Martyrdom in Jewish Traditions

Shira Lander

Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee Meeting                                                            St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, MD

Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and                                      December 11, 2003

the National Council of Synagogues

Perhaps the most important feature of martyrology in Jewish traditions we might observe is the marginal role it plays in contemporary Western Jewish practice and belief. Martyrdom is featured only twice in the current liturgical corpora. The most extensive martyrology is the liturgical poem eleh ezkarah, found in the Day of Atonement’s long afternoon, or musaf, service. In that afternoon service—the reader’s repetition of the Amidah—this poem is sandwiched between the Avodah Service, which recounts the High Priest’s holiest rituals performed in the ancient Temple on the Day of Atonement, and the oft-repeated communal confession of sins. I will examine this poem more extensively later. The second place where martyrdom is highlighted is in the kinot, or lamentations, of the Ninth of Av, on which the Temple destructions are commemorated. These lamentations include a few of the many poetic martyrologies which were composed by European Jews during the Middle Ages.

The subject of martyrdom appears scattered throughout the daily and Sabbath liturgy in such prayers as “Av Harachamim,” calling on god’s mercy for the sake of those “who laid down their lives for the sanctification of the divine name.” The phenomenon is also alluded to in several other prayers: the Avinu Malkeinu, our Father Our King, where God’s mercy and forgiveness is invoked “for the sake of those who were killed for your holy name;” the Yizkor recitation of memorial prayers for the martyrs; All of these liturgical commemorations of martyrdom owe their roots to a period following the persecutions of the 11th and 12th c. Crusades, a formative period for the development of Jewish martyrology.

Other prayers have hagiographic associations with martyrdom, although their content does not explicitly address the topic: one famous example is the liturgical poem recited on Rosh HaShanah, the unetaneh tokef prayer, attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence (Metz).[1] Legend relates that after being brutally tortured for rejecting apostasy, he asked to be conveyed to the synagogue, “where the congregation was assembled for the holy day services. He asked for the privilege of reciting personal prayer…As he finished his hymn, he expired.”[2]

It is clear that the role of martyrdom in Jewish traditions correlates directly to communities’ contemporary experiences. In times when persecution is either imminently feared or experienced, martyrologies flourish. These generally appear first in narrative form and then subsequently interpreted theologically through poems. Many of these poems were then used in the course of prayer, and it is in this usage that most of us encounter the martyrological traditions. Prior to the Middle Ages, however, martyrological traditions are more difficult to locate. It is with this ancient material that I will thus begin, and then attempt to trace their development chronologically through the post-Crusade European Jewish traditions to the early modern period. I will conclude with reflections on the post-Shoah age.

Martyrdom in Second Temple Judaism

Most scholars consider the Hasmonean traditions preserved in 2 and 4 Maccabees as representing the earliest Jewish strata of martyrology. This depends on a definition of martyrdom that includes:

  1. public declaration of one’s allegiance to God and Torah in the face of official demands to betray that allegiance or die;

  2. the perception that this act fulfills a religious mandate (that death is what God demands when the alternative is apostasy);

  3. the passionate commitment of the adherent to both God and Torah;[3]    

  4. these deaths serve a larger redemptive purpose, generally for Israel as a whole; AND

  5. death (or near death experience of Isaac—as interpreted later—or Daniel).

The first instances of martyrdom are anonymous and brief, therefore less familiar to those of us for whom the books of the Maccabees are historical relics and not part of our lectionary.[4] These are two examples of citizens flaunting the restrictive religious measures imposed by King Antiochus Epiphanes. First there are the two mothers and their circumcised infants who are hurled from the city walls in public view. Second is a group of secret Sabbath-observers are burned to death. Commenting on these deaths, the author notes, “their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy day (2 Macc 6. 11).” Sabbath observance, in the mind of those martyred and the author, overrides the dictates of self-defense, a position which would be later overturned by the Palestinian Rabbis. As consolation to the reader, the author appeals:

Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. It is a sign of great kindness not to ignore the impious for a long time, but to punish them immediately. For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us (2 Macc 6.12-16).

Here we see the seeds of a concept later expressed in Rabbinic literature as “yisurin shel ahava” or the sufferings of love that befall the righteous (Avot 6.5).

More familiar are the martyrdoms of the elder scribe Eleazer and those of the pious mother and her seven sons. Both episodes take place in Jerusalem. The protagonists are faced with the demands to engage in the sacrificial cult of Zeus Olympios at the behest of the ruling officials. Most interesting is the recognition on the part of the oppressor of the power of the violation being demanded to mislead a much broader segment of the community, namely those who are watching the proceedings. The officials ask Eleazer to eat pork or to pretend to eat pork by eating his own kosher meat in the context of the cultic ritual (2 Macc 6.21). This isolates a crucial component of the definition of martyrdom: that it be public. In defiance of the offer, Eleazar declares, “I will show myself worthy of my old age and set a noble example for the young of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws (2 Macc 6.27-8).” The power of betrayal is outdone by the power of devotion.

