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Are Jews permitted to martyr themselves? For example, if it is a question of converting or being killed, is the Jew permitted to sacrifice himself rather than convert?

Separately: which would be considered preferable in this situation, dying or claiming to worship an idol? Assume the "conversion" would be dishonest and the idol worship insincere.

(I'm asking because I have heard from many sources that a Jew may not commit suicide and is adjured to protect life where possible.)

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It seems you are asking about killing oneself rather than sinning (suicide as a martyr), but the answers provided below are all about allowing oneself to be killed by someone else rather than sin. –  Curiouser Feb 21 '12 at 16:43
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If you are interested in whether suicide is permitted, you can read about the history of it in Shalom Spiegel's classic work, "The Last Trial" where he details many great rabbis and members of medieval Jewish communities who killed themselves and their wives and children in order to avoid conversion to Christianity. –  Curiouser Feb 21 '12 at 17:50
    
Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/18019 –  msh210 Jul 25 '12 at 16:15

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 157:1) discusses the issue of when one must (or may) martyr himself, know in Hebrew as קידוש השם - The [Ultimate] Sanctification of God's Name.

If someone threatens your life if you won't break some rule:

  • If you are alone (or in the presence of less than ten adult Jews):
    • If he is doing so for his own personal benefit:
      • If it is one of the "Big Three" (murder, idolatry, illicit sexual relationships):
        • You must be killed.
      • If it is other regular sins (even breaking a custom):
        • You should break the rule.
    • If he is trying to make you break your religion:
      • If it is one of the Big Three:
        • You must be killed.
      • If it is a regular sin (even breaking a custom):
        • You should break the rule, but you may be martyred if you want.
  • If you are in public (at least ten adult Jews):
    • If he is doing it for his own personal benefit:
      • Same as in private.
    • If he is trying to make you break your religion:
      • You must be killed for any sin.
  • If it is a time of persecution against Jews:
    • You must be killed, independent of public/private or type of sin. You must be martyred even for a custom.

It is important to note that one must give away all his money before dying to avoid breaking a negative commandment if you think it will help. Additionally, when I say breaking a negative commandment I mean if doing so involves an action (ie eating pig), but if it involves no action then you need not be killed over it and you can just sit idle. Also, note that in defining public or private, it does not matter as much that the people are there watching you as much as they will obviously hear about what you did (see Shach sk 4 there). Finally I note that women and men are seemingly equal in all aspects of these requirements.

These laws are important to know because if the time comes (chas veshalom) you can't usually CYLOR, and as you say, Jews wouldn't want to give up their lives unnecessarily as we highly value human life.

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Don't worry, Commentless Downvoter: there is no threat to your life if you come out and explain your decision. –  Double AA Feb 21 '12 at 18:39
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see this answer as well: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/8803/603 –  Menachem Feb 21 '12 at 18:48
    
@Menachem good find. almost a duplicate. –  Double AA Feb 21 '12 at 19:19
    
Sh'as hashmad may be more specific/extreme than is implied by the phrase "a time of persecution"; see Gershon's answer. Also, IIRC, there is an opinion that public means even if 10 Jews will hear about it. I don't recall the source off the top of my head, but there is a similar opinion about criteria for chillul Shabbos b'farhesya. –  Fred Sep 23 '12 at 21:21
    
It is worth noting that, as I recall, if someone appears to commit idolatry (e.g. by bowing to an idol), they have not technically committed idolatry if their actual intent is not to worship the idol. Nevertheless, one must sacrifice his life rather than doing so because the appearance of idolatry is a sufficient chillul HaShem (whether in public or private) to require martyrdom. +1, by the way. –  Fred Sep 23 '12 at 21:28

Per Sanhedrin 74a there are three things a Jew is supposed to be a martyr for. Avodah Zara = idolatry, Gilui Arayos = sexual immorality, Shefichas Damim = being forced to kill another. So yes the right thing to do would be to get killed in such a situation.

In a Shaas HaShemad = a time when the Jews are not allowed to keep the Torah, per the Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:3, Ran Sanhedrin 74a, a Jew may even allow himself to get killed for any Mitzva in the Torah

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You left out (a SOURCE and) a discussion of sha'at hashemad, which is extremely relevant to this discussion. –  Double AA Feb 20 '12 at 22:03
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You are correct. I am going to add both of those on later. –  Gershon Gold Feb 20 '12 at 22:04
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I don't understand why you post your posts before they are done... No vote from me yet. –  Double AA Feb 20 '12 at 22:06
    
See Teshuva 235 hebrewbooks.org/… I can't really tell which side he's taking, but it seems like he's on your side. –  Double AA Feb 21 '12 at 5:13
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@Double AA, sometimes someone has an answer but not all the references are available or known at the moment. Such an answer can, I believe legitimately, serve as a place holder. Otherwise by the time you get your sources Double AA has posted the correct answer with sources and the only options are to post a redundant copy cat answer or not to answer at all. If someone in inaccurate or the information is to spotty because they are working from memory then downvote it if you feel appropriate. Otherwise it seems to me a fair use of the edit button. –  Yirmeyahu Feb 21 '12 at 17:12

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