MAIMONIDES' MAAMAR KIDDUSH HASHEM
Historical Evidence and Halakhic Principles on Apostasy
By Leon D. Stitskin
In his first public document, Maamar Kiddush Hashem, Maimonides demonstrated his unique scholarly approach of combining historical evidence and halakhic categories in support of formulated propositions. He commences his treatise with an examination of the tragic problem of forced apostasy from an historical perspective before expounding upon the halakhic dimension. The attempt to combine both disciplines in a responsum is, indeed, unique. It raises the question, however, whether it was necessary to brìng to bear the testimony of history when the Halakhah, which constitutes the norm and ultimate authority in such matters, was abundantly clear and decisive without any need to refer to historical precedents. Should we perhaps assume, as do Yellin and Abrahams, in their biography of Maimonides, that "Like a skilful physician who accurately diagnoses his patient's symptoms, Maimonides at first soothed the Sufferer. . . persuaded the pseudo-Moslems that they had not lost their inheritance in the God of Israel?"
However, if we accept the opinion that Maimonides was motivated by pure sentiment to lift the despairing hearts of his persecuted people, the historical section in his treatise should have appeared after he had first delineated the halakhic aspects of forced apostasy which were decisive in determining the proper response. Apparently, by reversing the order of the two disciplines, we must assume that the historical argument served as evidence for the determination of new halakhic decisions not derived from Talmudic halakhic sources and not discussed in his Yad. This wil become clear after we examine the halakhic principles of his responsum in more detail.
In his Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Rambam repeats the Talmudic discourse on Kiddush and Hillul Hashem, stating that capital offences of idolatry, unchastity and murder have to he resisted even at the cost of suffering death. With regard to other cummandments, the idolator's motive (Kavanah), circumstance (be-farhesyah), and the period of apostasy, (b'shaat ha-Shemad), are crucial. Only when the motive of the persecutors to compel a deliberate rejection of religion in public and not for the purpose of personal advantage is one required to avoid compliance even at the cost of martyrdom. At a time of persecution, however, there is no distinction between a violation of any commandment in public or in private. By the same token, the neglect of moral duties toward our neighbors, that cast dishonor on our name. constitutes Hillul ha-Shem.
The above distinction Maimonides draws from Talmudic sources.1 Adhering to his general method in the Yad, he reproduces the halakhic content directly from the Talmud without philosophic or historical considerations. In this Treatise on Apostasy, however, there are some new elements to be considered and new conclusions to be reached. These are derived but are not explicit in the halakhic aspect of the Talmud and require the testimony of the past as found in Scriptures and the historical aspects of Talmudic literature. The first is that of one who has yielded to coercion instead of undergoing martyrdom. While he acted badly. yet no punishment can be imposed upon him and no Jewish court can intervene against him. To rule otherwise. as this fanatic zealot had done, (an anonymous rabbi circulated a responsum calling upon the Jews of Morocco to suffer death rather than utter the Islamic formula), is a gross misrepresentation of Judaism. For he does not distinguish between those who transgress under compulsion and those who do so from sheer wickedness. Such a severe judgment is contrary to the testimony of the past. For do we not find that some of the greatest men in Israel, Moses, Elijah and Isaiah were punished for inveighing against the apostasy of Israel. implying the imposition of punishment?2
Secondly, the present persecution differs from previous periods of apostasy. In former cases Our people were under compulsion to transgress the law in action; whereas the present oppression required no overt act but only the utterance of an empty formula which the Moslems themselves knew was uttered insincerely to circumvent the bigot.
Appealing to historical precedent at the time of the Roman persecution, when Rabbis Meir and Eliezar had saved their lives by pretending they were not Jews,3 Maimonides argued passionately: Would this fanatic consider Rabbis Meir and Eliezar non Jews? Hence if a man asks me "Shall I be slain – or utter the formula of Islam?" I answer, "Utter the formula and live!"
Finally, when one has submitted to forced apostasy and continues to live in such a state, he should nevertheless not abandon the hope that God wil reward the good works, performed in this state, though few in number, and even double his reward because he exposed himself to danger. Citing instances in Jewish history, Maimonides refers to Ahab who worshipped idols, but afterwards fasted two and a half hours and prayed to God, that his prayers were accepted and that he was rewarded for this single act (T.B. Taanit 25b). Another instance was Nebuchadnezzar, who was allowed to reign as long as King Solomon because he honored the Lord on one occasion.
Admittedly, Maimonides displayed a skilful application of sources and scientific method in marshalling historical evidence which he did not hesitate to use in establishing some halakhic propositions. While in the Yad, he was satisfied, in the main, to reproduce the content of the Talmud per se, in his other works, especially "The Guide" and in his Letters, he did not hesitate to combine philosophical and historical considerations with halakhic principles. Following is my translation of Maimonides' first part of Maamar Kiddush Hashem. A translation of the other sections appears here (Part 5).
Maimonides' "Letter Concerning Apostasy" 1160
Thus says Moses, the son of Maimon, the Judge, the Sephardi:
A contemporary of ours addressed a question concerning the
tragic problem of apostasy to a pseudo-scholar,4 who lived in a
community, which unlike most other places was spared the af-
fliction of apostasy, may the Almighty uproot it. It involved
some Jews who, under compulsion, had to confess the authenticity
of Mohammed as God's messenger and as a true prophet.
