Voluntary Sacrifice: From the Furnaces of Egypt to Babylonia

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Va’eira

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Can the plague of frogs serve as a proper model for Jewish martyrdom? 

“The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.’”
Exodus 7:28-29)

The frogs took their duties quite seriously, to the extent that they occupied virtually every nook and cranny of the Egyptians’ homes. These frogs were so dedicated that the Talmud (Pesachim 53b) teaches us that many generations later they served as a basis for Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah when justifing their own act of sacrifice:

Come and hear: This was also taught by Theodosius of Rome: What did Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah see that led them to deliver themselves to the fiery furnace for sanctification of the Name [of God during the rule of Nebuchadnezzar rather than worship idols under duress]? They drew an a fortiori inference on their own from the  frogs. With regard to frogs, which are not commanded concerning the sanctification of the name of God, it is written: “… and come into your house…and into their ovens and kneading bowls.” When are kneading bowls found near the oven? You must say that it is when the oven is hot. [If in fulfilling the command to harass the Egyptians, the frogs entered burning ovens,] all the more so, we, who are commanded concerning the sanctification of the name [of God, should deliver ourselves to be killed in the fiery furnace for that purpose.]

Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah reasoned that if mere animals were willing to throw themselves into a furnace for the sake of God, certainly it behooved men such as themselves to forfeit their lives in a similar fashion. However, Tosafos (Pesachim 53b, s.v. Mah) question the necessity of the martyrs’ justification: One is commanded to forfeit their life, even for a “minor” mitzvah, rather than desecrate God’s Name in public (see Sanhedrin 74a). While Tosafos suggest that they were not being coerced to worship a bona fide idol, it would seem that their act would still have constituted a public desecration of God’s Name, especially for the undiscerning onlookers. With that being the case, why did Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah go to such lengths to substantiate their martyrdom on the basis of the frogs’ sacrifice when Jewish law would already have demanded that of them without the creative homiletics? 

(1) One way we can disarm Tosafos’ challenge is by interrogating the definition of a public desecration. Maharsha suggests that there were not ten Jewish people present in the valley of Dura that day when they had gathered for the ceremony. R. Mordechai Carlebach cites R. Akiva Eiger (comments on Yoreh Deah 264) who further qualifies that in order for this to be considered a public act the ten Jewish people would need to be kesheirim – upstanding and observant individuals. Therefore, even if there were ten Jews present, it would be reasonable to suggest that if they came to participate in the (pseudo-)idolatrous service then they would naturally not qualify as kesheirim. (See, however, Responsa Igros Moshe Y.D. 1:70 in which R. Moshe Feinstein asserts that even Shabbos violators would be counted.) 

However, the Ran and Meiri (Sanhedrin 74b) establish that in order for an act to constitute a public desecration of God’s Name, there need not be ten Jews present. So long as it will eventually reach the ears of ten such individuals, it would be considered a public desecration (see also Shach Y.D. 157:4). Therefore, we are back to the drawing board and would still need to determine why in the case of the three martyrs the potential public desecration would not be constitute sufficient grounds for martyrdom irrespective of the frogs’ precedent. 

(2) Another answer, provided by the Ri (Tosafos, ad loc.), suggests that if they truly wanted to, our three heroes could have easily slipped out and avoided creating a scene and escalating the matter into a confrontation in the first place. Therefore, since Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were clearly looking to make a point by standing up to Nebuchadnezzar, they needed to draw upon the precedent of the frogs who willingly sacrificed themselves by jumping into the flaming ovens of Egypt.

However, the Shevus Yaakov (2:106) is puzzled by such an equivalency. As the verse (Ex. 7:28) tells us explicitly, the frogs were commanded to jump into “your ovens.” Therefore, it is ostensibly incomprehensible how Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah could justify their voluntary martyrdom on the basis of the frogs’ compulsory act.

R. Carlebach cites the Sefer Livyas Chen, who answers that the three martyrs indeed made a valid comparison. While the Torah indicates that God wished for some frogs to enter the oven, He also commanded them to enter the Egyptians’ beds and kneading bowls. Each frog could have taken the easier route, but instead, many opted to be the ones to jump into the furnace by their own volition, rather than hide behind the diffusion of responsibility. In a similar vein, Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah observed that their fellow Jews’ commitment to God had greatly diminished and that an extreme act was necessary to reinvigorate their resolve. While they could have kicked the can down the road to the next Jewish leaders, like the selfless frogs in Egypt, they declared “If not now, when?” (Avos 1:14).

Note: There is a significant disagreement between Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 27b, s.v. Yachol) and Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:1) whether sacrificing one’s life when not commanded constitutes a legal act of suicide. This dispute has major implications for the case above and is discussed widely. The act of the three martyrs is ostensibly at odds with the Rambam, who generally prohibits forfeiting one’s life, unless it is demanded (e.g. the Three Cardinal Sins.) However, it can possibly be reconciled on the basis that there is a dispensation for the righteous of a generation to sacrifice themselves to motivate their flock to repent to the ways of God. 

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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