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Kiddush Hashem

In memory of Corporal Yaniv Mashiach hy"d.


Several gemarot establish the well-documented distinction between most aveirot and the three cardinal sins of murder, illicit sexual relationships and idol worship. In general, piku'ach nefesh (the concern for human life) is docheh (supercedes) any and every prohibition in halakha. When faced with a life-threatening situation, a person should violate an aveira if he can thereby spare his own life. However, the three cardinal sins may not be transgressed even at the expense of one's life. Therefore, if a gentile orders a Jew to commit an aveira at the threat of death, the Jew may – and in fact must – commit the aveira to save his life.  If, however, he forces the Jew to violate one of the three cardinal sins, the Jew must surrender his life. Similarly, if the only possible cure for a deathly ill patient entails violating the Torah, the given sin must be committed to save the patient's life.  A cardinal sin, however, is not allowed, even to cure a person from fatal illness. The gemara establishes this rule in several places, including Pesachim 25, Yoma 82 and Sanhedrin 74.


          The Rishonim's discussion of this halakha gives rise to two possible approaches to the halakha's conceptual basis.  One approach claims that the particular severity of the three cardinal sins does not allow for their cancellation, even by the specter of death. Whereas, generally, the Torah's laws give way to the overriding concern of pikuach nefesh, these three sins are so principal that they obtain even under these extenuating circumstances and cannot be overridden by pikuach nefesh. Alternatively, we might view these aveirot as fundamentally similar to ordinary aveirot, in that extenuating conditions of pikuach nefesh override the aveira proper. However, a separate injunction to sanctify Hashem's name requires the surrender of life even at the cost of death. A person yields his life not because he must avoid the particular aveira - that issur has already been cancelled by the extenuating conditions – but rather to perform the mitzva of glorifying Hashem's name by publicizing our love for Him and our willingness to prioritize that love over our own lives.


The Rambam's presentation of these halakhot appears to express the latter approach.  Although the aforementioned gemarot suggest various sources for yeihareg v'al ya'avor (the obligation to surrender one's life rather than transgress), the Rambam introduces this halakha (in the fifth chapter of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah) with a verse from Sefer Vayikra (22:32), "Ve-nikdashti be-tokh Benei yisrael."  The invocation of this verse seems to reflect a general mitzva of Kiddush Hashem, rather than asserting the particular severity of three specific prohibitions.  The gemara in Sanhedrin (74) does cite this pasuk as the basis for requiring the presence of ten Jews in certain circumstances of yeihareg ve-al ya'avor, but it did not quote it as a direct source for the mitzva to sacrifice one's life. By citing this source, the Rambam may have been defining the concept of yeihareg ve-al ya'avor as an autonomous mitzva of Kiddush Hashem, rather than maintained adherence to the base issur even under extenuating circumstances.


Later in this chapter (5:4), the Rambam claims that if the person DID commit one of the cardinal sins to save his life, although he has failed in the mitzva of Kiddush Hashem, he is not liable for transgressing the given aveira. Since the extenuating circumstance of onnes (coercion) and the law of pikuach nefesh cancel the applicability of the issur, he cannot be punished for any violation.  Several commentators point to a Tosafot in Avoda Zara (54a s.v. ha) as disputing the Rambam's position (at least with regard to some varieties of avoda zara), while several commentaries on the Rambam (see Remakh and Lechem Mishna) question this position, as well.  In any event, historically, this position of the Rambam served as the cornerstone for his letter known as "iggeret ha-shemad" written in defense of many Jews who surrendered to various Islamic, fundamentalist inquisitions in Northern Africa and Southern Spain during the 12th century.  Though the Rambam did not defend their choice, he did maintain their legal status as Jews, reasoning that since they had violated avoda zara under the threat of death, they could not be legally accountable for their foreign worship and should thus not be excluded from the Jewish community.  Clearly, the Rambam's position seems consistent with his above stated assertion that even cardinal sins are suspended under these conditions, while a separate mitzva of Kiddush Hashem takes effect.


          Another interesting dispute surrounds the intention of the gentile.  The Ba'al Hama'or to Sanhedrin 74 claims that if the threatening gentile intends no ideological challenge, but rather orders the given violation purely for personal benefit (hana'at atzman), the rule of yeihareg ve-al ya'avor does not apply. The Ramban disputes this ruling and demands yeihareg ve-al ya'avor for the three cardinal sins even in a case of hana'at atzman.  Presumably, the Ramban and Ba'al Hama'or are debating our very point.  If the Kiddush Hashem factor drives yeihareg ve-al ya'avor, we might be more inclined toward the Ba'al Hama'or's exception: when the impetus for the pressure is personal, rather than theological, Kiddush Hashem does not obtain and yeihareg ve-al ya'avor is suspended. The Ramban, however, believed that the three cardinal sins themselves are so severe as to warrant the sacrifice of life, and they are not suspended even under the pressure of such extenuating circumstances.  Therefore, even when the gentile is driven by personal motives, yeihareg ve-al ya'avor will take effect.