They were given one of two choices: Either to accept the Mohammedan
confession and spare their children from falling into
the hands of their oppressors5 or refuse to pronounce the Islamic
formula and suffer martydom – a fate presumably prescribed
by the laws of Moses. The dilemma was compounded by the
apprehension that the bearing of witness to the Islamic faith
might ultimately lead to the undermining of the entire corpus of
The consultant responded in a most derisive and distasteful
manner, stylistically and contextually. The arguments projected
by him were without foundation even for the unenlightened. At
first I was tempted to reproduce6 the entire7 text of his respon-
sum – despite its length, misrepresentation and confusion – were
it not for the fact that I was solicitous of human speech which
the Almighty has vouchsafed unto us as an act of kindness, as
we read in holy writ: "Who hath given speech to man. . . is it
not I the Lord" (Exodus 4: 99)? Accordingly, it is incumbent
upon us to be more sparing in speech than in the acquisition of
material possessions, keeping in mind that excessive verbiage
often beclouds relevant content, a practice denounced by the
wise author of Ecclesiastes (5: 2): "For a dream cometh through
with much content and the voice of a fool cometh with a multi"
tude of words." By the same token, Job's friends took him to
task for extravagant talk when they said: "Shall a multitude of
words not be answered? And is it so that a man full of talk shall
be deemed in the right?" (Job 11: 2). "Job had not spoken with
knowledge and his words are without intelligence" (ibid. 34,
35). Clearly, because we are grounded in this matter and find
it hard to tolerate the ignorance of this man, we have selected
just a part of his responsum, omitting the extraneous material,
that does not merit a response, although upon closer examination
the entire text is of the same character. Consider, for instance,
his statement to the effect that he' who utters the formula of
Mohammedan Confession,9 it is accounted unto him as if he
denied the Lord, the God of Israel. He supports his conclusion
by citing the rabbinic admonition "that one who admits to idol
worship, it is as if he denied the whole Torah."10 But he fails
to distinguish between one who confesses to idol worship with"
out compulsion as Jeroboam and his followers did, and another,
who is coerced at the point of a sword, into uttering an empty
formula referring to that impostor as a prophet.
To be sure, I was reluctant at first to controvert his statement
until I became aware of the entire responsum, in keeping
with the admonition of the wise author, "when one returneth an
answer before he understandeth, it is folly unto him and shame"
(Proverbs 18: 13). When I probed further into the text, I discovered
the following: that he who utters this formula, even if
he fulfiIl the whole Torah in secret and in public, must be considered
a pagan.11 Apparently, there is no distinction in his dis-
torted mind12 between one who does not observe the Sabbath
because of coercion or wilfully. He states further: that if one
just enters Islamic houses of worship to pray although he does
not utter a sound and then proceeds to his own home to offer his
prayers, that the latter is accounted unto him as an affront and
a sin, as the sages maintain, quoting the verse: "'For two evils
have my people committed' (Jeremiah 2: 13), they bowed down
to the idol and to their house of worship."13 Again he made no
distinction between one who prostrated himself before idols and
temples as an act of apostasy in order to contaminate God's
Holy Place and profane His sacred name or one who enters such
places under compulsion with the intention to extol God's name
and not to make a single pronouncement contrary to his religious
beliefs. He, moreover, maintains that a forced Mohammedan
confession brands him as a wicked person and consequently
the Torah disqualifies him as a witness as we read: "put
not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness"
(Exodus 23: 11 ), implying "that the wicked cannot be a witness."14
After reading his reviling, blasphemous and long harangue
reflecting his ignorance and folly, I was still hesitant to initiate
a confrontation with him until I read his final words in keeping
with Solomon's exhortations: "Better is the end of a thing than
the beginning thereof" (Ecclesiastes 7: 8). And alas I came
across the following startling concluding remarks: "Heretics and
Christians would rather submit to death than accept the Islamic
doctrines. "15 When I pondered the implication of this statement
I was shocked with amazement and exclaimed: Is there no God
in Israel! Suppose the practice of heathen worshippers entailed
the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings, should we, therefore,
emulate them and act likewise in the service of our God. Woe
to such questions, woe to such a response.16 Manifestly, when
I observed, in the beginning of his responsum an attempt to marshal
evidence that does not square with his thesis and, in the
end, an outrageous distortion which might be interpreted as
justification of heretics and Christians, I exclaimed, how appropriate
is the scriptural, observation: 17 "The beginning of the
words of his mouth is foolishness and the last that cometh out
of his mouth is evil bringing madness."
One should know, moreover, that before communicating ideas
to the general public, it is essential to review them thoroughly,
two, three, or four times in private prior to exposing them in
public. Our sages,18 derived such a procedure from the four-fold
expression in scriptures: "Then did he see her, and make her
known, he established her and also searched out" (Job 28:37).
Following that statement we read:19 "And he said unto man."
The reference here is thus to oral communication. When one
is involved, however, in putting something in writing, an even
greater effort of a possible thousand-fold review is required. But
this man who obviously failed to act in this manner preferred
to cast his notions into a fixed mold in haste without fist preparing
a draft copy for review and proper corrections. Reflecting
an arrogance that entertains no doubts about one's position,
he proceeded, in a doctrinaire fashion, to dispatch his responsum
through a messenger to every city and country plunging the
hearts of our co-religionists into darkness which is reflected in
the words of the psalmist:20 "He sent darkness and caused it to
I shall proceed now to explain the grievous error committed
by this fanatic doctrinaire, who failed to realize the consequences
of his own actions. One wonders how he could possibly conceive
that he was doing the right thing when the result of his
actions was so disastrous! Moreover, in the process of rendering
his decision, he produced many illustrations that were incongruous
to the central theme. His language was verbose, mechanically
following the so-called dictates of the "pen" (rather than
In refutation of his distorted arguments, I wish to state the
following: Our rabbis have made it clear that the children of
Israel before the exodus from Egypt, with the exception of the
tribe of Levi at the time of Moses, deviated from the true paths
of Judaism and even neglected the covenant of circumcision.
When the laws of Passover were introduced and Moses was com-
manded . . . "that no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof"
(Exodus 12:48), he exhorted his people to perform the mitzvah
of circumcision as our rabbis tell us "Moses circumcised them,
Joshua split the membrane of the corona and Aaron drained
the blood. "21 When the foreskins piled up in large heaps and
their blood mingled with the blood of the Paschal lamb, the
Israelites merited redemption,22 as the prophet Ezekiel declared
. . .23 "and I saw thee stained with thine own blood and
I said unto thee, in thy blood, live." Thus the assertion by the
sages that the defection of the Israelites in Egypt consisted of
their failure to perform the mitzvah of circumcision coincides
with the word of God, "Son of man, there were two women, the
daughters of one mother . . ." (Ezekiel 23: 2) 24
But despite their evil practices and deviations, Moses himself
was condemned by the Almighty for accusing them of faithlessness,
when he said, "behold they will not believe in me" (Exodus
4: 1). He was, thereupon, admonished: Moses! they are believers
and the children of believers as it is written "and the
people believe" (ibid. 31), and with regard to being the children
of believers, we read, "and he believed in the Lord, and he
accounted it to him for righteousness" (Genesis 15: 6). 25 But as
far as Moses was concerned, it turned out that in the end, he
was the unbeliever, as we find "because you have not believed
in me, to sanctify me before the eyes of the children of Israel,"26
and he was subsequently punished. In keeping with the rabbinic
dictum, "one who accuses the innocent is subject to personal
punishment as was the case with Moses."27
A similar situation prevailed at the time of Elijah when almost
all of the Israelites, with the exception of "seven thousand28 (all
the knees which have not been bent unto Ba'al and every mouth
which had not kissed him)", were idol worshippers wilfully submerged
in sin. But in spite of their transgressions when Elijah
inveighed against the apostasy of his coreligionists at Horeb,
we find: "And he said unto him, what does thou here Elijah?
