Sunday 11 February 2024

460) Martyrdom in Sefaradi and Ashkenazi traditions



This article based extensively on research by Sam Millner[1] and Leon Stitskin[2]− deals with different approaches to Jewish martyrdom as evidenced in Sefaradi and Ashkenazi rabbinic writings. These divergent traditions are essentially rooted in the controversy between Maimonides and Rashi (and his disciples, the Tosafists), respectively.  Maimonides was active in Spain, North Africa and Egypt and came to represent the Sefaradi position on the matter of martyrdom − while the Rashi and the Tosafists characterized the Ashkenazi approach of Northern France and Germany. 

Rashi (1040-1105) and his students, the Tosafists, advocated for martyrdom in light of the forced conversions to Christianity around the time of the First Crusade (1095—1099). On the other hand, Maimonides (1135-1204) argued for a more tolerant approach and did not advocate martyrdom for the Jews subjected to Muslim and Christian persecution during the Almohad Berber conquest in 1172 and the various Spanish-Christian campaigns. 

Rashi and the Tosafists call for martyrdom during the Crusades

In mediaeval France and Germany, religious discrimination was particularly common as the Catholic Church increasingly asserted its authority over Europe. Christianity had officially defeated European paganism and the Jews had suddenly become the main minority population in Europe. This oppression of Jews reached a feverish peak around 1096 when bands of Crusaders began to march across Europe on their way to the Holy Land: 

“This campaign of anti-Semitic violence is most notable in that it marked the modern reprise of the ancient practice of Jewish martyrdom” (Millner 2022:41). 

Rashi and the Tosafists were active during this time and they tried to interpret earlier Talmudic texts to support the practice of martyrdom. This was not easy as Jews had lived relatively peacefully in Talmudic Babylonia for a thousand years, and now in Europe, they suddenly needed to find rabbinic sources that allowed or called for martyrdom in the face of persecutions: 

“Indeed, whereas ancient Babylonian rulers were generally tolerant of Judaism (aside from a few Zoroastrian conflicts over fire rituals), Ashkenazi society coexisted with ever-increasing institutional threats to the Jewish community. In other words, Rashi and his contemporaries were producing novel responses to the unique challenges of their time, providing a clear framework for Jews to respond to forced conversions” (Millner 2022:43). 

In vain, some Jews sought shelter in local churches and according to one account, cried out as they committed mass suicide: 

“Look and see, O our God, what we do for the sanctification of Thy great name in order not to exchange you for a hanged and crucified one.”[3] 

Rashi and the Tosafists called for martyrdom as the only meaningful response to the forced conversions. 

The Maimonidean response to the Almohads and the Catholic Reconquista

Around the same time, Maimonides experienced persecution from the Almohads and had to flee, first Spain, and then Morrocco. The Spanish Jews had constantly been subjected to the reciprocal wars between the Christians and Muslims, as the Catholic Reconquista attempted to reconquer the land from the Muslim kingdoms active in al-Andulas (Muslim-controlled areas of Spain). 

Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam during the Almohad Berber conquest of 1172. This event must have shaped his less radical approach to martyrdom. Islamic Spain was far more tolerant of Jews than Christian Spain. Ironically, against a backdrop of constant wars, mediaeval Spain developed a culture of familiarity with different peoples. Intermingling was encouraged at the famous and lavish Andalusian garden parties and preserved in the records of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian writers. In a strange sense, this culture pervaded even centuries later when, during the Inquisition, only practising Jews were expelled, but those who converted, known as “New Christians,” were welcome to remain. There were also “old” and “new” Muslims, Yemeni and Syrian Arabs. So ingrained and entrenched was this “crossover” culture that it was given the title “La Convivencia” (or “living together”).[4] This way, uniquely in Spain: 

“Jewish responses to the creeping scourge of anti-Semitism were constructed within a framework of cultural familiarity that allowed for gradualist approaches, like false conversion or migration to more tolerant adjacent Islamic lands (Iberian Jews were well versed in Arabic)” (Millner 2022:43). 

It seems that Maimonides’ discouraging of martyrdom may have been predicated on this particular anomaly of mediaeval Spanish culture: 

“Maimonides’ halakhic rulings sought to create a way for Jews to keep their law while also living and interacting with Christians and Muslims“ (Millner 2022:43). 

This does not take away from the fact that there were real persecutions and Jews were faced with the reality of forced conversons. Still, Maimonides did not promote martyrdom, and he wrote: 

“Whosoever, of whom it is said that he shall transgress and not die, if he die and did not transgress, the guilt thereof be upon his soul” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yisodei HaTorah, 5:4). 