          The question of environment also arises when considering this question.  If yeihareg ve-al ya'avor were based solely upon the additional component of Kiddush Hashem, wouldn't we limit its implementation only to public settings?  Yet, the gemara clearly extends the obligation even to private settings, though it does limit it to public situations with regard to aveirot other than the three cardinal sins.  The gemara rules that if a gentile threatens a Jew to violate ANY aveira in public (according to some opinions, specifically in a period of anti-Jewish legislation), yeihareg ve-al ya'avor applies.  Logically, we would explain as follows: although these aveirot are suspended under threat of death, in public settings a new obligation of Kiddush Hashem takes effect and requires surrendering one's life.  Consequently, if the notion of Kiddush Hashem applies only in the public arena, we must wonder why yeihareg ve-al ya'avor for cardinal sins applies even in private.  Doesn't this extended scope indicate that yeihareg ve-al ya'avor for these cardinal sins is not based solely upon Kiddush Hashem, but rather stems from the inherent severity of these aveirot, which compels sacrifice even in private?


          Answering this question requires a redefinition of Kiddush Hashem. An ensuing passage in the Rambam (halakha 10) claims that anyone who willingly violates an aveira - even in private – has caused chilul Hashem, just as anyone who sincerely abstains from an aveira EVEN IN PRIVATE (such as Yosef) has sanctified God's name. Evidently, Kiddush and chilul are not based solely upon public perception, but stem from the general and objective level of religious adherence.  Greater obedience sanctifies Hashem's Name, while diminished adherence defiles it.  The stakes of sanctification rise in public, and therefore yeihareg ve-al ya'avor applies to any aveira in the public setting.  When it comes, however, to the three cardinal sins, one might argue that their violation even in private dishonor's God's name, whereas the defiant resistance to these violations sanctifies the Divine Name - even in private.  We can, therefore, attribute yeihareg ve-al ya'avor in the case of the three cardinal sins solely to Kiddush Hashem.


          Another interesting debate surrounds the passive violation of the three cardinal sins in a situation of yeihareg ve-al ya'avor.  Tosafot (Ketubot 3b) claim that passive performance does not require yeihareg ve-al ya'avor, and therefore Esther was not required to surrender her life rather than commit adultery (by marrying Achashverosh), given the passive nature of her violation.  By extension, if a gentile orders one to allow himself to be hurled onto of a small child, thereby killing that child, he need not surrender his life.  Rav Chayim Brisker felt that the Rambam would dispute this ruling and extend yeihareg ve-al ya'avor even to instances of passive compliance.  Perhaps the same question is under debate.  If the original issur is suspended by the threat to life, and the impetus for yeihareg ve-al ya'avor is Kiddush Hashem, we might not distinguish between active and passive violations.  After all, either instance constitutes a chillul Hashem by virtue of the very decision to participate - even passively.  By agreeing to the sin – even through inaction – the Jew has desecrated Hashem's Name.  In this respect, the Rambam's position would be consistent in viewing the impetus for yeihareg ve-al ya'avor as Kiddush Hashem.  Consequently, no punishment is administered for those who do commit the cardinal sins, and the rule applies even to passive compliance.  By contrast, if we believe that the prohibition's severity does not allow for its suspension in situations of onnes, we might agree with Tosafot, that one need not surrender his life to avoid passive participation in the aveira.  Since passive involvement does not qualify as an act of aveira, the aveira is not violated through his inaction and thus no Kiddush or chilul results.


          A final issues to consider is the question of yeihareg ve-al ya'avor for a gentile.  Would a gentile be obligated to sacrifice his life to avoid committing one of the three cardinal sins – all of which apply to gentiles, given their inclusion among the seven Noachide laws? The gemara itself (Sanhedrin 74b) addresses this issue and cites a provocative debate between Abayei and Rava.  The former claims that gentiles are not obligated to sacrifice their lives, since Kiddush Hashem is not one of the seven mitzvot that apply to non-Jews.  In other words, according to Abayei, the absence of a Kiddush Hashem obligation upon gentiles determines that they need not sacrifice their lives under any circumstance.  Abayei clearly identifies with the Rambam's position, that under the threat of death the original aveira no longer applies, and yeihareg ve-al ya'avor is based purely on an independent mitzva of Kiddush Hashem - an independent mitzva which cannot possibly apply to a gentile, who is charged with only seven mitzvot. Not surprisingly, the Rambam rules in favor of Abayei's view.  Rava, by contrast, includes gentiles in yeihareig ve-al ya'avor (though it is unclear if he indeed champions this position or merely refutes Abayei's aforementioned proof - see Tosafot 74b s.v. ben noach). Quite possibly, he viewed yeihareg ve-al ya'avor as an inherent obligation within each of the three cardinal sins.  Therefore, gentiles, who are obligated with respect to these three severe sins, must abstain from them to the full extent – even under the threat of death.  Rava indeed responds to Abayei, "[A Gentile must refrain from] the seven sins themselves as well as all their affiliated laws."  He might very well be expressing the view that yeihareg ve-al ya'avor is not an independent concept, but an inherent part of the aveira proper. Our question, then, is likely subject to a machloket Amoraim.

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