Why have there been Jews who have chosen death rather than shave their beards or change their clothes? If our persecutors order us to violate a seemingly insignificant custom or die, should we choose to die?
There are two conflicting commandments in the Torah that address this question. According to the first, one may not be involved in a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s holy name. Rather, one must be instrumental in a Kiddush Hashem, causing God’s name to be sanctified among the People of Israel. Accordingly, if there is no other way out, one must rather die than violate God’s commandments and cause a Chillul Hashem.
According to the second commandment, the purpose of God’s commandments is Vachai Bahem, to preserve life at all costs. Dying rather than violating a commandment would defeat this purpose.
Which of these two precepts prevails depends upon the circumstances of the situation.
There are three cardinal sins one may not commit under any circumstances and in respect of which death is the only way out. They are avodat kochavim, idolatry; shefichat damim, murder; and giluy arayot, engaging in any of the twenty-one sexual unions prohibited in Leviticus Chapter 18.
These sins so undermine the purpose of life and are so damaging to the individual and to society that one must rather die than commit them even in private, where Chillul Hashem is not relevant.
There are, however, times when the concern of Chillul Hashem is so paramount that one must choose to die rather than violate any prohibition in public. Such is the case in times of religious persecution, sha’at hagezerah, when the agenda of the persecutor is to prohibit the practice of Judaism. When this occurs, there is no distinction between cardinal and non-cardinal sins or between laws and customs. If the purpose of the persecutor is to quash Judaism, then one must defy the persecutor and even be prepared to die for anything that is perceived to be Jewish. And if donning dark clothes or wearing a beard is perceived by the persecutor to be a symbol of Judaism worth ridiculing, then refusing the order to remove them becomes as important as refusing to commit the three cardinal sins. Of course, in these tragic situations, death should be the last resort after all other escape routes, such as bribing one’s way out, have been blocked.
If a Jew is ordered by his persecutor to violate a prohibition in private, out of the public eye, and the prohibition is not one of the three cardinal sins mentioned above, then the Jew has the following option. He may choose to violate the prohibition rather than die, or may choose to die rather than violate the prohibition. For this purpose the word “public” means violating the prohibition in front of ten Jews.
There are those in Jewish history who for purposes of Kiddush Hashem chose to die rather than to give in, even in private. Thus Daniel braved the lions’ den rather than surrender to the edict of King Daryavesh that prohibited prayer. According to the Rambam, however, although martyrdom in this type of situation is commendable when practiced by great leaders of Israel such as Daniel, it is frowned upon when practiced by others.
If a Jew is ordered to violate a prohibition in public, and the motivation of the non-Jew forcing him to do so is not to prohibit the practice of Judaism but rather to satisfy some personal urge, then the Jew should violate the prohibition rather than die. This, according to some commentators explains how Esther was permitted to live with King Achashveirosh.
There is the beautiful story of Elisha Ba’al Kenafayim, Elisha the man with wings, who strode through the marketplace with tefillin on his head, in defiance of the Roman edict that prohibited the wearing of tefillin on pain of death. Once, when he saw a Roman officer approach him, Elisha removed the tefillin, cupped them in his hands and told the officer he was carrying a dove. When the officer pried his hands open, a white dove flew up heavenward.
If this took place besha’at gezeira, why did Elisha remove his tefillin rather than keep them on and die? In answering this question the commentaries draw a distinction between mitzvot aseh, positive commandments like wearing tefillin, and negative commandments, like not eating non-kosher food. Whereas one is obliged to resist violating a negative commandment besha’at gezeira, even on pain of death, one is not obliged to do so if ordered to violate a positive commandment.
As we have sadly witnessed too often in our history, a Jew may flee to the safety of a monastery in order to save his or her life.
Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal, a Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” (2016) is available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X and “Ner Eyal, a Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” (2001) is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0615118992.