A second, more famous, episode is the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons. Here Antiochus himself figures as the oppressor, and he brutally tortures each son before the eyes of their mother and a large crowd. It is the testimony of the second son which first connects the death of martyrs to the promise of their resurrection, a claim repeated in the third and fourth son: “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7.9). Thus, the martyrs’ deaths are understood as not only vicariously redemptive for the entire people Israel, but they offer personal redemption as well. This is later characterized by Rabbinic literature as the s’charan shel tzaddikim, the rewards of the righteous (Bereishit Rabbah 62.2) and for martyrs, as we shall see, entails their immediate ascent to the highest heavenly tier.

To return to the Maccabees, the sixth son presents a view of the mortal suffering that will leave an indelible mark in Jewish theology and liturgy as “mipnei hataeinu”—because of our own sins, as he says, “…[W]e are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God (2 Macc 7.18).” Certainly this theology dates as far back as the first Babylonian exile, but those examples were expressions of corporate suffering.[5] The Maccabean accounts portray the trials of individuals, who are themselves blameless, suffering on behalf of the community’s sins.

The mother is revered as a model of courage and faith, as she implores her children to resist the imperial demands for apostasy. The seventh son heeds her advice, proclaiming at his death, “I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses (2 Macc 7.30).” The triumph of these exemplars is treated even more philosophically in the later work, 4 Maccabees, where the martyrdoms are cast as masteries of self-controlled reason over bodily tortures. This version is generally viewed by scholars as a radical adaptation of Jewish martyrdom to the Stoic ideal of mind-over-matter as exemplified by the noble death tradition. Despite this interpretive framework, the narrative core remains essentially intact. 

Post-70 Roman Period Traditions

These early Hasmonean traditions are found only in the Greek Jewish Scriptures of the Graeco-Roman Period; they are not preserved as such, in their historical context, by later Rabbinic circles. Yet there is evidence in both Josephus and in the writings of fourth century church fathers that the Jews of Modin and Antioch revered the Maccabean martyrs at their tombs. Josephus describes a “memorial” for Judah Maccabee in Modin, who is seen as one who gave his life “for the liberty of his nation” in the Hellenistic noble warrior tradition.[6] Jews at Antioch built a shrine which purportedly contained the bones of the Maccabean mother of the seven sons.[7] Jews as well as Christians would visit this shrine seeking healing and other miracles, an intermingling evidenced at the shrines of other Biblical sites in the Greek east.[8]

Presumably the attraction of Jews and Christians to the Maccabean shrine had gone unnoticed up until the fourth century. Prior to this cataclysmic century, such sites were revered by Jews and Christians alike. Yet, as Jewish and Christian identity became increasingly defined  oppositionally, that is over-and-against the other, holy places became sites of contestation. Particularly in the wake of the Emperor Julian’s attempts to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, initiated by an agreement with the Jews of Antioch, and the persistence of Arian Christianity among the Roman Emperors, like Valens, Orthodox Christians found themselves at a political disadvantage. The Maccabean martyrs were clearly not on their side, despite the power manifest by their miracles. Orthodox Christians, therefore, built a competing Church of the Maccabees, the Kerateion (=Jewish Quarter), to try to reclaim the Maccabees as their own.[9] In fact the bishop of Hippo, Augustine—as far distant as North Africa —preaches a sermon on the newly instituted Maccabean Feast Day (Aug. 1—for a awhile it fluctuated with a December date, presumably inspired by Hanukah):

[T]he Maccabees really are martyrs of Christ. That's why it is not unsuitable, not in the least improper, but on the contrary absolutely right for their day and their solemnity to be celebrated especially by Christians. What do the Jews know about such a celebration? Word is going round that there is a basilica of the Holy Maccabees in Antioch; in the very city, that is to say, which is called by the name of that persecuting king. They endured the persecution of the wicked King Antiochus, and the memory of their martyrdom is celebrated in Antioch, so that both the name of the one who persecuted and the memory of the one who crowned them are heard together. This basilica is owned Christians, was built by Christians. It is we who keep (teneo), we who celebrate their memory; it is among us that thousands of holy martyrs throughout the world have imitated their sufferings.[10]

This evidence supports at least part of the recent thesis of Daniel Boyarin, that martyrologies were vehicles through which Jews and Christians competed for adherents and negotiated their conflicting claims to ultimate truth.[11]

Roughly contemporary with this shrine is the only piece of epigraphic evidence I could find for Jewish martyrdom during this period. A Hebrew inscription (#239) from the Beit She’arim catacombs in the Galilee identifies a sarcophagus as containing the remains of Rabi Aniana and his brother, whose name is unreadable:[12]

The inscription refers to the two brothers as “hakedoshim,” using the adjective for holy in a substantive—exactly the terminology we see in Rabbinic texts referring to martyrs (Sifre Deut, Haazinu 333; Berakhah 344, citing Deut. 33.3—“all the kedoshim are in Your hand”).[13] Can this Aniana be identified with either the Rabi Hananya ben Teradyon (martyred in 2nd c. Siknin in Galilee) or the Rabi Chanina ben Chachinai (pupil of Akiba, martyred with him?) of Eleh Ezkerah? The thought is intriguing, but ultimately impossible to determine.[14]

