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There is a principle in Jewish law that there are three transgressions that should not be committed, even on pain of death: murder, "sexual immorality" (a reference, presumably, to the sorts of prohibitions that one finds in Leviticus 18) and the worship of foreign gods.

While one is technically supposed to be killed rather than transgress any of these three, is one also theoretically required to submit to extended torture? If not, then do we also make a distinction on the basis of what form the execution takes? While one might be expected to submit to being hanged (for example), are they also expected to submit to being burned?

(With apologies for the gruesome question; I am simply interested in the contours of the halakha. It goes without saying, but sources are required.)

  • To clarify, are you asking about a torture that leads to death, or just a torture that one survives with excruciating pain (possibly for the rest of their long life)? – Salmononius2 Oct 19 '17 at 11:32
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    I don't understand why you included the words technically and theoretically. – msh210 Oct 20 '17 at 8:39
  • @msh210 - Because I don't see how you can actually mandate a person to die for something. If they choose to live, did they transgress? Who am I judge. – Shimon bM Oct 21 '17 at 9:26
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The Talmud Ketubot (33a) shows that lashes are worse than death by stating that had Hananya Mishael and Azarya been tortured, they would have worshiped the statue.

דאמר רב: אילמלי נגדוה לחנניה מישאל ועזריה, פלחו לצלמא

For Rav stated: Had they tortured Hanania Mishael and Azarya, they would have worshiped the statue.

The implication is that in the case of torture one may choose the sin.

However, Tosafot there (s.v. Ilmalei) ask that in Berakhot (61b) R. Akiva was tortured and nevertheless celebrated the fact that he would fulfill the obligation of martyrdom. Evidently, the obligation to sacrifice oneself rather than commit a cardinal sin applies even in the case of torture. Therefore, Rabbenu Tam concludes that the statue must not have been an actual idol, but was rather just meant to honour the king.

Thus, it is clear that according to Rabbenu Tam, even in the case of torture the obligation exists as with a case of death.

This is seconded by Ritva who writes (there):

עיקר הפירוש כדפירש ר"ת ז"ל דטעמא משום דצלמא דנבוכדנצר לאו ע"ז הוה דאם כן דכו"ע כשם שיהרג ואל יעבור כך ילקה כל יסורים שבעולם ולא יעבור

The primary explanation is that of Rabbenu Tam OBM that the reason [they would have worshiped] was that the statue of Nebuchadnezzar was not idolatrous, for if it were, according to all just as one must be killed and not transgress, so must one be undergo all the suffering in the world, and not transgress.

This is also assumed by R. Moshe Feinstein in Igrot Moshe (OH Vol. V:13).

However, there is a dissenting view cited in the Shitta Mekubetset there who opines that one is not obligated to undergo torture:

ובקונטריסין כתוב וז"ל אלמלא נגדוהו פי' ה"ר אליעזר דלא חייבה תורה אלא למסור עצמן למיתה כדכתיב בכל נפשך אפילו הוא נוטל את נפשך אבל להחמיר עליהם יותר ממיתה לא היו חייבים ויפה פי' ומה שהקשה עליו ר"ת ז"ל מר' עקיבא וחבריו שסרקו את בשרו במסרקות של ברזל ולא פלח. נ"ל דלא קשה מידי דהתם הכאה שיש בה קצבה הויא דכיון שסרקו את בשרו ברור הוא שימות במיתה גמורה במהרה וההיא הויא כמו נוטל את נפשך. אבל הא דאמר רב אלמלי נגדוהו כו' פירושו הכאה בלא מיתה קאמר כגון שהניחום שנה או שנתים ויכו אותם בכל יום והויא הכאה שאין לה קצבה שהיא חמירא יותר ממלקות ומיתה ובהא לא חייבתו תורה דלאו נוטל את נפשך הוא ע"כ

He adds that the case of R. Akiva was in actuality not included in this since his death was imminent, and he would not need to undergo protracted torture.

For what its worth, R. J. David Bleich claims in this article that:

It is thus clear that the consensus of halakhic opinion is that, when martyrdom is required, acceptance of torture is required as well.

He bases this on the assertion regarding the view cited in the Shitta Mekubetzet:

that view is an individual opinion and is implicitly rejected by a host of other authorities who address the problem and propose entirely different solutions.

However, his only cited source is Tosafot. In my opinion, this is too small a sample size to determine that the view in the ShM is rejected. More significant, in my opinion, is the absence of discussion of cases of torture being an exception to the normal inviolability of cardinal sins, in classical literature disussing martyrdom.

  • Regarding the statue not being an idol, see further bottom Tosfos on Avodah Zarah 3a which notes that the Gemara there makes reference to “Avraham who didn’t bow to idolatry” and “Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah who didn’t bow to the statue” - implying that a statue and idolatry are two different things. He then quotes the discussion referenced in this answer. – DonielF Oct 19 '17 at 15:16
  • We see from Assara harugei Malchus in Yom Kippur Machzor that Rabbi Chanania ben Chachinai was being bunt alive and they tried to prevent Him dying some wet wool against his heart This may be a proof for Rabeinu Tam.. – user15464 Oct 20 '17 at 11:07
  • @user15464 For reference, the story is in AZ 18. – DonielF Oct 22 '17 at 4:53
  • cheers doniel f i now saw your reference it was actually rav Chanania ben Tradion that was being burnt alive not Chanina Ben Chachinai. – user15464 Oct 24 '17 at 10:42

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