In Parshas Emor, we read (Leviticus 22:32), “You shall not desecrate My holy name, and I shall be sanctified within the children of Israel.” This is the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, which requires a Jew, under certain circumstances, to refrain from violating the laws of the Torah even at the cost of his own life. While the normal rule (which we learn from Leviticus 18:5, “You shall keep My statutes and My laws, which a man shall do and live through them”) is that the Torah does not usually require us to sacrifice our lives for the sake of the mitzvos, there are several significant exceptions. The poskim (halachic authorities) define three basic circumstances in which we are obligated to choose death over violating Torah law:
- There are three categories of sin which a Jew may never violate, under any circumstances, even if it costs him his life: Murder, sexual immorality, and avoda zara. (Avoda zara, usually, and misleadingly, translated as idolatry, refers specifically to the worship of anything other than God Himself, and, more broadly, to any fundamentally erroneous belief about God.) Thus, not only must a person accept martyrdom rather than violate one of these laws, but he must even accept death from illness or starvation if the only way to save himself would be by committing one of these sins.
- If a Jew is being forced, at the pain of death, to publicly violate any Jewish law for the purpose of making him violate the law, then the Jew is required to refuse to violate the law, even if it costs him his life. If however, the event is not public, or if the motivation is not to force him to violate Torah law, then he should not – and may not – sacrifice his life. (He is, however, required to sacrifice all of his material possessions, if necessary, to avoid such a violation.)
- In a time of shmad, i.e. a government campaign against Judaism (such as what happened under the Greeks in the period before the Maccabean revolt), a Jew is required to uphold all Torah law without exception, even if he will be killed for this. This applies even in private and even for non-Biblical laws, including even Jewish customs.
There are many important lessons we can learn from this mitzvah (which we hope we will never have to put into practice). The most basic lesson of all is that as Jews we must recognize that, ultimately, what gives our lives meaning and purpose is our adherence to God’s Torah, and that we must therefore be ready and willing to sacrifice our lives in His service. This lesson is brought out by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb 615):
|Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch|
You shall hallow by your example the Name of God among your brethren, you shall show by your example and bear witness by your deeds that the true son and true daughter of Israel hold nothing higher than God and the fulfillment of His Divine will. And you shall, if it be necessary, willingly seal this testimony with your life, in that, if it must be, you offer it up in order to preserve your loyalty towards God and to inspire such loyalty in your brethren.