And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God
of hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant"
(I Kings 9-10). And the Lord said to him: perchance it is your
covenant? And he answered: "Thy altars have they thrown
down." And again the Lord asked: "Are they perchance your
altars? And he answered. "And thy prophets have they slain
with the sword." And the Lord said: But you have survived!
Elijah responded: "And I am left by myself alone and they have
sought my life to take it away." But the Holy One, blessed be
He, retorted: Instead of condemning the Israelites, you should
have blamed the heathens who maintain houses of adultery and
idol worship as we read in Isaiah (17: 2): "Forsaken are the
cities of Aroer" and Kings (19: 15) . . . "Go, return on the
way to the wilderness of Damascus."29 All this is clearly elucidated
by our sages in the Midrash Hazita (Shir-ha-Shirim 1 :6).30
By the same token, the people of Israel were submerged in
sin at the time of Isaiah as we read: "Wo, sinful nation" (Isaiah
1 : 14). There were idolaters among them, cf., "And behind the
doors and door-posts hast Thou placed thy mark of remembrance"
(ibid. 57: 8 ). There were also among them assassins,
cf., "How is she became a harlot. . . but now murderers" (ibid.
1 :21), profaners of God's name, cf., "Let us eat and drink, for
tomorrow we must die" (ibid. 22: 13);31 contemptuous of God's
precepts, cf., "Depart you out of the way, turn aside out of the
path, remove from before us the holy one of Israel (ibid.
30: 11 ). And yet, despite all these corruptions, when Isaiah uttered
the words, "And in the midst of a people of unclean lips
do I dwell" (ibid. 6: 5), immediately, "Then flew unto me
one of the seraphim and in his hand was a live coal . . . and he
touched therewith upon my mouth and said, Lo, this hath
touched thy lips and thy iniquity is departed and thy sin is forgiven"
(ibid. 6:1-7). However, our rabbis assert that Isaiah's
accusation was atoned for only by his death at the hand of
Likewise when one of the seraphim accused Joshua, the son
of Jozadak that his sons had taken alien lives, making them unfit
for the priesthood,33 the Almighty removed him as we read,
"The Lord rebuke thee, O accused, yea the Lord rebuke thee
that hath chosen Jerusalem; is not this a brand plucked out of
the fie?" (Zechariah 3:2) .
Now if such punishment was meted out to great pillars of
Judaism like Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and ministering angels be-
cause they maligned the people of Israel, we imagine the penalty
awaiting an ordinary, insignificant simpleton, who with a loose
tongue dared to assail whole communities, their scholars, their
disciples, priests and Levites, calling them transgressors, wicked
men, heathens unfit to bear witness, and deniers. of the Lord of
Israel. How much more severe his punishment will be considering
he stated those accusations in writing with his own hands!
For, alas, the oppressed did not rebel against God because of
evil passions or lust. They strayed from the Law not because
of a relentless pursuit of high position or evil passions as the
prophet exclaimed: "Because from the swords they fled, from
the drawn sword and from the bent bow and from the pressure
of war" (Isaiah 21:15). Does not this man know that God does
not forsake or abandon the innocent transgressors, "For he hath
not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the poor (Psalms
22:25). On the verse "and he smelled the smell of his garment"
(Genesis 27:27), our sages comment that the term begadav (his
garment) is interchangeable with the word bogedav (renegade).35
Apparently whatever he said was a fabrication.
Moreover, it is generally known that R. Meir was incarcerated
during a period of massive apostasy which brought death upon
many of our sages. When an attempt was made by the interrogators
to identify him as Rabbi Meir, he denied the identification.
Whereupon, they brought before him a morsel of pork,
and said to him, eat it if you are not a Jew. He agreed and pretended
to consume the food although he did not really eat it.36
Now in the eyes of the presumptuous extremist, Rabbi Meir
should have been considered a pagan in keeping with his treatise:
"one who appears in public like a pagan and in private an
Israelite is to be regarded as a pagan, inasmuch as he conceals
his worship of God like Rabbi Meir."
It is likewise well-known that Rabbi Eliezar was arrested because
of "heresy,"37 which is regarded as a graver offense than
pagan worship, inasmuch as heretics-may the Almighty strike
them down-scoff at our religious laws and say: "one is a fool
to practice them and insane to study them." They likewise denied
completely the notion of prophecy.
Now since Eliezar was well versed in the sciences, they ques-
tioned him as to how a man of such intellectual acumen could
possibly believe in Judaism? He proceeded, however, to answer
them in such an ambivalent manner that it could be construed
that he was a follower of their persuasion, while in reality he
had in mind the authentic faith of Judaism.
This incident is related in the Midrash Ecclesiastes and we
quote: "R. Eliezar was arrested because of heresy and the governor
took him and made him ascend a dais, to be tried. He
asked him, 'How can a sage like you occupy himself with those
idle matters?' He answered him, 'Faithful is the judge concerning
me.' The governor thought he was alluding to him, whereas,
by the term judge, he was referring to God. He thereupon said
to him, 'Since you have acknowledged me to be right, I am
wondering how those academies should go astray with such idle
matters. You are consequently acquitted and free.' "
It is thus clear that Rabbi Eliezar, although in his heart was
steadfastly devoted to our Heavenly Father, apparently manifested
to the governor some sympathy for the heretics which,
according to the Talmud were more reprehensible than pagan
worship.38 Consequently, in accordance with the conclusion of
this zealot in his responsum Rabbi Eliezar should have been
condemned.39 By the same token, the apostasy we are experiencing
consists of no overt acts of commission but of a simple
uttering of a formula of faith which even our adversaries are
convinced we do not believe. Compare the metaphor, "they
prayed insincerely to him with their mouth and with their tongue
they lied unto him" (Psalms 78:36).
