Yoma 85b expounds from Vayikra 18:5 that one should violate mitzvos if the other option is death. Sanhedrin 74a gives three major exceptions to this rule: idolatry, immorality, and murder.

Now, let's look at the context of Vayikra 18:5, with the key phrase from which Yoma 85b learns this law boldfaced:

אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֧י תַּעֲשׂ֛וּ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ לָלֶ֣כֶת בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ אִ֥ישׁ אִישׁ֙ אֶל־כָּל־שְׁאֵ֣ר בְּשָׂר֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִקְרְב֖וּ לְגַלּ֣וֹת עֶרְוָ֑ה אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ [...]‏

Guard my laws and ordinances that a man will do them and live in them, I am Hashem. No man should draw close to any close relative to expose nakedness; I am Hashem. [...]

Verses 6-30 continue on the theme of immorality, which is one of the exceptions to the rule that one should violate mitzvos rather than die!

Hashem could have taught this halacha anywhere; why did He teach it in the context of immorality, one of its exceptions?

  • 1
    And Molech which is one or both (machlokes) of the other exceptions in that category, and then in that same pasuk ולא תחלל which is the other category of exceptions.
    – Heshy
    Aug 19 '19 at 23:45
  • I don't have time to write it up as an answer, but see beta.hebrewbooks.org/reader/reader.aspx?sfid=47428#p=178 for several answers and sources.
    – Meir
    Aug 19 '19 at 23:53
  • @Meir Nice find! When you get a chance to write it up you'll definitely get my imaginary bonus points I can grant you.
    – DonielF
    Aug 20 '19 at 1:57
  • 1
    I haven’t read @meir’s link, but it might be exactly because they are exceptions that they’re listed there.
    – Lo ani
    Aug 20 '19 at 21:05

Adapting from here:

  • Panim Yafos (by the Baal Hahaflaah) and Pnei Dovid (by the Chida): to teach us that (according to Tosafos) even with arayos, where there's no maaseh, יהרג ואל יעבור doesn't apply.

  • Meshech Chochmah: to teach us that (according to the Shach's understanding of the Rambam) יהרג ואל יעבור doesn't apply to אביזרייהו דעריות, which is the subject of the next posuk.

  • Haamek Davar (Netziv): the whole reason for יו"י by arayos (according to the Sheiltos) is because of the woman's פגם; if she forgoes that, then וחי בהם applies.

  • Based on Tosafos: to teach us not to learn from arayos to the rest of the mitzvos (and say that יו"י applies to all of them).

  • Baal Haturim and Ohr Hachaim: almost the opposite -- that וחי בהם applies only to the rest of the mitzvos, but specifically not to arayos (and others like it).

  • FWIW Panim Yafos only works with some Rishonim, and Meshichah Chochmah is supported by Rambam but not other Poskim. Nice find!
    – DonielF
    Aug 20 '19 at 23:07

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