As martyrs took a more prominent role in the beliefs and practices of Christians, and Christians gained Imperial power, Rabbinic leaders ceded claims to the Maccabean martyrs and were forced to relinquish control of the Maccabean shrine in Antioch. The scarce occurrence of these second century BCE heroes in Rabbinic literature is often cast by scholars as solely motivated by political and theological concerns: the Rabbis did not approve of the Maccabees on two counts. First, because they believed in military opposition, a stance which had produced the devastating result of curtailing Judean sovereignty; and second, because the Maccabees-qua-Hasmoneans eventually capitulated to the very Hellenism they set out to oppose. Yet a third reason may account for both the scant Rabbinic evidence and for the exclusion of the books of the Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible. As Christians laid increasing claim to martyrs, martyrdom, and martyrologies, not to mention the frequency with which early Christian exegetes portrayed the Maccabean martyrs in particular as Jewish prefigurations of Jesus, Jews were less motivated to preserve these accounts as their own. When Christians were writing, Exhortations to Martyrdom (Origen, e.g.), Rabbinic Jews were proscribing martyrdom except in the three desperate cases of being forced to engage in idolatry [avodah zarah], incest [gilui arayot], or to commit murder [shfichut damim] (P. T. Sheviith 4.2, 35a; Tosefta Shabbat 16.14—pikuah nefesh does not apply in these 3 cases [the law is not tanaitic], later Sanhedrin 74a). The discussion considers the violation of even minor halakhic infractions, which some opinions consider in force only when such violation is demanded publicly. One account even has two disciples trading in their fringed garments for Roman togas in order to avoid persecution (Gen. Rabbah, Vayyishlach 82.8). This halakhic framework reveals an increasing attempt to relegate martyrdom and martyrology to the margins of Rabbinic Judaism.

Martyrdom in Rabbinic Literature

As a result of this moderating tendancy in Rabbinic literature, the tale of the Maccabean mother and her seven sons is torn from its Hasmonean context and re-placed in the context of  Judea’s rebellion against Rome.[15] In the Babylonian Talmud, Vilna edition, the mother is given the name Miriam. This form of the story, unlike the Maccabees versions, follows the genre of Roman trial transcripts replete with a final moral exhortation to the emperor on the virtues of non-idolatry, a form used frequently by early Christian martyrologists. The sons refuse to bow down to the idol (avodat kochabim) on the basis of a series of prooftexts against idolatry and enjoining exclusive devotion to God. The mother implores her last son to have courage, so that he may join his other brothers and occupy the “bosom of our father Abraham” (Buber ed.). Aside from this last comment, the text lacks all of the theological suggestions about martyrdom found in the versions recounted in 2 and 4 Maccabees. The formulaic procession of prooftexts forbidding idolatry and mandating exclusive devotion suggests that the broad range of meanings associated with martyrdom are being filtered out: one theological note is being played.

The earliest explicit Rabbinic account of martyrdom reflects some of the range of meanings and concern with historical context found in the books of the Maccabees. The death of Pappus and Julian (“Lulianus”), recounted in Sifra Emor (9.5), takes place under the reign of Trajan (98-117) in Syrian Laodicaea (cited in later texts as “Lod”).[16] It is quite possible that these two Jews were swept up in the wave of persecution recorded by Pliny in his correspondence with Trajan during his years as governor from 111-113, where even he indicates confusion over the identity of those who have been dragged before the tribunal on charges of impiety (aimed at Christians). It is equally possible that Laodicea, like other cities in Asia Minor, punished Jews who had participated in the Diaspora rebellions of 115-117.

The narrative occurs as an exegesis of Leviticus 22.32, “You shall not profane my Holy name so that I may be sanctified among the children of Israel.” The phrase “that I may be sanctified [v’nikdashti]” is taken to indicate “kiddush hashem [sanctification of the divine name]” (9.4).[17] The text then pronounces the dictum that God does not answer the requests of martyrs who die in order to produce a miracle, citing the examples in the book of Daniel of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Dan. 3.16-18). The story of the trial and execution of the two brothers, Pappus and Julian, follows. The Emperor Trajan asks whether they belong to the same people as the three young men from Daniel, to which they reply affirmatively. Trajan suggests that if their God delivered them from the furnace, then Pappus and Julian should expect to be delivered from execution. They reply with a stock response found in other Rabbinic martyrdom accounts: while the young men were purely innocent and Nebuchanezzar was worthy of a miracle, the two Laodiceans are guilty and Trajan is a wicked king. They are then beaten to death.