Furthermore, the vicissitudes visited upon Israel at the time
of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar are well known. Everyone in
Babylon had to prostrate before the pagan idols with the exception
of Hananyah, Mishael and Azaryah who evoked the Almighty's
praise, "Not now shall Jacob be ashamed and not now
shall his face be made pale" (Isaiah 29: 22). Even the craftsmen
and locksmiths were not spared from bowing to idols, and
yet we find nowhere any reference to them as wicked, or pagan
or disqualified witnesses. Nor was this act accounted unto them
as a transgression of pagan worship, inasmuch as they were
under compulsion. Our sages also indicate: They committed an
offense for appearance sake and I shall treat them in kind at
the time of Haman (T.R. Megillah 12a). However, of this rabbi,
although he may be God-fearing, it should be said: "Woe unto
him that contendeth with the one who formed him – a potsherd
among the potsherds of the earth – Shall the clay say to him
that fashioned it, what makest thou?" (Isaiah 45: 9 ) .
By the same token, we are familiar with the repressive decrees
imposed by the wicked Syrian Kingdom upon our people. Prominent
among them was a prohibition against closing the door
of their homes which would deprive them of the privacy required
for the practice of their religion. And yet our sages never referred
to our people as wicked or pagan but, on the contrary,
referred to them as righteous and prayed for them. In the special
Chanukah passage of Al Hanisim, which they added to our other
prayers, they speak of delivering "the wicked unto the righteous."
Had we not agreed at the outset not to reproduce the entire
exposition of this indiscreet chatterer, 40 I would have presented
his text in full for your information. How can one be so ignorant
of his own deficiencies and articulate such words or write a
response which is utterly irrelevant to' the one question addressed
to him ?41 He assembled evidence from such laws pertaining to
"false witness," the cursing of one's father and mother, the precept
of four-cornered fringes, the ploughing of an ox and ass
together, the mixture of heterogeneous animals. One would imagine
he was asked to compose a complete treatise on the prohibitions
and to enumerate all the positive mitzvot. He further
states that the Mohammedans have a pagan altar in Mecca and
in other places as if someone inquired of him whether it is permissible
to celebrate a festival in Mecca. His assertion that Mohammed42
was responsible for the extermination of twenty-four
thousand Jews is likewise astonishing, inasmuch as no one asked
him whether Mohammed merited a share in the world to come.
He makes many other similar statements which are equally irrelevant.
He should have paid more attention to the words of
Solomon:43 "Suffer not thy mouth to be rash and let thy heart
not be hasty to utter any word before God." If he had only pon-
dered this verse, he would have been aware that one who responds
to a theological question or expounds upon a ritual mat-
ter is doing it in the presence of God. (He would have been
spared from falling into such errors.)
And God is my witness – and that is sufficient for me44 – that
if he, who has uttered these reproaches against us had uttered
many more, we should not have considered it injurious or sought
support for ourselves. We should have said: "Let us lie in our
shame and let our confusion cover us, for we and our ancestors
have sinned against the Lord our God" (Jeremiah 3: 25). We
would have even extolled his virtues and testified that his intentions
were to glorify our Heavenly Father. For after all we are
aware of our human frailties and we are not foolhardy. "We
know, O Lord our wickedness, the iniquity of our father; for
we have sinned against thee" (Jeremiah 14:20).
Had he not put these words in writing, we. would not have
contended with him. But now that he has stated that anyone
of the apostates who prays does not receive any reward for his
deed but in reality commits a transgression, we dare not be complacent
or remain silent. For what once has been stated in writing,
whether valid or invalid, will no doubt spread among people
and become the chief cause for harboring wrong notions. Many
false opinions have been caused by nothing else but the mere
fact of their having been put into a book. And that is the way
false notions gain followers. For credence is readily given to
the written word, no matter how misleading, over one's oral
testimony, even to the point of frequently causing new sects to
emerge. Thus we became apprenhensive lest this responsum concerning
the apostate will reach the multitude, causing them to
refrain from praying, since there would be no hope or reward
in their prayers, nor in the performance of other religious duties.
I shall now proceed to point out further the errors of this
man's utter confusion:45 The Bible describes Ahab b. Omri as
a denier of God and worshipper of idols of whom it is said:46
"But indeed there was none like unto Ahab," and yet when he
fasted for two and one half hours, our rabbis tell us, the severe
decree against him was annulled" (B.T. Taanith 25), as we
read: "And the word of the Lord, came to Elijah Tishbi: saying:
Hath thou seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me?
Therefore because he has humbled himself before me will I not
bring the evil in his days: in the days of his son will I bring the
days of evil on his h0l.se" (I Kings 21: 29). Thus the Holy One
did not deprive him of his reward for the sake of his fast.
Eglon, King of Moab, who oppressed the Israelites was rewarded
nevertheless for showing honor to the God of Israel.
When Ehud said to him: 47 "I have a message from God,"
he arose from his throne. For this act of deference, he was rewarded
that his descendant, King Solomon, "sat on the throne
of the Lord" (I Chronicles 1: 29, 23), and the throne of the
Messianic King will someday be occupied by another of his descendants,
as our rabbis assert that Ruth, the Moabite, who was
the progenitor of the Davidistic dynasty was his daughter (B.T.
Nazir 23). We see thus again that God did not deprive him of
Likewise, the wicked Nebuchadnezzar who massacred numberless
Jews and destroyed our Lord's Temple was permitted to
reign forty years, as long as King Solomon, for having run four
big steps to make sure that the Lord's name precedes the name
of Hezekiah as the rabbis indicate: 48 "He ran after him four
long steps" (B.T. Sanhedrin 96a). Again we see that the Holy
One has not deprived him of his reward.
