Kiddush Or Hillul Ha-Shem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Growing up in New York City, teachers would often warn us our actions in public places, such as the subway, would create a kiddush or hillul Hashem, sanctify God’s Name or—God forbid—lead to its desecration. They were not wrong, but they left out a much larger picture of these two mitzvot I have chosen this week to look into a bit.

Source of the Obligation

Rambam quotes VaYikra 22;32, ve-nikdashti be-toch benei Yisrael, I will be sanctified amongst the Israelite people, to ground Obligation 9, which we will define in a moment. Except the verse started with a prohibition against desecrating God’s Name (the other mitzvah in this essay), making it plausible to read ve-nikdashti to mean that I be sanctified. Theoretically, we were only prohibited from hillul, desecration, to pave the way for kiddush, not actively commanded to be mekadesh.

Rambam is aware of the problem, in fact closes the mitzvah with the formulation that Hazal “took a proof from the verse’s saying,” not the same as the verse just said it. His more certain proof is based on Sanhedrin 74b, where the Gemara wonders about non-Jews’ being obligated to sanctify God’s Name, decides they were not, because they were commanded only seven mitzvot. By implication, the Jews, included in many moreare also commanded in kiddush Hashem.

Defining the Mitzvah

In Rambam’s definition, kiddush Hashem requires Jews to publicize our true faith in the world [note: not just not deny it, publicize it, live it publicly], without fear of backlash or damage. If a coercive power asks us to deny God, God forbid, we may not listen, must let ourselves be killed rather than deny our faith or even, Rambam says, mislead the oppressor into thinking we have denied our faith.

[I spent many childhood High Holidays with the Birnbaum mahzor as my only distraction from what seemed endless services, so I read his version of the story of the writing of U-Netaneh Tokef many times. Probably apocryphal, the story hinges on R. Amnon’s self-horror at having given a local priest the impression he would consider converting to Christianity. Rambam seems to agree the mitzvah of kiddush calls on us not to even give the impression.

Separately, there is more than a minimal halakhic literature about what ways Jews may mislead non-Jews to avoid being recognized as Jewish, during times of persecution. We’ll have more to think about when we get to hillul.]

This, for Rambam, is the highest form of the mitzvah: for any and all Jews to be willing to die rather than deny God and His Oneness in any way.

Hananiah, Misha’el, and Azariah

The three friends of Daniel who went into the furnace rather than bow to an idol are the paragons of kiddush Hashem. Rambam points out all the other Jews in the kingdom had apparently let themselves be forced into bowing, an embarrassment for their failure to fulfill this mitzvah. Had more Jews refused, Rambam says, there would have been a great opportunity for a massive kiddush Hashem.

[It’s like Arlo Guthrie says in a very different context in Alice’s Restaurant: if one, two, or three people do something, they can be ignored, dismissed as crazies, but if fifty people a day declare their refusal to bow to Nevuchadnezzar’s statue, well, that would be something. All the more so if all the Jews had done it.]

Hananiah, Mishael, and Azaryah saved some grace for the Jewish people.

[I wonder if Rambam means to hint God did something exceptional because they were so exceptional. Had a large group of Jews refused to bow down, and Nevuchadnezzar chosen to enact his decree on all of them, perhaps Hashem would not have saved them, because the idea of kiddush Hashem is that ordinary people express their devotion to God, regardless of consequences. As soon as it turns miraculous, something is lost, I think he thinks.]

The verse ends with the words “I am God Who sanctifies you,” the next verse adds God is the One Who took us out of Egypt, to be our God. Rambam quotes Sifra Emor 9, the verse was telling us kiddush Hashem was one of the conditions God made with us when taking us out of Egypt. [We saw a similar idea two weeks ago, with honest weights and measures.] Food for thought: insisting on staying with God and God’s service is a condition of our freedom.

The Flip Side, Not to Desecrate

Prohibition 63 works from the beginning of our verse, we may not desecrate God’s Name, a verb Rambam takes to be the opposite of kiddush Hashem. However, here he divides the mitzvah into three. First, perhaps most famously, and also most clearly the obverse of the definition he gave to kiddush, if an oppressor asks/demands a Jew violate the Torah, there are detailed rules for when the Jew may or may not.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch notes his tradition limits this to violating prohibitions; if oppressors decree that Jews may not perform certain mitzvot, Jews may listen and refrain. In a comment I think teaches us about these mitzvot more broadly, Sefer Ha-Hinuch wonders about Midrashic sources that praise those who were killed by the enemy for circumcising their sons or shaking a lulav in a time of shemad, (Mechilta de-Rabi Yishma’el Yitro Mesechta de-Ba-Hodesh 5). Those are obligations, which they could have delayed until the troubles passed.

He says those were special people, great scholars worthy of ruling on such weighty matters, who decided the era needed extraordinary action. Without such a determination, they would not have been allowed to forfeit their lives [Tosafot is known to disagree, to think that anyone may decide to be killed for that which the Torah permitted him/her to transgress and live.] With such a determination, kiddush Hashem can expand beyond its base requirement.

It is the underlying question of our whole discussion, what does our devotion to God require of us, what of our actions count as sanctifications of God’s Name, what as desecrations, and where is there room for us to insist on going beyond the minimum.

Untransgressable Sins

According to Rambam—and there are other views—other than specific times of persecution, of some group trying to force Jews to abandon observance, a Jew may yield to coercion on any mitzvah other than the justly famous “big three,” murder, sexual immorality, and worshipping a power than God. Sefer Ha-Hinuch 296 adds that abizrayhu are included, extensions of the sin not themselves the full sin, but are close enough to be included in the yehareg ve-al ya’avor, the obligation to be killed rather than transgress.