A similar treatment of the theodicy question posed by martyrdom appears in the narratives of the second century rabbis Shimon ben Gamliel and Yishmael. The account strays from the realm of history into mythology, a tendency perhaps represented by the earliest Maccabean accounts. The martyrdoms are likely to have been inspired by a prophecy attributed to the earlier sage, Shmuel ha-katan, that “Shimon and Yishmael are destined for the sword, the fellows for slaughter, and the rest of the people for pillage” (Tos. Sotah 13.4).[18] The story is found in the third century collection, Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael (Mishpatim 18), as well as in Semahot (8.8), and Avot de Rabbi Natan (both versions, 38A & 41B). In its earliest version, the story is placed in a tractate that explicates Exodus 22.20-23, yet is almost exclusively devoted to the eschatological theme of final judgment. The first item under discussion is the reward of gentiles[19] who abandon idolatry along with that of the Jews. Abraham’s circumcision is postponed by God, according to this interpretation, to permit the inclusion of gentiles among those justified, whether they be garei tzedek (circumcised proselytes) or y’rei shamayim (uncircumcised God-fearers). In this covenantal eschatology, both Jews and Gentiles are redeemed by modeling themselves after Abraham. The discussion then shifts to the punishment of the righteous in this world. It is in this context that the martyrdom narrative is presented.

The midrash explicates Exodus 22.21-3: “If you oppress the [widow or orphan], and if they cry out to Me, I will…kill you with the sword…” The account begins abruptly to shore up the interpretation. As they are led to execution, the rabbis question why they are about to be beheaded. They wish to know the sin for which they are being punished. They interpret the word “oppress” in the Scriptural verse to mean “delay,” whereby they determine that in the course of their rabbinic duties, they had kept someone waiting. Thus, they go to their deaths reassured, able to accept the verdict.

Since they are being beheaded, one would conclude (if the account were historical) that they were Roman citizens, that is to say members of the Roman aristocracy. If this is the case, then the Roman crime for which they are being punished would likely be maiestas, which in the second century context probably entailed failure to demonstrate one’s loyalty to Rome either through rebellion or by refusing to participate in the Imperial cult.[20] Yet all indications of such historical context are gone. The text is only concerned with exegesis in the theological context of theodicy and eschatology.

An epilogue to the martyrdoms of Shimon and Yishmael portrays Rabbi Akiba interpreting the meaning of the events as harbingers of a “great persecution” (פורענות citing the succession of three verses Is. 57.1, 57.2, and 57.3). Akiba warns his disciples to prepare for the worst. The discussion continues to affirm that mass suffering will incite God’s mercy for the righteous and God’s wrath for the wicked. Ultimately, as the tractate concludes, God will remain steadfast to the covenant, send “a redeemer to Zion” (Is. 59.20), and they will receive eternal life in the world to come.[21] In their midrashic context, the martyrdoms are interpreted as heralding the eschaton.

Chronologically close to these martyrdoms is that of R. Hanina (some mss read Hananyia!) ben Teradion, dated to the wake of  Judea’s second rebellion. This account appears in Judean and Babylonian versions. As presented in its earliest form (Sifre Deuteronomy 307—dated 3rd c.), the theological thrust is tsidduk ha-din, the ‘justification of verdict,’ in which God’s decision to take the life of a most devout scholar is affirmed as just.[22] A series of prooftexts establishes God’s perfection, in the context of which Hanina’s martyrdom is cast as a just decision. The seeming injustice of his and his wife’s death is rebalanced by their reward of eternal life. [Rabbi Judah haNasi’s comment identifies them as “righteous ones.” (tzadikim)] A philosopher bystander points this out to the government officials, who condemn him to the same end, which he welcomes as “good news.” The joy of the afterlife as welcome recompense for martyrdom is a theme we saw in the Maccabean accounts.

In its Babylonian Talmudic form (Avodah Zarah 17b-18a), however, the story changes dramatically. Here we have a cycle of stories about Hanina that virtually constitute acta martyris. Like the martyr acts, this appears to be a collection of accounts from disparate, independent sources.[23] The original theological focus on tsidduk ha-din is preserved, yet a number of additions recast the martyrdom.

  1. Hanina is arrested together with his colleage R. El’azar ben Perata (mss Munich —heretic). In a prison conversation, Hanina reveals that his crime will be more harshly punished, since he only engaged in Torah study but neglected deeds of lovingkindness.

  2. Hanina’s justification of God’s decree is supported by a later rabbinic opinion.

  3. El’azar ben Perata is miraculously saved from execution by the intervention of Elijah.

  4. The account of Hanina’s trial is interrupted by an anonymous narrator who explains that his charge (from the perspective of the heavenly court) was blasphemy: reciting the divine name in public. His wife was also sentenced to death for not preventing him from doing so.

  5. This discussion is followed by a story about Hanina’s visit to a colleague who was ill. The stricken rabbi Yose warns Hanina of the danger of persisting to disregard the supposed Roman decree against Torah study and teaching. Hanina asks his friend if he is destined for eternal life, to which he replies obliquely, “let your fate be my fate.”

  6. Hanina is condemned to die. He is wrapped in his Torah scroll and burned to death, during which he has a miraculous vision of the letters of the scroll escaping the fire and ascending into heaven.