Also the wicked Esau who provoked the enmity of the Divine
as recorded in Malachi (1:3), "But Esau I hated," which our
sages interpreted to refer to his evil deeds, as they say "on that
day he committed five offenses: murder, idol worship, adultery,
denied resurrection and disgraced his birth right (B.T. Baba
Batra 16b) – his offenses were, moreover, compounded by
wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and approaching his father
Isaac, inquiring hypocritically whether one has to offer a tithe
on salt and thus pretending that he was ever so punctual in the
observance of mitzvot – but despite those aberrations, when he
observed one precept of honoring his father, he was granted uninterrupted
sovereignty until the advent of Messianic period,
as the rabbis state:49 The Kingdom of David will not be ushered
in until Esau will receive his due reward for having honored
his father and mother as we read: "Who sent me after glory
unto the nations" (Zechariah 2:12). This is generally the opinion
of our sages expressed in various places: "The Holy One
does not deprive any person of the reward due him for the performance
of good deeds and the punishment for evil deeds for
one who has not repented."50
Now if those infamous atheists were rewarded by God for the
performance of just a minor good deed, how can we say that
the Lord wil not recompense the children of Israel who, while
they dwell in a forced pseudo-apostasy, practice the mitzvot in
secret. It is apparent from the response of this anonymous zealot
that there is no distinction between one who observes the mitzvot
and worships God and one who does not. As a matter of fact,
he concludes from the Biblical verse "for two evils has my people
committed," that if this pseudo-apostate prays it is counted
unto him as a sin.51 Accordingly, he does not even cease from
maligning the people of his gttneration even to the point of con-
tradicting the opinion of our sages and our Creator as we explained.
He maintains steadfastly that the pseudo-apostate will
be punished for keeping God's ordinances such as "prayer for
the pseudo-apostate is a sin." Of such judgment Solomon said:
"Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt, neither say
thou before the messenger, that it was an error" (Ecclesiastes
5 : 5 ).52
When I observed this shocking phenomenon, which was sickening
to the eye, I decided to gather spices and roots from the
ancient books, from which I would make a salutory mixture
as an antidote to the disease, and cure it, with God's help. 53
I decided to divide my comments in regards to this matter
into five categories. The first category is in reference to the distinction
in the application of the precepts (mitzvot) in a period
of persecution. The second category defines the profanation of
the Holy Name and its punishment. The third principle delineates
the various levels of martyrs and those who transgressed
under duress during a period of forced apostasy. The fourth
category deals with the present unprecedented persecution, and
the proper behavior required during this period. The fifth principle
is an attempt to convey, in a simple manner, the steps one
may take to guard himself during the present persecution-may
the Almighty abolish it.
The first category divides the manner of the observance of the
precepts at a time of persecution into three principles. The first
deals with the prohibition of idolatry, unchastity, ánd murder.
The law requires that any time one is forced to commit anyone
of these offenses, he is commanded to suffer death, at all times,
in all places, and under all circumstances, rather than transgress.
By the term "at all times," I refer to either a period of persecution
or not. "In all places," alludes to both private and public
performance, and the expression "under all circumstances," indicates
that one has to suffer death whether the motive of the
idolator is to compel the Israelite to violate the ordinances of his
religion or his purpose is personal advantage.
With regard, however, to all other commandments save the
aforementioned three, if one is coerced into violating any of
them, one has to consider whether the coercion was motivated
for personal advantage of the persecutor. In that ease he is permitted
to transgress the law rather than suffer death. This applies
to every period whether it is one of persecution or not, and
in every circumstance, private or public. An example of such a
circumstance is found in the chapter of Ben Sorer U'moreh
(T.R. Sanhedrin). The rabbis ask: "But did not Esther transgress
publicly?54 Abaye answered: Esther was merely natural
soiL. Raba said: When they (se. the persecutors) demand it for
their personal pleasure, it is different. For otherwise, how dare
we yield to them (sc. the Parsees or fie worshippers) our
braziers (or fire bellows) and coal shovels? But for their personal
pleasure is different: so here too (in Esther's case). This
(answer) concurs with Raba's view expressed elsewhere. For
Raha said: If a Gentile said to a Jew, 'Cut grass on the Sabbath
for the cattle, and if not I will slay thee,' he must rather cut it
than be slain. If he said 'Cut it and throw it into the river,' he
should rather be slain than cut it. Why so? – Because his intention
is to force him to violate his religion." And since we have
established that we abide by the decision of Raba, it is clear
that if transgression is committed for the persecutors personal
benefit, one may violate the law even publicly and even during
a period of persecution rather than suffer death.
If the idolator's intention, however, was aimed at forcing him
to violate the ordinance of his religion, we have to consider the
following: if the period was one of persecution, one has to suffer
death rather than violate the law, whether the coercion be in
private or in public. On the other hand, if the period was not
one of apostasy, then if one were coerced to violate his religion
only privately, then one may transgress rather than incur martyrdom.
If the transgression has to be done publicly, then one
must suffer death rather than violate the law. The following constitutes
the essence of the rabbinic statement on his matter.
"When Rab Dimi came, he said in R. Johanan's name: At a
time free of religious persecution, it was only permitted in private;
but in public one must be martyred in keeping with rabbinic
strictures, even for a minor precept rather than violate it.
What is meant by a 'minor precept?' – Raba son of R. Isaac
said in Raba's name: 'even to change one's shoe lace. '55 And how
many make it public? R. Jacob said in R. Johanan's name: 'The
minimum for public knowledge is ten. Obviously we mean ten
Jews'" (Sanhedrin 74b).
The second category defines the profanation of the Holy Name
and its punishment, which may be divided into two parts. The
first is of a universal, and the second, of a particular nature.
The universal is, in turn, subdivided into two types. The first
type is of one who commits ,a sin out of spite, i.e., not for personal
pleasure or delight, but rather to demonstrate his contempt
and rejection of religion. Such an act is considered a desecration
of the Holy Name. It is with reference to this type that the
Blessed One said, "and you shall not swear falsely in My Name,
and desecrate the name of your God" (Leviticus 19: 12). Reference
here is to an act which brings no personal pleasure nor
gain,56 and if perpetrated publicly, it is accounted unto the transgressor
if he had desecrated the Holy Name of God publicly.
We have already indicated that in every instance when the term
"publicly," is used, reference is to ten Jews.
The second type refers to a person who displays a cynical
disregard of public opinion with reference to his physical behavior
and thereby is held up to public ridicule and slander.
Such an individual, although he committed no sin, has nevertheless
desecrated the Holy Name. Every person should be sensitive
to public censure, just as one has to guard against sins committed
against the Creator, as we read, "And you shall be pure
before God and Israel" (Numbers 32:22). The rabbis further
maintain: R. Nahman, son of Yizhak said, "As people say, may
the Lord forgive this man's actions." And they continue: "As
for example, his friends, are embarrassed by the rumors concerning
him" (T.B. Yoma 86a).
