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There is a halachik principle brought down in the Talmud and codified in halacha known as shaat hashmad - a time of forced religious persecution. Generally, the rule is that any commandment of the Torah does not demand martyrdom for its observance with the exception of the 3 severe sins (idolatry, sexual crimes [i.e. adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality], and murder) and the desecration of G-d's name (see Rambam Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 5:2). However, at a time when there is a movement on the part of the non-Jewish authorities to destroy Jewish practices, then even minor commandments (or even mere customs) also demand martyrdom for their observance (see e.g. Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 5:3). What is the extent of this rule? Is a distinction made for when the existence of the entire Jewish people is threatened (e.g. in the days of Haman or the Holocaust) vs. just that of an individual ? Are there any other limitations that mitigate how widely this rule is applied - for example, is there any reason why it might not apply to being involved in halachically forbidden ceremonies (such as gay marriages or abortions) where the government might mandate the involvement as part of "anti-discrimination" statutes?

  • One thing to keep in mind is that for the past 2000 tears the Jews have become accustomed to periods of persecution, punctuated by interludes of peace. Nevertheless, my albeit limited forays through halachic literature show that the "shmad card" was rarely invoked. – mevaqesh Jul 7 '15 at 4:38
  • Why is mandating abortion an anti-religious law? – Double AA Jul 7 '15 at 15:42
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    Note that involvement in halachically forbidden ceremonies is not necessarily halachically forbidden itself. – Isaac Moses Jul 7 '15 at 18:11
  • Related: nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/… – Isaac Moses Jul 7 '15 at 19:40
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    I don't follow your latter case. It's where the government in an effort to wipe out Judaism's beliefs about abortion forces all Jewish doctors (or all Jews) in its jurisdiction on pain of death to perform abortions on random women? OK I guess that's shmad. Seems rather fantastical. – Double AA Jul 7 '15 at 22:54
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You ask, “Is a distinction made for when the existence of the entire Jewish people is threatened vs. just that of an individual (e.g. in the days of Haman or the Holocaust)?”

In Halacha 1, Rambam says,

Should a gentile arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah's commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed,

from the expression “and force a Jew” it seems that the mitzvo of giving up one's life applies even if the life of one Jew is threatened.

You ask, “Are there any other limitations that mitigate how widely this rule is applied - for example, is there any reason why it might not apply to being involved in halachically forbidden ceremonies (such as gay marriages or abortions) where the government might mandate the involvement as part of "anti-discrimination" statutes?”

Halacha 3 states,

All the above [distinctions] apply [only in times] other than times of a decree. However, in times of a decree - i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvot - one should sacrifice one's life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvot, whether one is compelled [to transgress] amidst ten [Jews] or one is compelled [to transgress merely] amidst gentiles.

From the text of Halacha 3 quoted above, it seems that to do the mitzvo of giving up one's life in the times of a decree, there must be a ruler who has the intention to nullify the Jewish faith or to nullify one of the mitzvos. The involvement which is expressly mandated because of "anti-discrimination" statutes seems not to meet the condition of nullifying the Jewish faith or one of the mitzvos.

  • I have to concur with Avrohom Yitzchok's interpretation of Halachah 3. If, however, Berith Milah were prohibited by statute, as was attempted in a municipality in California recently, that would be an issue of Shmad, more so than, say, banning Halachic Shehitah, where you would have an option of just eating vegetarian. – Seth J Jul 7 '15 at 17:32
  • Arguments for eating meat on Yom Tov notwithstanding, at least there the counterargument can be made that not everyone must eat meat, and people can therefore refrain. Berith Milah, however, is an instance in which Shev VeAl Ta'aseh does not solve anything. – Seth J Jul 7 '15 at 17:32
  • Baking a cake or arranging flowers for a same-sex marriage probably does not rise to that level. Officiating might, but even there the officiant isn't actually effecting Kiddushin, as Kiddushin cannot be effectuated in that circumstance. All it would be, in essence, is writing a(n Halachically) meaningless document and conducting a(n Halachically) meaningless ceremony. And in the case of such coercion, the penalty would seem to be civil, and it would be met with a strong communal defense and support. In other words, I don't think a single service provider would become a martyr. – Seth J Jul 7 '15 at 17:35
  • "halachically forbidden ceremonies such as gay marriages" Which Biblical or rabbinic commandment does this violate? – mevaqesh Sep 6 '15 at 1:30

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