  7. Finally, Hanina’s inquisitor offers to speed the death by increasing the flame, if Hanina will also grant him the reward of eternal life. A heavenly voice declares that both have been summoned to eternal life. Rabbi Judah haNasi comments, this time in tears, that Hanina acquired eternal life instantaneously (as opposed to others for whom it takes many years).[24]

Hanina’s martyrdom is thus tempered in the Babylonian version. This is by no means a celebration of dying for God. Two approving alternatives to voluntary death are offered by R. El’azar and R. Yose. Although the reward for martyrdom is still portrayed as eternal life, it is almost begrudgingly awarded, despite Hanina’s heinous sin of blasphemy. The original context of tzidduk ha-din is attenuated by the seriousness of Hanina’s guilt. A brand new element is the miraculous power of the Rabbi to bring the inquisitor along with him into heaven. The power of the martyr-rabbi is so great that he can effect what was formerly only thought to lie within God’s grasp. This new cosmology is part of a larger literary framework the rabbis create where they portray themselves the regulators of the many forces and spirits that manage daily life.[25] Finally, what are we to make of the addition of  Judah haNasi’s tears? They are tears of sadness shed for the calamity of martyrdom. Despite the power of the martyr to overcome death through attainment of eternal life, it is, nevertheless, an unwelcome fate. In the Babylonian version, the sentence of martyrdom is not “good news.” In this account, there is no joy in martyrdom.

During this same second century persecution, Bar Kosiba’s great Rabbinic supporter, Rabbi Akiba, is tried and executed. This account first appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (P. Berakhot 9.7, P. Sotah 5.7). Although this version is the earliest account, it is probably best dated to the end of the Jerusalem Talmud’s redaction, perhaps the fourth century, since it is in Aramaic. The narrative appears after a discussion about the requirement to recite a blessing for bad as well as good situations. For example, upon hearing of a father’s death, one recites baruch dayan haemet, still used today (P. Berakhot 9. 2).[26] The discussion wends its way to the conclusion that even if God takes your own life, you are obliged to recite a blessing. The text cited as prooftext, “with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your resources” from the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6.5), leads into the chronicle of Akiba’s martyrdom, since legend records that he was tried at the requisite time for reciting this creedal affirmation. As Akiba is being tortured, he laughs, since he now finally understands the ultimate meaning of the reference to being, nafshecha, since he had already dedicated his entire life to loving God with his entire cognitive and emotional faculties, or heart, and with all of his resources. He now understands that nafshecha refers to his being; martyrdom offers Akiba the opportunity to demonstrate the fulfillment of his love by laying down his life for God, or more specifically for his obedience to God’s Torah. To illustrate Akiba’s epiphany, the text recounts that it was at the very moment that he recited the words “nafshecha” that his nefesh departed.

The narrative is constructed to reflect later Rabbinic concerns for Torah obedience, rather than any political or even martyrological motives. There is no mention of why Akiba is being tried—probably for his support for Bar Kosiba’s messianic attempts to overthrow Rome rather than for his Torah study. Akiba’s ideal of the moment of death is portrayed as the crowning achievement of his entire life of learning. Akiba does not preach about the virtues of monotheism and the failings of idolatry, nor does he understand his imminent death as vicariously redemptive. He is not being punished for his sins, nor does he contemplate immediate compensation in the afterlife. Rather, at the moment of his death, Akiba achieves the clarity of close scriptural interpretation by enacting, or fulfilling, the text. This is the goal of the law, as the Rabbis understand it—the collapse of the distinction between word and deed, or perhaps when words become deeds. This reflects, as Boyarin observes, a linguistic turn in Jewish martyrology. Akiba does not merely die for refusing to abandon the law by disobeying explicit commandments against idolatry or eating pork. He dies in the very act of obeying the law and his dying epitomizes the precise law he is at that very moment called upon to obey (it is the time for Shema recitation).

In its Babylonian context (Berachot 61b), however, the narrative takes on a moralizing function. Just prior to the account of Akiba’s martyrdom (in Berhakhot 60b), the martyrdoms of Rabbi Akiba and co. along with Pappus and Julian [= the men of Lod] are connected to the blessing of tzidduk hadin: baruch dayan ha-emet (see also B. Pesachim 50a). In the martyrdom narrative itself, there are four noteworthy additions.

  1. As in the Jerusalem Talmud, the segue is a discussion of the interpretation of Deut. 6.5. Unlike the earlier context, however, there is a difference of opinion, presented as between R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (fl. 100 CE), who takes a more modulated view, and R. Akiba, whose opinion is illustrated by his martyrdom;

  2. A conversation with a colleague (perhaps later arrested for Christianity), takes place prior to Akiba’s arrest in which he articulates his zeal for Torah study despite his knowledge that it is supposedly a capital offense;[27]

  3. A discussion about the meaning of the Deuteronomic verse occurs in a beit midrash type discourse between Akiba and his students while he is being martyred;  AND

  4. The story ends with a scene set in heaven where the ministering angels complain to God about Akiba’s treatment, termed as the “reward” for his great Torah study, citing Psalm 17.14, “From the dead your hand, Oh Lord, from the dead.” God responds with an exegesis that points to the end of the phrase, “their portion is in [the after]life,” which ultimately affirms the martyr’s true reward, namely, resurrection in heaven.[28]

These four additions reflect the context of a Babylonian academy, in which the sage-disciple relationship was the locus for Scriptural exegesis. In this world, as the narrative makes clear, the afterlife is portrayed as a reward for beit-midrash style Torah study, rather than for martyrdom. Martyrdom is no longer regarded as the ideal of fidelity to the law. The amount of space devoted to exegesis overshadows the account of Akiba’s death, which is embedded in a commentary on the word “one.” In this later, Babylonian version, the ministering angels question God’s judgment, and, although they are rebuked, their challenge is still given voice. God’s decision to allow the righteous teachers of torah to be martyred is, at the very least, portrayed as problematic.