The specific element is also divided into two types. The first,
represents a self-respecting pious individual who performs an
act which, while legally defensible, is unfit for a man of high
repute, of whom generally more is expected than of an ordinary
person, then he is guilty of having desecrated the Holy Name.
This is the manner Rab defines the profanation of the Holy
Name: "For example, if I would purchase meat and do not pay
promptly, that is to say, it is not fitting for a man of his position
to buy anything unless paid for at once without procrastination,
although such a practice is permissible for others: Likewise, the
comment by R. Johanan is a case in point: "For example, if I
walk fourpaces without phylacteries." The point here is that it
is not fitting for a man of his calibre to do so. Thus we find in
the Talmud the dictum concerning "the distinctiveness of the
The second type of the specific element delineates a learned
person who conducts his commercial affairs with his fellowman
with disdain and in an unseemly, hideous manner. He receives
people in an irascible, contemptuous manner, devoid of any display
of affable social behavior or the usual discreet and courteous
amenities. Such an individual is guilty of desecrating the Holy
Name. Referring to them the sages say (Yoma 86): "But if
someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, but is dishonest in business,
and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people
say about him ? 'Woe unto him who studied the Torah, woe
unto his father who taught him Torah: woe unto his teacher
who taught him Torah!' This man has studied the Torah: Look,
how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways; of him Scripture
says: 'In that men said of them: These are the people of the
Lord, and are gone forth out of His Land!'''
If not for my apprehension at unduly prolonging this essay
and deviating from the intending theme, I would expound upon
the proper social amenities incumbent upon us to observe as
well as delineate the proper kind of activities, the kind of conversation
to engage in and above all the art of greeting our fellowmen
in a manner that would evoke the praise of everyone
we communicate and come in contact with. I would also like
to further elucidate upon the rabbinic dictum "to be honest in
business transactions, and gentle in his conversation with his
fellow creatures." But this would require a long treatise. Let me
therefore return to my subject matter.
Sanctification of the Divine Name is the contrary of the desecration
of the Name, to wit: When one performs a commandment
without an ulterior motive save out of love and service of
the Lord, he sanctifies the Holy Name in public. Likewise, a
person's exemplary behavior callng for admiration sanctifies
the name, as we quoted before the rabbi's statement:58 "At a
time when man . . . and he said unto me, thy servant art thou
o Israel, thou on whom I will be glorified." By the same token,
a distinguished person who refrains from certain activities that
may appear reprehensible to others, although not to himself; also
sanctifies the Divine Name as we read . . ." and perverseness of
lips put away far from thee" (Proverbs 4: 24).
Now the desecration of God's Name is a grave offense incurring
punishment for the unintentional as well as the wilful transgressor
as the rabbis say: "whether the Divine Name is desecrated
in ignorance or in wilfulness" (A both 4: 5 ).59 Likewise for
all other iniquities a period of grace is granted but for profaning
God's Name, the penalty is swift as the sages say: "The punishment
for the sins committed by profaning the Lord's Name,
whether done intentionally or not intentionally is not put on
credit. What is the meaning of "it is not put on credit." It is
not like a storekeeper who sells on the installment plan which
means that the debt is paid in driblets, but paid at once"60 (T.B.
Moreover, one who profanes God's Name in secret is punished
publicly as the rabbis assert,60 "Whosoever desecrates the Divine
Name in secret will incur the penalty in public."
Clearly, the desecration of the Holy Name surpasses all other
iniquities for which neither the Day of Atonement, nor personal
suffering or penance can atone for completely. The latter may
only suspend punishment but full atonement comes only with
death as the rabbis maintain: "If he has been guilty of the profanation
of the Name, then penitence has. no power to suspend
punishment, nor. the Day of Atonement to procure atonement,
nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the
punishment and only death completes it, as it is said: "And the
Lord of hosts revealed Himself in my ears; surely this iniquity
shall not be expiated by you till ye die."61 Obviously, reference
here is only to one who commits the crime of profanation of
God's Name wilfully as we shall explain.
Admittedly, just as the desecration of the Name is a gross
iniquity, so is the sanctification of His Name of supreme merit
for which there accrues abundant reward. It is incumbent upon
every Israelite to sanctify the Holy Name as the Sifra interprets
the verse, "I am the Lord who brought you forth out of the
land of Egypt to be unto you a God" (Leviticus 25: 38), in order
that you may sanctify my Name in public. They further comment
in the Talmudic Chapter Ben Sorer Umoreh, "It was asked
of R. Amai: Is a Noachide bound to sanctify the Divine Name
or not?" (T.B. Sanhedrin 74b). From this we may deduce that
. with regard to an Israelite there can be no question ;:hout his
obligation to sanctify the Divine Name as we read "And I shall
be sanctified among the children of Israel" (Leviticus 22:32).
The third category deals with the various degrees of martyrdom______________________
and coercion during a period of forced apostasy. Know,
that in every instance where the rabbis declare "better to suffer
death than to commit a transgression," if indeed one did incur
martyrdom he already sanctified the Name, and if he did it in
the presence of ten Jews he has publicly sanctified the Name,
just as Chananiah, Mishael, Azariah and Daniel, the ten martyrs,
62 the seven sons of Hannah63 and others of Israel who died
for the sanctification of the Name. May the Merciful One speedily
avenge their blood. Regarding them it says:64 "Gather to me,
my pious ones: those who made my covenant, sacrifice to me."
The rabbis commenting on the verse "'I adjure you, daughter
of Jerusalem, by the armies, by the rams of the field' (Canticles
2:7): I adjure you, in the generations of apostasy; by the armies,
they did my bidding and I did theirs, by the rams of the field –
they spilled their blood for me like the blood of a deer or ram,
as it is said: 'for your sake we were slain daily'" (Psalms 44:23).
