Death, a last act of faith

The Yom Kippur prayers recall rabbis who were martyrs - but how far are they a role model?

By Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, September 16, 2010
Ancient heroes: one by one, the seven sons of Hannah choose to be killed rather than publicly eat pork at the bidding of the Greek occupiers of Israel, as told by the Book of Maccabees

Ancient heroes: one by one, the seven sons of Hannah choose to be killed rather than publicly eat pork at the bidding of the Greek occupiers of Israel, as told by the Book of Maccabees

Martyrdom does not figure as prominently in Judaism as it does in other religions. There is no hint of it in the Bible until Daniel is thrown into the lion's den in Babylon. If Israelites died, it was defending their lands, conquering others or simply carrying out royal commands.

It was the Maccabees who promoted the idea of laying down one's life for religion in the apocryphal Book of the Maccabees, after Antiochus introduced measures against Judaism in the second century BCE. This glorification of resistance coincided with the rise of the "Early Chasidim" and messianism. Willingness to die was always helped by hopes of what might come afterwards.

Most rabbis of the Talmud were not advocates of armed resistance. Rome required political loyalty, not religious conformity. But under the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the Second Century CE, who did indeed ban Jewish practice, religious resistance once again became a significant factor. The Talmudic narrative describes how the rabbis argued against Rabbi Akiva's active resistance. Yet in the end they admired the way he recited the Shema, the ultimate expression of Jewish identity, as he was being tortured to death.

The moving Eyleh Ezkerah poem that is now included in our Yom Kippur liturgy is medieval, but it uses earlier sources to describe how 10 great rabbis died at Roman hands for their faith. Talmudic law says that one should be willing to die rather than contravene Jewish law for only three reasons: idolatry, murder and immorality. Otherwise survival trumps all else. But as Rome, and then Christianity, challenged Jewish survival, the idea of Kiddush Hashem, Sanctifying God's Name, by being willing to die for religion, gained in significance. I suspect the Roman idea of falling on one's sword, although completely against Jewish law in spirit as well as letter, influenced some Jews to think that death in the name of honour might be a praiseworthy act.

The only example one can find at the time of willingly going to one's death as opposed to suffering at the hands of an oppressor is Masada. Yet archaeologists and historians still argue as to whether Josephus's version of a mass suicide is correct. It seems so out of character.

Suicide was seen as the ultimate sacrifice a Jew could make

For all that Maimonides puts sanctifying God's Name high on the list of Jewish religious obligations, he himself, it has been suggested, was prepared to undergo conversion rather than death at the hands of the Berber Muslims. It was not until the period of the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries that religious martyrdom really comes into its own. In town after town in the Rhine valley, Crusaders massacred Jews.

But, at the same time, many Jews committed suicide or killed their own children rather than fall into Christian hands. Suicide was seen as the ultimate sacrifice a Jew could make in defence of his religion. Israel Yuval has argued that Jews borrowed Christian motifs, of death on the cross, the binding of Isaac, to assert that they rather were the true martyrs. If they could not defend themselves physically, they would assert their spiritual superiority.

Jews reading Eyleh Ezkerah on Yom Kippur will have seen a parallel between those rabbis and the men, women and children who were killed by Crusaders simply for being Jewish. What makes Eyleh Ezkerah so significant today is that it has become a symbol of the Holocaust, the gratuitous murder of innocents, and the dignified way they went to their deaths reciting the Shema as spiritual defiance in the face of brutes.

The Yiddish writer I.L.Peretz has a beautiful story based on the Eyleh Ezkerah story of the ten martyrs, set in Eastern Europe. The local bishop has sentenced a village to banishment unless ten villagers convert or die for their religion. Among them is the village wastrel. The community is herded into its synagogue to await its fate.

Everyone knows the rabbi and the pious men will sacrifice their lives but what about the black sheep? It is only when the tenth thud of martyred heads is heard outside the synagogue that the mother of the wastrel gets up from her corner of shame, picks up her son's head and dances with pride at his sanctification.

In Israel today the argument continues. Were the passive victims any less noble than those who resisted? And today, should one be prepared to sacrifice one's life for one's land? Is it a religious obligation? Just as in Akiva's time, rabbinic opinion is divided, but the overwhelming body of opinion, now as then, is that martyrdom is not in itself an ideal. One may be compelled. Giving in to compulsion is excusable. Many forced converts were welcomed back once they were free to choose. But to willingly seek martyrdom when there are other options is not a mainstream Jewish value.

Rabbi Rosen blogs at

Last updated: 11:27am, September 16 2010