With this counter-reading of the earliest martyrdom traditions, the Rabbinic narratives cease. There are isolated references to the martyrs as occupants of the first mehitzah, or division, of heaven. In one version (Babbah Batra 10b), a Rabbi’s son has a vision of the afterlife while in the trance of illness. He sees a world upturned, with the noble made low, and the lowly raised up. His father the Rabbi corrects him—no, that was an ordered (barur) world. In this vision the son hears voices proclaiming that those who enter “with their study in their hands (talmudo beyado)” merit blessing, and that “no creature can occupy the heavenly station (mechitzatam) of those who have been put to death by the government” [this quotation is the only part of the narrative in Hebrew]. The text concludes that these refer to the likes of R. Akiba and co as well as Pappus and Julian, who were killed while in the act of teaching (“with his study in his hands;” see also Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9.10, Pesachim 50a).

Noticeably absent in these accounts is the formal terminology of “kiddush hashem,” (sanctification of the divine name).[29] The term seems to develop its connection to martyrdom in a halakhic, rather than aggadic, context (as an halakhic exegesis of Lev. 22.32=in the presence of a minyan). There are only four occurrences of the term in the Jerusalem Talmud. In two of the instances [P. Sanhedrin 3.5 (16a-b) and P. Sheviit 4.2 (10b)], the term refers to when one must die rather than disobey the three commandments. A distinction is made between what is required of Jews and of idolaters. If forced to eat meat sacrificed to idols [or carrion meat—nevelah] on the threat of death, one must choose death. The other two instances, actually the same periscope in two different contexts, deserve special attention (P. Sanhedrin 6.7 at 29b and P. Kiddushin 4.1—same story).

One version emerges in the context of discussing capital punishment, the other in the context of converts.[30] In the capital punishment case, Kiddush Hashem is thought to have greater power than its opposite, hillul hashem, as reflected in the amount of time the corpse is left exposed to the elements. The text moves on to marshal two interesting, and not incidental, prooftexts are chosen to substantiate this point: Deut. 21.23, “his body shall not remain all night on the tree [but you will surely bury him on the same day, for he who is hanged is a curse against God.” This is the exact verse upon which Paul builds an entire exegesis of the cross in Gal 3.13. This, in Rabbinic accounts, is the punishment for hillul hashem. The second prooftext is from 2 Sam. 21.10, “And they hung until rain fell upon them,” referring to King David’s handing over of Saul’s two sons and five grandsons to be executed by the Gibeonites as ransom for Saul’s bloodguilt for having killed the Gibeonites in violation of an earlier treaty. Because these 7 die for the sins of another, they are martyrs, models of kiddush hashem. Furthermore, the text explains, “in the age to come [l’atid] God will set them apart.”

This martyrdom tradition has been distorted, however. Previously in the same periscope, these Biblical texts are paired with different punishments. The Deuteronomy verse is correlated with the punishment of a blasphemer, while the 2 Samuel verse is correlated with the punishment for hillul hashem. There the prooftexts are used to support the general principal that the punishment for blasphemy is stricter than that for hillul hashem.

The commentary on the verses considering Kiddush hashem justifies their longer period of hanging as prompting a miracle—“until rain fell.” The deaths of the righteous evoke miracles. If rain in the midst of drought were not a sufficient miracle, the passage concludes with a trope found in Christian martyrologies: a crowd of gentile passersby see the martyrs hanging in disgrace as impetus to convert! And the entire periscope concludes, “many were converted on that day.”

In the second version, the narrative is more intact. The context is a discussion of those who convert “for the sake of heaven,” as opposed to an ulterior motive like marriage or fear of the lions. The same story is told about David sending to death the 7 men as recompense to the Gibeonites for bloodguilt. Their Kiddush hashem is illustrated by the length of time their bodies were left exposed. And immediately following the verse’s exegesis, the passersby convert. I believe what we have here is a martyrology of the 7 descendants of King Saul torn from its original context, now lost, and re-positioned in the midst of halakhic discourses on capital punishment and conversion, two subjects profoundly related to martyrdom in the Roman period.[31] 

To summarize the general development of ideas about martyrdom from second temple to tanaitic to amoraic sources, both Palestinian and Babylonian, is to travel a great theological distance. The theology of martyrdom is increasingly domesticated, finally brought under rabbinic control as it is expressed through the halakhic framework of the three situations in which one is obligated to choose martyrdom (P. T. Sheviith 4.2, 35a). The traditions move from notions of vicariously redemptive suffering and triumph over death through individual resurrection; to joyful death and end-time harbingers; to tzidduk ha-din and exegesis of love; to the miraculous power of the martyr-rabbis and exegesis beit-midrash style as the fulfillment of Scripture. Martyrs have been transformed from models of courage to objects of veneration to guardians of heaven. As the era of rabbinic literature concludes, the martyrs’ function on this earth, in this world, has been deferred to the next world.

