagrees, ruling that the sin of avodah zarah requires yeihareig ve’al yaavor, meaning that one is always required to surrender one’s life rather than violate the prohibition against idolatry, even if the sin will be performed in private. Rabbi Eliezer derives this ruling from the pasuk we say several times daily, Ve’ohavto es Hashem Elokecha bechol levavcho uvechol nafshecho uvechol me’odecho, that we are required to love Hashem with our entire heart, soul and resources, which includes that we not renounce our belief in Him; we are required to demonstrate our love for Hashem, even in the event that it would require the ultimate sacrifice (Sanhedrin 74a).
Quoting the tana Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadok, the Gemara says that the Beis Din Hagadol, the final authority of halacha for the Jewish people, concluded that for three cardinal sins — idol worship, giluy arayos (incest, adultery and similar offenses), and murder — we always say yeihareig ve’al yaavor. The requirement to sacrifice one’s life rather than violate giluy arayos or murder is derived from other sources (Sanhedrin 74a).
In this context, the Gemara cites the following anecdote. A man approached the amora Rava, asking him the following she’eilah: The warlord of his town had told this man, “Go kill so-and-so; if not, I will kill you!” The man wanted to know whether he was permitted to follow the dictate of the warlord to save his life. Rava answered that the Torah does not permit murder, even to save your own life, because of the following point, “who tells you that your blood is redder. Perhaps the other person’s blood is redder than yours!” In other words, who tells you that Hashem prefers that you survive, when you have to kill someone else in order to do so (Nimukei Yosef ad locum)?
Thus, we see that there are two situations in which we rule yeihareig ve’al yaavor: When saving my life will require that I violate one of the three cardinal sins, or when the intent of the one posing the threat is only to get Jews to violate the mitzvos, and ten Jews are aware that this is happening.
During times of persecution
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) adds a third situation in which the rule is yeihareig ve’al yaavor: When the government is intent on destroying Yiddishkeit, which the Gemara calls sha’as gezeiras malchus, literally, at the time of government decrees, one is required to give up one’s life rather than violate the Torah, even for a “light mitzvah.” What is defined as a “light” or small mitzvah? The Gemara explains that this includes even the difference between the color of the shoelaces that Jews and gentiles use. Rashi explains that the case is when there is a Jewish custom that is more modest. Since the Jews have accepted this practice, if the gentile is trying to get a Jew to violate accepted Jewish practice, he is required to give up his life. It is a Chillul Hashem to allow a gentile to force a Jew to violate accepted Jewish practice, and a Kiddush Hashem to follow Jewish practice. However, this halacha applies only when it is a time of religious persecution.
Rashi’s older contemporary, the Rif, explains that the gentiles wore red shoelaces. Although there is no halachic prohibition to wear a specific color of shoelace, since this was the defining difference in garb between Jew and non-Jew in that time and place, if a gentile insisted that he wants a Jew to dress like a gentile does, one is required to sacrifice his life and not do so.
Although when life is threatened, the observance of a mitzvah is generally suspended, in three situations one is required to sacrifice one’s life rather than violate the Torah. The three situations are:
1. Being forced to commit one of the three cardinal sins.
2. At a time of persecution.
3. When someone is forcing a Jew to violate accepted Jewish law or practice in the presence of or with the knowledge of ten Jews.
The latter cases are true only when the perpetrator’s motive is to force Jews to forsake G-d’s law, but not when he is interested in benefiting from the transgression.
Based on the above, let us quote the Rambam:
“All members of the Jewish people are commanded to sanctify His great Name, as the Torah states, Venikdashti besoch B’nei Yisroel, and they are admonished not to desecrate it, as the Torah states, Velo sechalelu es sheim kodshi. How does this law manifest itself? If an idol worshipper will stand up and force a Jew to violate one of the mitzvos of the Torah in a situation that, if the Jew refuses, the idol worshipper will kill him, the Jew should transgress the mitzvah and not allow himself to be killed, since the Torah states, Vechai bahem — You shall live with them, and not die because of them. If he chooses to die and not violate the mitzvah, he is held responsible for the loss of his own life. When is this true? — regarding mitzvos other than idolatry, gilui arayos and shedding blood. However, regarding these three sins, if the idol worshipper tells him, “Violate one of these sins or be killed,” the Jew should allow himself to be killed and not violate the mitzvah.
“When is this true? When the idol worshipper’s intention is for his own pleasure, such as, he is forcing the Jew to build a house or to cook for the idol worshipper on Shabbos… . However, if the idol worshipper’s only goal is that the Jew violate the mitzvah, if… ten Jews are not present, the Jew should violate the mitzvah and not be killed. But if the idol worshipper forces the Jew in the presence of ten Jews, the Jew is required to give up his life rather than violate the mitzvah, even if it is one of the other mitzvos. Furthermore, these rules apply only when it is not a time when the gentiles are making decrees against the Jews. However, in an era that they are, such as when an evil king, like Nevuchadnetzar, makes decrees against the Jews to violate their religion or one of their mitzvos, a Jew is required to give up his life, regardless of which mitzvah he is being coerced to transgress and regardless as to whether this coercion is in the presence of ten Jews or in private” (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:1-3).