Moreover, a person whom God considered worthy to rise to
this high plateau of undergoing martyrdom, i.e., for the sanctification
of the Name, even if his sins were like those of Jeroboam,
son of Nabot and his comrades, or he was not a learned
man, he will still inherit a share in the world to come. Thus said
our sages: "The place which the martyrs occupy, no other mortal
can enter their abode." Who are they (the martyrs)? Shall
we say R. Akiba and his associates? Were they then accorded
that place merely because they were martyrs? Did they not possess
also other merits of Torah and good deeds? Nay, we must
say this refers to the martyrs of Lod.65
However, if he chose not to suffer martyrdom but under duress
violated the law, his actions could not be regarded as creditable
and he falls into the category of having desecrated the Name
of God by compulsion. However, he is not subject to any of the
seven categories of punishment,66 for we do not find in the entire
Torah any instance, neither with reference to the lenient nor
stringent commandments, where under compulsion one is subject
to any of the (aforementioned) punishments, except for one who
transgresses of his own free will, as it is stated: "And the person
who does it with an uplifted hand, this person shall be cut off"
(Numbers 15:30). But one who commits a transgression under
duress escapes punishment. Accordingly, we find throughout the
Talmud, the dictum that "if compelled he is exempt in accordance
with the laws of the Torah"; in several other places we
find the expression "God exempts the transgressor under compulsion."
This is based on the verse: "For as a man attacks his
friend and murders him, so is this thing" (Deuteronomy 22: 26).
Such a person is not called a wilful sinner, or a wicked individual,
nor is he disqualified from testifying as a witness unless
he committed grievous sins which would normally disqualify
him.67 He should rather be regarded as one who did not fulfill
the commandment of sanctifying the Holy Name, but under no
circumstances should he be called a wilful profaner of the Heavenly
Verily, he who asserts or thinks that because our sages of
blessed memory have enjoined "one to suffer death rather than
to transgress," and one who violates the law is subject to death,
is in complete error. Nothing is further from the truth, as I shall
presently elucidate: It is true that one is commanded to incur
martyrdom, but one is not subject to death if he did not carry
out the command. Just as in the case of idolatry, one does not
incur the penalty of "being cut off," so, a fortiori, one cannot
be sentenced to be put to death by a court. This principle is expounded
fully in Torat Kohanim. Concerning one who has given
of his seed to Molekh, the Lord, blessed be He, said: "I will set
my face (anger) against that man" (Leviticus 20:5). The demonstrative
that indicates that one who transgresses under compulsion,
unintentionally or in error is exempted from punishment.
Such a person, it is asserted, is not subject to the penalty
of being cut off from life (Karet) even though when the same
act if done intentionally and wilfully carries the penalty of being
cut off from life. Needless to add, in regards to sins which incur
the lighter penalty of flagellation for wilful violation, one is surely,
a fortiori not subject to flagellation, if done under compulsion.
And profanation of the Name is a violation of a negative
precept (incurring the penalty of flagellation), as We read: "Ye
shall not violate My Holy Name" (ibid. 22:32). By the same
token, we know that swearing falsely is considered a desecration
of the Name, as it is written in Scriptures: "Ye shall not
swear by My Name falsely and desecrate the Name of God your
Lord, I am God" (ibid. 19:12). The Mishnah also states: "Men
who vow to murderers, robbers or tax gatherers that what they
have is Heaveoffering even though it is not Heave offering, the
school of Shammai says: They may so vow in any form of words,
save in the form of an oath. The School of Hillel says even in
the form of an oath" (Nedarim 3:4 ).
Clearly, although these notions are self evident and require
no special proofs for their authentication – how could the law
possibly treat equally one who violates the law under duress,
about whom the rabbis stated: "Let him transgress rather than
suffer death," and one who does it wilfully? Yet we behold this
man who regards himself superior to other sages and more
scrupulous in the observance of the mitzvot, even willing to
expose himself to death – to be sure, only in words and utterances –
for the sake of what he regards as the sanctification of
God. But in actuality and by his deed he must be regarded as
a sinner and renegade68 subject to the death penalty in accordance
with the command of the Lord. "Which a man should do
so he may live by them" (Leviticus 18: 5), "and not die by
1. Sanhedrin 74b; Abodah Zarah 27b; Pesahim 28b, 49a; Yoma Sb.
2. Numbers 20:12; I Kings 29:15-1S; T.n. Yabamot 49b.
3. T.B, Abodah Zarah 19b.
4. The name of the rabbinical consultant, whose response on this issue was orally circulated among the North-West African Jews, was obviously known to Maimonides.
5. Islam law dictated that such children were to be brought up by the leaders of the mosques.
6, Kafih in Iggerot uses the term (Hebrew) which is more in keeping with the authentic meaning of the argument than the term (Hebrew) used by Rabinowitz in Iggerot-ha-Rambam.
7. Cf. I. Efros' "Philosophical Terms in the Moreh Nebukim", Columbia University, Oriental Studies VoL. XXII. The term (Hebrew) denotes a direct quotation from an author instead of a digest of his ideas. See The Guide 11, 19, 24, 42, 50.
8. The (Hebrew) has a different version of this phrase, (Hebrew) "We are not as ignorant in this matter as he is." Kafih accepts this reading, while Rabinowitz adopts the more plausible expression, as we indicated in our translation.
9. "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
10. T.R. Kiddushin 40a; Hulin 5a; Horayoth 8a.
11. The (Hebrew) version is (Hebrew).
12. The term (Hebrew) is used as a figure of speech implying the opposite.
13. T.R. Yoma 77.
14. T.B. B. Kama 12.
15. Christians and atheists were also persecuted by the Almohades, and like the Jews, they were forced to accept the Mohammedan faith.
16. Maimonides bemoans the critical period which faced our people, forcing them to ask such questions and to receive distorted answers such as, in this instance:
- To utter the Islamic confession under compulsion is an act of complete apostasy.
- Such confession even by one who observes the whole Torah turns every legitimate practice into a sin and is accounted unto him as an affront against God.
- One must take an example from the heretics and Christians who chose death under the same circumstances.
18. Genesis Rabbah 24, and Tanhuma, Ki Tissah.
19. Job 28:28.
20. Psalms 105:20.
21. Numbers Rabbah 11. The text in the Midrash is different from Maimonides' version. It reads: (Hebrew)
22. Exodus Rabbah 19; T.B. Keritut, 9. Mekhilta, Bo. 9. It is interesting to note that it was the dam milah and not the dam Karban Pesah that merited redemption. This was a challenge to Christianity which maintained that their founder took the place of the Karban Pesah and inherited its redemptive quality.