Susan Einbinder has recently commented that there is a gap of a “millennium” between these rabbinic martyrdom accounts and those produced in the wake of the Crusades.[32] The time elapsed is hardly a millennium, however, as these rabbinic martyrologies continue to be reworked in material dating from the 8th through 13th centuries (Yalkut, e.g.). In this period the Hadrianic martyrs of Rabbinic literature were grouped together in the “Midrash of the Ten Slain by the Kingdom (Midrash Asarah harugei malkut).” In this medieval rendering, contrary to the Rabbinic accounts, the ten are tried and executed at the same time. The midrash is the foundation for eleh ezkerah, the poetic version recited on Yom Kippur (which I mentioned at the start of this paper). These two versions devote detailed descriptions to the methods of execution and to the reactions, often discourses, of the dying martyr. These added details reflect Christian influence, where whole chapters of martyrologies are dedicated to vivid depictions of persecutions and the sermons of dying martyrs (Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, M. of Vienna and Lyons, e.g.). While the earlier rabbinic motifs are put to different use in the wake of the Crusader persecutions, the ancient stories continue to provide material for commentators, each subsequent version adapting, not merely replicating, preceding ones. 

Medieval Martyrdom

What does mark almost a millennium, however, is the time that elapsed from the date of the actual martyrdoms recorded in rabbinic literature (during the Hadrianic persecutions of the second century) to the outbreak of new martyrdoms in 1096. In this context, new material was created from the experiences of the first Crusader persecutions. First these narratives were related in prose, as chronicles of the events. By the 12th and 13th centuries, however, the preferred genre for martyrology was poetry, both sacred (piyyut, composed in Hebrew for liturgical use) and secular (composed in the vernacular). These piyyut versions of martyrdom ritualized the hearer’s own faith commitments in a more explicit way than mere recitation of the Shema against the implicit backdrop of Akiba’s martyrdom did for perhaps only a rabbinic elite familiar with the exegetical connection. By incorporating these medieval laments into the liturgy, martyrdom moved theologically front and center. By making vernacular accounts available to literate and illiterate alike, through public performances of medieval Jewish bards/troubadours, martyrology was accessible to all. One could obtain the theological tools with which to understand and come to terms with the personal experience of humiliation and/or persecution in the secular realm as well as in the synagogue.[33] Einbinder suggests that these tools were marshaled against the pressures of conversion. {Although I will not repeat her name throughout my discussion of medieval martyrology, I am essentially summarizing her work, as noted in my footnotes}. Apostasy loomed seductively as an escape from persecution. In this social climate, martyrology re-emerged as a medium for competition with Christianity, and the experience of actual Jewish persecution served as a trump card against the vast and powerful network of Christian martyrologies, menologia, martyria (pilgrimage martyr shrines), and martyr-intercessors.

The poems of the 12th century portray the victims of the marauding and murderous Crusaders as pure, unblemished sacrifices offered to God.[34] One poem portrays a father as a ritual butcher, “making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter.”[35] Another relies on the powerful image of the sacrifice of Isaac to convey both steadfast faith and voluntary death.[36] Whether murdered or suicides, they all enact kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God’s name.[37] Crusaders, unfortunately representing all Christians, are cast as the opposite of  Jerusalem temple worshippers—they are idolaters, “who bow to one hanged on a hook…a tattered corpse.”[38]

As the trope of sacrifice lost its persuasive edge, new motifs were developed to respond to the increasing conversions over the late 12th  to “the late middle decades of the 13th c.”[39] In this historical milieu, the martyr’s death was transformed from a moment of personal salvation to a polemic in which the martyr, as he died, preached a sermon that denigrated Christian symbols.[40] While the earlier prose accounts praised those who repented after submitting to forced baptism, these later poetic accounts ignore anyone but the ideal martyr. They also emphasize a united resistance with such phrases as, “all together (kulam beyachad)” and “with a single mind (belev echad).”[41] The unity of the martyrs is expressed by their utterance of the Shema, the declaration of God’s unity, as over and against Jewish portrayals of Christian theology as polytheist idolatry. Depicting this difference in stark, and sometimes vulgar, terms intended to shape the behavior of those facing persecution. On the polemical side, martyrs were portrayed as “spurning the contaminating waters of baptism” and condemning the impure contact Christians regularly sought with the dead through martyria and reliquaries.[42] At the same time, this poetry reflects common Jewish and Christian imagery. In a poem by R. Kalonymus bar Judah , “bridegrooms and brides/ hasten to the slaughter as if to their wedding chamber.”[43]

In the 13th c. a controversy arose over how to deal with lapsed Jews. Poems which defended the forcibly baptized appealed to the need for repentance in the face of death’s ultimate judgment. The martyr’s eternal heavenly reward was used to win them back to the faith.[44] An extensive portrait of the afterlife as an explicit reward for martyrs is found in the traditional piyyut for Shavuot, Akdemut. Attributed to the 11th c. German Rabbi Meir b. Yitzchak, the poem refers to those “Shema reciters” who are “crowned with eternal life,” seated in gold thrones at the head of gem-studded tables, laden with a sumptuous banquet and sweet wine.  These images of messianic redemption are made explicit with a reference to the “arrival of yeshuah.” Other poems simply ignore the possibility of accepting baptism, portraying their heroes as equally impervious to persuasion as to pain.

