The martyrdom of a Chanukah heroine

The tradition of honouring those who make the ultimate sacrifice begins with an apocryphal story linked to the festival


ainting by Jean-Baptiste Vignali, The Martyrdom of the Maccabees (1781),

Alina Palhati, a young Russian-Israeli woman who was murdered at the Supernova rave on October 7 was buried outside the cemetery in Beit She’an because she was not technically Jewish. MK Oded Forer called this “the greatest insult to someone who sanctified the land of Israel with their blood, who left their place in exile to come here”.

The language sounds religious because it is. Forer is claiming that Alina died as martyr. There is such a thing as martyrdom in Judaism. And it’s both similar and different to martyrdom in other religions.

Jews talk a great deal about pikuach nefesh, about doing everything possible including violating Jewish commandments to save a life. But there’s is a flip side, there’s also dying al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.

The Talmud explains the principle of yehareg ve’al ya’avor – die rather than transgress (Sanhedrin 74a). Most commandments can be violated in order to save a life, but there are three for which this is not the case, and the rabbis prescribe “let them die rather than transgress.” These are idolatry, murder and sexual immorality.

During the Crusades, many Jews were forced to convert or die, others were murdered without being offered a choice. Over time, those who died simply for being Jewish came to be regarded as martyrs.

Since the beginning of the state of Israel, Holocaust victims have been ennobled as having died al kiddush Hashem. It’s even more straightforward to regard IDF soldiers as kedoshim. And the identification has naturally also extended to terror victims. This is how it is possible to speak of Alina Palhati as having “sanctified the land of Israel with [her] blood” and why her second-class burial is so uncountenanceable.

Rabbinic ideas about martyrdom reach right back into the Torah. The original archetype for Jewish martrydom is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. Isaac’s (and Abraham’s) willing obedience to God unto death is the most obvious lesson of the story.

According to the classical rabbis being willing to die al kiddush Hashem was enough to render a person a martyr. Curiously, although Isaac survived, several midrashim and later liturgical works explore the notion that Isaac is in fact slaughtered and subsequently resurrected.

Shalom Spiegel’s fascinating study The Last Trial uses these legends as the starting point to survey the treatment of martyrdom through Jewish history. With Christianity’s insistence that the Akedah prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus, and its deep attachment to martyrs in general, Jews have somewhat ceded this trope.

With fundamentalist Muslims (including those responsible for Alina’s death) invoking martyrdom, modern Jews recoil even more from using it.

But martyrdom, even the goriest kind, is so threaded through our tradition that you’re never far from it. Take the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. Legend has it that this prayer was composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who lived in the 11th century.

When the local archbishop demanded that he renounce his Jewish faith and convert to Christianity, Rabbi Amnon refused and was gruesomely tortured. On Rosh Hashanah, dying of his wounds, he was brought into shul where he intoned the Unetaneh Tokef prayer before expiring.

Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to a fellow rabbi and taught him the prayer which was immediately embedded at the heart of the High Holy Day liturgy.

Consider too the story of ten Jewish martyrs in the Avodah service of Yom Kippur, the most famous of whom is Rabbi Akiva, who famously died with the Shema on his lips, grateful that he was able to fulfil the mitzvah of loving God with “all his heart and all his soul and all his might.”

Or the tales we tell on the Ninth of Av of those who died throughout the ages for the sanctification of God’s name. One of these stories spans both Av 9 and Chanukah. It’s the story of the mother and her seven martyred sons and it comes to us in several different versions. The earliest, in 2 Maccabees, is set at the time of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, the bad guy of the Chanukah story. He tries to force the seven sons of an unnamed mother to publicly consume pig meat as an act of apostasy.

Each son is tortured and heroically refuses, dying al kiddush Hashem. An expanded version of the story appears in 4 Maccabees, and the mother is specifically praised for offering words of support and faith in God to her sons as they make their sacrifice. And having witnessed their deaths, she dies too.

The story appears again in the Talmud (Gittin 57a) and also in Lamentations Rabbah. That’s the Ninth of Av connection – as we read Eichah (Lamentations) on the saddest day of the Jewish year, the fast of Av.

These martyrologies are agonising and horrible, but they are moving too. They sit awkwardly with our understanding that pikuach nefesh, saving life at (almost) any cost, is a paramount Jewish value. They remind is that while it should be no Jews ambition to die a martyr, a person who dies because they were Jewish is in fact a martyr.

Alina Palhati, other victims of the Nova rave and of the atrocities of October 7, died, tragically, al kiddush Hashem, the most recent in a long painful line of Jewish martyrs.

Zahavit Shalev is a rabbi at New North London (Masorti) Synagogue

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