24. The prophet then proceeds to depict the outrageous practices of the
25. Reference is here to the patriarch Abraham.
26. Numbers 20:12.
27. T.B. Shabbat 97.
28. I Kings 19: 18.
29. The command to Elijah was to proceed to Damascus to condemn its pagan worshippers rather than chiding the inhabitants of the cities of Aroer in Israel.
30. The text alludes to the Midrash R. on Shir ha-Shirim, which is referred to as Midrash Hazita, because the midrashic text begins with the word hazita, found in Proverbs (22:29).
31. See the commentary of Radak, who interprets this phrase to mean the profanation of God's name.
32. T.B. Yebumot 49a.
33. See The Book of Ezra 10:18.
34. See T.B. Sanhedrin 93a: All were cast into a furnace and only Joshua survived.
35. Even renegades are acceptable to God as the sweet smell of the spice offerings.
36. T.B. Abodah Zarah 18.
37. During the Roman persecution in 109 C.E., R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus was arrested on suspicion of adhering to the Jewish sect of Christians. This story is related with variations in T.B. Abodah Zarah 16b. The term minim, apart from referring to the Jewish sect of Christians in the early years of the rise of Christianity, alludes, in the opinion of other scholars, to the Sadducees or to the Persian founder Mani of a sect that combined many notions of Judaism, Christianity and Persian cults. Still other scholars cite the term minim as an abbreviation of maaminin (the faithful) which these sects called themselves. Cf.
J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 37f and R. T. Herford, Christianity in the Talmud and Midrash, pp. 140f.
38. Cf. T.B. Gittin 45b: A Scroll of the Law if written by a heretic should be burned; by a pagan concealed. If found by a heretic it requires concealment; by a pagan it may be used.
39. A pagan in public and a Jew in secret should be regarded as a pagan. Cf. Job 32:15; Job 60:5.
40. Whether a Jew who uttered the Mohammedan confession in public but practices Judaism in private is still to be regarded as a Jew.
41. Reference is here to Ethics of the Fathers 5:9.
42. The term (Hebrew) in the text refers to Mohammed which he took from Abraham bar Hiyya in his Megillat ha-Megalleh. The latter refers to the verse in Hosea (9:7).
43. Ecclesiastes 5: 1.
44. Even if others might doubt my words.
45. In this passage Maimonides draws upon precedent to counteract the second point in the anonymous zealot's response with reference to one who is forced to enter a Mohammedan mosque, even if he did not pray, could no longer be regarded as a Jew although he privately carried out all the religious duties of the Torah. The other point has to do with feigning heathenism by pronouncing the Moslem confession.
46. I Kings 21:25.
47. Judges 3:20.
48. The rabbis recount an incident of a royal gift dispatched by the King of Babylon to King Hezekiah upon the latter's recovery from a serious ilness. Inscribed upon the message of good wishes were three epithets beginning with the words, "Peace unto King Hezekiah," followed by "Peace to the City of Jerusalem," and concluded with "Peace unto the Great God." Upon learning of the order of the epithets Nebuchadnezzar ran after the messenger for the purpose of reversing the order and put God's name first.
49. Tanhuma, Deuteronomy 4.
50. T.B. Pesahim 118; Nazir 23; B. Kamma 38; Horayoth 10; Sifra, Tzav.
51. He apparently interprets the verse to mean that the simultaneous practice of a mitzvah with an aveirah (a trangression), renders the mitzvah an aveirah.
52. The Midrash interprets this verse to mean that such harsh judgment will only compel one at the end to admit one's error (Midrash Koh. 5).
53. Maimonides uses a medical metaphor to delineate the zealots spiritual disease of a blurred vision that gave rise to his confusion and distorted notions.
54. The rabbis wonder why Esther did not suffer death rather than commit adultery with King Ahashverosh, a fact which was known to the general public. Abaye answered that as a passive partner, her crime was not punishable. Rabba held that since Ahashverosh's motive was personal pleasure, she did not have to undergo martyrdom.
55. In the text of the Talmud, this rabbinic observation is made not in the name of Rab Dimi but of R. Robin. Apparently, Maimonides had another version of this text.The notion of the shoe lace has a double implication. First, the color of shoe laces for Jews had to be black to distinguish them from the general population who wore red shoe laces. Secondly, they were often asked to bend down to tie their shoe laces before a pagan idol to make it appear as if they were bowing down to the idol (T.B. Abodah Zarah 74b; 52a).
56. An example of swearing falsely is when one swears that he had partaken of food and he did not.
57. Berakhot 19a; Shabbat 51a; Pesahim 1l0a.
58. Isaiah 49:3, T.B. Yoma 86a.
59. In his commentary on Aboth, Maimonides interprets this rabbinic statement to mean that transgression by error is similar to wilful transgression only in that both are punishable in public, but not as to the manner of their punishment.
60. T.B. Kiddushin 40; Aboth 4:5.
61. Isaiah 22: 14; T.B. Yoma 86a.
62. T.B. Sanhedrin ll0b.
63. The Second Book of the Maccabees (ch. 7) records the death of the sons of Hannah during the persecution of Antiochus before the uprising of the Hashmoneans.
64. Psalms 50:5; Psalms 44:23.
65. Pesahim 50a, Baba Batra l0b. The daughter of the King was found slain and the King ordered the Jews to be killed. Two brothers, Pappus and Lolaninos of Lydda took the blame on themselves and incurred martyrdom in order to save the Jewish community.
66. The categories of punishment include the four kinds of death penalty; stoning, burning, beheading or strangling inflicted by the early courts. In addition there are, cutting off of lie (Karet), death by heavenly decree, and flagellation.
67. Grievous sins that normally disqualify one as a witness are of two kinds: those who are referred to as reshaim (wicked) and incur one of the four kinds of death penalty or flagellation inflicted by the court. Their disqualification is imposed by a Torah decree (pesulei eidut midomita). The other category, disqualified by rabbinic decree (pesulei eidut drabanan) are those who occupy themselves with petty vanities and refrain from engaging in any constructive labor for the improvement of mankind. The rabbis list gamblers and usurers in this class (Sanhedrin 43).
68. Nedarim 3:4. Instead of bringing a measure of comfort to the unfortunate, he was responsible for increasing their misery.
69. T.B. Sanhedrin 74a.
|Manuscript pages by Maimonides in Arabic using Hebrew letters|