Put simply, according to Maimonides, forced conversion does not require martyrdom. If one chooses martyrdom over life, it is not praiseworthy, but suicide. Maimonides was prompted to write a special essay on the topic of martyrdom. He produced his Maamar Kiddush haShem (Essay on Martyrdom) in light of an anonymous rabbi, a “fanatic zealot” who had circulated a Teshuva (legal responsum) “calling upon the Jews of Morocco to suffer death rather than utter the Islamic formula” (Stitskin 1977:96). 

According to Leon Stitskin, however, Maimonides’ approach, as always, is actually quite complicated. Stitskin, who translated and analysed Maimonides’ Maamar Kiddush haShem (Essay on Martyrdom) explains why Maimonides brings historical precedent into his Essay:  

“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,[5] in his other works, especially ’The Guide’ and in his Letters, he did not hesitate to combine philosophical and historical considerations with halakhic principles” (Stitskin 1977:97). 

But it raises the question of why Maimonides, in his Essay, delved into the testimony of history in the first instance and did not just apply the procedures of law (as he did in his Mishneh Torah).  Maimonides, for example, brings historical precedents from the time of the Roman persecution, when R. Meir and R. Eliezar had saved their lives by feigning non-Jewishness.[6] 

The order of Maimonides’ presentation of his Essay is significant. And if, as some suggest, Maimonides simply wanted to show empathy for Jews who had historically been forced to convert out of their faith, then, as a jurist he still should have first stated the unequivocal Halacha, followed by expressions of empathy. Stitskin therefore suggests that: 

“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” (Stitskin 1977:95). 

This interpretation may resolve the common phenomenon of apparent discrepancies in Maimonides’ different (Halachic and philosophic) writings: 

“Adhering to his general method in the Yad, he reproduces the halakhic content directly from the Talmud without philosophic or historical considerations” (Stitskin 1977:96). 

Ultimately, though, in his Essay on Martyrdom, Maimonides states: 

“[I]f 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” (Maimonides, Maamar Kiddush haShem).[7] 

Maimonides is appalled by those who encouraged Jews to sacrifice their lives during the times of Muslim persecution: 

“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” (Maimonides, Maamar Kiddush haShem). 

Maimonides concludes his Essay on Martyrdom with the following statement about someone who insists on choosing martyrdom over life in such circumstances: 

“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 renegade…” (Maimonides, Maamar Kiddush haShem). 

The different approaches of Ashkenaz and Sefarad 

Thus, we have observed two very different approaches to martyrdom (or Kiddush Hashem – dying for the sanctification of G-d’s name) emanating from Central Europe and Spain, personified by the approaches of Rashi (and the Tosafists) and Maimonides. 

“Maimonides, coming from a highly heterogeneous milieu that was relatively compatible with Judaism, ruled for restrained kiddush HaShem practices that prioritized ultimate survival, while the highly embattled Tosafists called for zealous self-martyrdom in response to the First Crusade and the subsequent marginalization of Jews in a now-Christan Europe” (Millner 2022:43). 

An attempt at reconciling the different rulings

Three centuries later, the Sefaradi codifier, R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575), perhaps in an attempt at reconciling these divergent views, makes a distinction between circumstances in which martyrdom is called for. R. Yosef Karo writes that if the situation is particularly hostile and the victim of an anti-Jewish proclamation: 

“sees that the generation (he is living in) is wayward, he is allowed to Sanctify the Name of God, and give up his life, even for a light mitzvah” (R. Yosef Karo, Kesef Mishna on Yesodei HaTorah 5:3). 

In other words, if the vicious perpetrator is clearly and maliciously intent on making an example of, and publicly humiliating, the Jewish victim the only choice is martyrdom (Kiddush Hashem): 

“kiddush haShem is not necessitated by the severity of the sin, but rather by the specific historical circumstances in which the sin is situated” (Millner 2022:44). 

A well-known interpretation of this approach is that if circumstances call for it, one must submit to martyrdom even for something as trivial as being forced publicly to wear red shoelaces (see b. Sanhedrin 74b). 

Millner argues that with the emphasis on this caveat of ‘extenuating circumstances,’ R. Yosef Karo might have attempted “retroactively” to reconcile Rashi and Maimonides: 

“The implications of this alternative interpretation retroactively justify the choice of the majority of Sephardi Jews to either flee or convert instead of committing suicide. That is, because the community itself was necessarily not a ‘wayward generation,’ there was no internal need for a kiddush Hashem in response to the measures of oppression directed against the Sephardi community…

This would of course not apply to medieval Ashkenazi martyrs…[Therefore][8] it is absolutely necessary to take into consideration the fact that, ultimately, medieval Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews were living in two completely distinct sociopolitical spheres…In other words, Sephardi authorities didn’t view Islam as an existential threat due to its relative compatibility with Jewish faith and halakha…

For Ashkenazi Jews faced with a far less permissive ultimatum, however, the threat of conversion…was necessarily an existential one… giving rise to more hardline Tosafist interpretations on kiddush HaShem (Millner 2022:44-5). 