The Rambam continues: In every instance when it says that he should violate the mitzvah and not be killed, and the Jew chose instead to be killed rather than violate the mitzvah, he is guilty of giving up his life. And in every instance when it says that the Jew should give up his life rather than violate the mitzvah, and he surrendered his life and did not violate the mitzvah, he has sanctified Hashem’s Name. If this happened in the presence of ten Jews, he sanctified Hashem’s Name in public, as was done by Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael, Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and others like them. These are the holy ones whose greatness is above all others… . However, one who was required to surrender his life, but chose instead to violate the mitzvah and did not surrender his life has desecrated Hashem’s Name, and, if ten Jews were present, he has desecrated Hashem’s Namein public, abrogated the positive mitzvah of the Torah, Kiddush Hashem, and violated a negative mitzvah of the Torah, Chillul Hashem. Nevertheless, since his violation was coerced, he is not culpable of transgressing of his own will and, therefore, not subject to punishment for the prohibition violated, since a person is not punished for a sin performed under coercion (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:4).
Elisha, owner of wings
In this context, the Gemara (Shabbos 130a) shares with us the following story about a tzadik named Elisha, who lived during the time of the Roman persecution:
“Why was he called Elisha, owner of wings?” It once happened that the evil kingdom (a Talmudic reference to the Roman Empire) decreed that any Jew who wears tefillin will have his brain smashed. Elisha went through the streets, proudly wearing his tefillin. A Roman soldier saw him and gave chase. Elisha whipped off his tefillin and hid them in his hands. The soldier caught him and demanded that Elisha tell him what he was holding. Elisha answered him that he was holding “dove’s wings.” Elisha then opened his hands and, indeed, he was holding the wings of doves! (We will soon explain why he used this example.)
How could he?
The rishonim ask why Elisha was permitted to remove the tefillin from his head. This was clearly an era of gezeirah, and, as we noted above, in such an era, one is required to give up one’s life even for a custom of the Jews, and certainly for a mitzvah of the Torah!
The rishonim answer that there is a difference between positive mitzvos and prohibitions. Since the evildoers could physically stop the Jews from keeping mitzvos requiring actions, e.g., by locking them up without access to tefillin, there is no requirement to sacrifice one’s life to fulfill them (Ran, Pesachim 6a in Rif’s dapim). However, in the case of participating in a forbidden activity in an era of gezeirah, there the Torah declared yeihoreig ve’al yaavor, that I am required to give up my life. This ruling is accepted by the poskim as the normative halacha (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 157).
Return of the frogs
As mentioned in our introduction, the Gemara (Pesachim 53b) teaches that Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah derived from the frogs that they could give up their lives, rather than bow to the statue. Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah noted that the frogs jumped into the Egyptian ovens when the ovens were hot, thus cremating themselves. Thus, the frogs, who had no mitzvah of sanctifying Hashem’s Name, still did so. Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah reasoned a fortiori (kal vechomer): if the frogs, who were not required to sanctify Hashem’s Name, burned themselves for the sake of demonstrating Hashem’s greatness, we certainly should.
Tosafos (ad locum) questions: Why did Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah require a kal vechomer from the frogs to conclude that they should sacrifice themselves? The event with the statue of Nevuchadnetzar happened in public, and when an incident occurs in public and the evil person’s goal is to demonstrate that he can force a Jew to violate mitzvos, the Gemara requires that one give up one’s life. In such a case, it is a requirement to do so, even for a small mitzvah or even for a Jewish custom.
Rabbeinu Tam explained that, technically speaking, Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were not required to sacrifice themselves, because the statue that Nevuchadnetzar erected was not an idol – it was similar to the statues that we find in our cities whose purpose is to honor someone. Nevuchadnetzar instructed people to bow to the statue to demonstrate their subservience to him. Thus, there was no requirement for Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah to give up their lives, but they derived from the frogs that it was permitted for them to do so.
In another approach, Rabbeinu Tam’s nephew, Rabbeinu Yitzchak (usually called simply the Ri) disagreed that this is what happened in the story of Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah. Although he clearly accepts Rabbeinu Tam’s halachic analysis, he feels that the statue placed there by Nevuchadnetzar was, indeed, an idol. To answer the question why Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were not required to give up their lives because of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, and needed reassurance from the frogs that they were permitted to sacrifice themselves, the Ri answers that Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah could have fled. Their question was whether they were required to flee to save their lives or whether they were permitted to remain, knowing that by staying they would be required to give up their lives for Kiddush Hashem. They derived from the frogs that they were permitted to give up their lives for Kiddush Hashem, even though they had the opportunity to avoid the situation.
We see from this discussion two additional points:
1. Although there is a mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, there is no requirement to make sure that one remains in his location to have the opportunity to perform the mitzvah. However, according to the Ri, it is permitted, and perhaps even meritorious, to do so.
2. We should note that the Rambam quoted above stated that, as a rule of thumb, when the Torah does not require yeihareig ve’al yaavor, one is prohibited from giving up one’s life to do so. This implies that the Rambam disagrees with Rabbeinu Tam, who ruled that Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were not required to sacrifice themselves in their situation, but were permitted to do so.
However, the Nimukei Yosef concludes that even the Rambam might agree here. When a person whom the Nimukei Yosef describes as a great tzadik sees that the generation is lax, he is permitted to sacrifice himself in order to teach his generation. He rallies evidence for this principle from the story of Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah.
I quoted above the story of the great tzadik called Elisha, “the owner of wings,” and how he earned his moniker. The Gemara continues its sharing of the anecdote by asking why Elisha said that his tefillin were dove’s wings. The Gemara concludes that the Jewish people are compared to doves, as the pasuk in Tehillim (68:14) compares the Jewish people to the wings of a dove that are coated with silver, and her wing-feathers are like fine gold. Just as the dove is protected by its wings, Klal Yisroel is protected by its mitzvos (Shabbos 130a)! May we always be protected by our mitzvos and never have to live through times when our mitzvos or lives are challenged.