He says abizrayhu of avodah zarah includes any prohibition specific to worship of powers other than God, such as purposely benefitting from trees cut off an Asherah tree [he originally held one could not use such trees for medicinal purposes even if the doctors hadn’t insisted the wood come from an Asherah tree, but later backtracked]. For murder, Jews may not give up one of their numbers to an attacker who threatens to otherwise kill them all; it is not our right to decide who lives and dies [this was part of what was so odious about the Jewish councils during World War II, that agreed to make lists of Jews to be rounded up by the Nazis, yemach shemam].

A Time of Shemad

In a time of oppression, though, no mitzvah, even a light one, may be transgressed, and whoever does has desecrated God’s Name. Should s/he do it in front of nine other Jews, the hillul will have been in public, much worse. [Note the public is other Jews, despite the source of the coercion being non-Jews. It seems the public point of these two mitzvot is that Jews not see other Jews abandon the religion in the face of pressure.]

Sefer Ha-Hinuch reminds us “a light mitzvah” includes how Jews tie their shoes, if it differs from how non-Jews do it. We may not adjust our actions to be more like theirs. [This again touches on the topic of what Jews may do to avoid oppressors; if it is not yet known they are Jewish, I believe this issue does not apply. To evade capture, important rabbis have disguised themselves to try to cover up evidence of their Jewishness. I think Sefer Ha-Hinuch is talking about a known Jew bowing to pressure and changing how he ties his shoes.]

Rambam does remind us there is never a punishment for forced actions, even where halachah required the Jew not to violate the Torah.

A Standard of Devotion to God

Rambam has less immediately consequential versions of hillul we will discuss in a moment, but I wanted to throw in Sefer Ha-Hinuch’s reason for the mitzvah here, because I worry it will surprise many of us. He says people were created only to serve God, so a refusal to give up their lives for God, when called for, reveals their misguided sense of their role in the world. People will give up their lives for other people, he points out [this is a trope in too many pop-culture venues to choose just one reference; the idea of “taking a bullet for” the president or some other figure is well-attested.] Sefer Ha-Hinuch is pointing out the sad state of affairs when we will do it for other people, not for God (where necessary).

To “Anger” God or Lead to Others Thinking Less of God

Rambam says a second hillul can happen where a Jew violates any commandment for no reason of temptation or pleasure, only to rebel against God, God forbid, to throw off the yoke of heaven. Here, the sinner could also be punished by a court for the sin, since there was no coercion or force applied, this misguided sinner chose to be mehalel shem Shamayim.

Finally, Rambam reminds us people have a public profile, and those whose profile links them to God, some more and some less, reflect on God with their actions. Sefer Ha-Hinuch 295 points out the Gemara is clear that a person renowned for his kindnesses and good deeds, who acts in a way others think of as a sin (even if it is not!), has been mehallel Hashem. Rav says as much about himself, in Yoma 86a, it would be a hillul Hashem were he to take meat from the butcher without paying right away [people would think he was using his Torah scholarship to take free gifts]. R. Yohanan adds he would desecrate God’s Name if he walked four amot without either words of Torah or wearing tefillin, because that is what was expected of him.

The Gemara presents other examples, the most pungent of them (I think) R. Nahman b. Yitzhak’s idea that whoever other people say “God should forgive so and so” has desecrated God’s Name. An idea that leads to the subway example with which I started: when any of us acts in a way that leads people to look down on God’s service, hillul Hashem has occurred. And vice versa for kiddush.

Kiddush Hashem Branching Out

In the space I have left, I want to point out some of the many other places kiddush Hashem arises. Ramban thought Rambam failed to enumerate a Biblical prohibition against sinning while in the army. Although these acts are always a sin, Ramban held the Torah commanded us to be even more sure not to commit them during war, lest the Divine Presence remove itself from the camp in reaction to the sin, leading to loss in battle. When Jew are defeated by those who worship some other power, it leads people to think, God forbid, some other power is more powerful than Hashem.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan He-Atid Hilchot Yovel 43;8 thinks the Torah disallowed buying oneself out of slavery to a non-Jew with items (rather than cash), lest the non-Jew claim the Jew overvalued them, a hillul Hashem. Here, when non-Jews suspect Jews cheated them, it is a hillul Hashem.

In Hilchot Terumot 85;9, he records the Gemara’s opposition to kohanim or Levi’im helping out with a harvest in order to receive the agricultural gifts from that harvest. Should they do so, it is a hillul Hashem in that they turn what was supposed to be a sacred process of recognizing God’s representatives into a business deal. Complicating matters, the priest or Levite may help with the harvest if the relationship is so close the Jew would have given him those gifts anyway.

There’s plenty more, but let me stop here, with one last point about hillul. The Gemara says, and Rambam codifies in the first chapter of Laws of Repentance, that to atone for hillul Hashem requires repentance, Yom Kippur, yissurim (exculpatory suffering). Then, if the person holds to his/her repentance until death, kapparah, full atonement, is achieved.

We can focus too much on the thankfully unlikely scenario of martyrdom. Really, though, the obligation and prohibition tell us about how to live, to live in ways that glorify the Name of God, that we all strive—and, we hope, succeed—to be a credit to God’s Name, as it were, to be part of making the world more filled with recognition of God, and avoid ever being a reason for people to look askance at God or the idea of God.

About Gidon Rothstein

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