Millner concludes with the interesting observation that although the Halachic responses of both Rashi and Maimonides are divergent, both stem from exactly the same source and corpus of earlier Talmudic writings. Each party simply applied what Millner (2022:45) aptly calls “situation-based hermeneutics” to arrive at very different Halachic conclusions a “testament to the versatility of the Jewish tradition.” 


If it is correct that R. Yosef Karo did try to reconcile the opinions of Rashi and Maimonides, I would add that from R. Yosef Karo’s mystical diary, Magid Meisharim, he seems to have what can only be described as an overwhelming obsession with a desire to die as a martyr. Perhaps, this preoccupation with martyrdom also somehow needs to be factored into this analysis.

[See: Kotzk Blog: 153) A MYSTICAL SIDE TO R. YOSEF KARO:

and:  Kotzk Blog: 448) R. Yosef Karo’s unusual mystical entries in his diary]. 

Another factor contributing to the discrepancy of views between Rashi and Maimonides may simply be that Christianity was then regarded as more of an existential threat to Judaism than Islam. Islam may also have been theologically considered closer to monotheism. Although Maimonides was not operating solely within Muslim society as he would certainly have been aware of the Catholic Reconquista as well.

I would further suggest that an underlying reason why Maimonides is reluctant to advocate for martyrdom in general, may be that his definitions of required theological belief systems were often radically different from those of the mainstream. In his philosophical writings, he clearly differentiated between what he called essential beliefs and necessary beliefs. This was what he referred to as emunot hechrechiyot velo amitiyot or ‘necessary but untrue beliefs.’ Although he claims that the original leaders of Israel themselves did not adopt these beliefs, the people did, until such time as they were ready for a more figurative, purer and deeper comprehension of G-d. This is how Maimonides, for example, explained concepts like the sacrifices. 

Thus, it becomes complicated to know exactly what beliefs are worth dying for. In some instances, martyrdom in the face of violation only of necessary beliefs would be a devastating and avoidable travesty.

[See: Kotzk Blog: 255) THE 'LOST RELIGION' OF MAIMONIDES:]. 


Further Reading


I thank Dr Avi Harel for sharing the following sources on the sanctity of life and Kiddush haShem:

אביעזר רביצקי וישעיהו גפני (עורכים), קדושת החיים וחירוף הנפש: קובץ מאמרים לזכרו של אמיר יקותיאל, ירושלים, מרכז זלמן שזר לחקר תולדות העם היהודי, 1992
יחזקאל ליכטנשטיין, פרשת שמיני ויום השואה, תשס"ט הגדרת קידוש השם בתקופת השואה, ביטאון המרכז
 ללימודי יסוד ביהדות מספר 805, 2009
 2018 ,איתן רייך, קידוש השם: מעקידת יצחק לעקידת אשכנז, הוצאת רסלינג

[1] Millner, S., 2022, ‘Kiddush HaShem as Machloket: Martyrdom in the Medieval Ashkenazi and Sephardi Worlds’, Iggrot Ha’Ari: The Lion’s Letters, vol. II, 40-45.

[2] Stitskin, L.D., 1977, Maimonides,  Maamar  Kiddush Hashem: Historical Evidence and Halakhic Principles, Tradition, vol. 16, no. 4, Rabbinical Council of America, 95-120. 

[3] Marcus, J.R., 1999, The Jews in the Medieval World: A Source Book,  Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinatti, OH., 130.

[4] Some historians question the accuracy of this term, which was only coined during the last century by Américo Castro (d. 1972). On the other hand, see Menocal, M.R, 2002, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown and Company, New York.

[5] In Maimonides’ Hilchot Yesodei haTorah, he reiterates the Talmudic view that the three capital offences of idolatry, immorality and murderhave to be resisted even at the cost of suffering death” (Stitskin 1977:95).

[6] b. Avoda Zara 18b.

[7] See Stitskin (1977:114).

[8] Square brackets are mine.


  1. Takes an insidious but nonetheless full fledged kofer to tap dance around & bend over backwards due to unwillingness to acknowledge the loftiest self-sacrificing principle what Judaism had considered as sheer FUNDAMENTAL without resort to any other explantation.Something so basic ingrained in all of our blood as schoolchildren in the '80s
    That European Catholicism was idolatry
    While Islam wasn't/isn't.That Simple.

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      Your simple solution was already mentioned in the article:

      "Islam may also have been theologically considered closer to monotheism."

      But it's not so simple because also noted in the article is:

      "Maimonides was not operating solely within Muslim society as he would certainly have been aware of the Catholic Reconquista as well."