Once the ancient model had been recreated to suit the medieval Jewish context, it was readily available for other types of persecution. As Jews were tried and executed on blood libel charges, poems emerged to valorize their courage in the face of death. Martyrs were portrayed as saints, closest to God in heaven. Descriptions of their deaths by fire or on the wheel drew on Biblical images of the fires of theophany at Sinai and the apocalypse of Ezekiel. Beginning with the Blois martyrs of 1171, the Tosafist poets portrayed the ideal martyrs as scholars, like themselves. In later poems, their deaths are seen as atoning “for the sins of the community.”[45] In poems memorializing the York massacre of 1190, the Tosafist poets reason that the dead body of the central martyr, a rabbi, will not decay because his teachings “were infallible.”[46]

The genre of martyrdom laments had become so well-established that when the Talmud was burned in Paris in 1242, poems portrayed this event as a martyrdom of Torah itself; the murder of the very soul of the Jewish people. From this time forward, images of burning bodies and burning books are intertwined, recalling the martyrdom of Chananyah ben Teradion recorded in Rabbinic literature. Both Jewish and Christian accounts of the arrest and execution of a 13th c. Parisian Jewish moneylender named Jonathan include the detail that he requested that the officials retrieve his book before he was burned with it at the stake. Einbinder notes that such portrayals suggest that Jonathan thought the book would deliver him from death, a notion that appealed to growing Christian suspicions about Jewish magical practices well documented in the Mahzor Vitry.[47]

Einbinder insightfully demonstrates how these poems serve three primary functions: 1) as a bulwark to stem the tide of conversion of a youthful, scholarly elite to Christianity; 2) to bolster the confidence and belief of a beleaguered community; and 3) to promote the authority of the Rabbinic elite to control the medium through which martyrdom itself was understood. Martyrology narratively represents an inversion of the power relationship that causes the martyrdoms in the first place. By appealing to ultimate judgment for the persecutors and vindication through eternal life for the victims, martyrologies postpone the justice clearly absent in this world onto the next. Martyr accounts also privilege those whose martyrdom is told, by virtue of omitting to narrate the suffering of others. In our case, the martyr accounts that serve a liturgical function, that is given public space, are those of scholars and rabbis. Thus, martyrologies not only privilege the scholar-rabbinic class itself, they promote the principle for which they died, namely, refusing to convert to Christianity—which has been construed halakhically as obedience to the divine Law. Religious persecution posed the dilemma that if Jews capitulated, Judaism would not survive; yet, if all Jews died for their faith, there would be no one left to practice the very Judaism for which they had died. Martyrologies were an attempt to address this dilemma; if their heroes had thought Judaism worth dying for, than their audiences would certainly think Judaism was worth living for. Thus, martyrologies were a rhetorical weapon used by those persecuted to overcome, both in this world and the next, the imbalance of power which exacted a heavy toll on Jewish life and culture. It was, in fact, by virtue of their merit that God showed mercy on the survivors and permitted the community to persevere.[48]

In addition, I think that these martyr poems should be understood as a struggle between Jews and Christians over who had access to the true understanding of historical events. Like their earlier Rabbinic and Christian ancestors, the issue of contestation was not merely an historical fact. The contest, like the fires of hell they were meant to imply, continued in the way each side represented the story long after the flames had abated.

Martyrological poems can be understood as a response to Christian representations of Jewish martyrdom in triumphalist terms: as proof that God had forsaken the Jews and turned toward Christians with favor. Images of Jews burning in hell confirmed what autos-da-fé implied:


Jews were guilty—of killing Christian children, of desecrating hosts, of murdering God, of rejecting Christ—the linkages were made permanent in pictures, as well as explained in ephemeral sermons and disputations. Christian representations of the Jews as the damned par excellence appeared on church walls and windows, in Bibles Moralisés, in Psalters, not to mention in Christians’ own martyrologies.[50]


Although Jews created their own visual images of burning martyrs, these were only accessible in a private context, in illuminated manuscripts. Church frescoes, reliefs, and stained glass windows were public.[53] See, for example, the series depicting the Paris Host Desecration of 1290 by Paolo Uccello, formerly adorning the altar of the church of Urbino (now in the National Gallery of the Marches):

Christian woman selling a consecrated Host to a Jewish money-lender to pay off a debt on a dress


The host “miraculously”  bleeds from the boiling pot through the door of the Jewish house to show the armed men where to find the “guilty” host-desecrators


The host is ceremoniously re-consecrated and restored to its rightful place


The Christian woman is punished and an angel descends from heaven


The Jewish money-lender and his family are burnt at the stake



Two angels and two devils fight over the Christian woman's body

We also need to bear in mind that the unfortunate Christian children for whose deaths Jews were scapegoated themselves became Christian martyrs. See, for example, Anderl of Rinn:


Hosts thought to have been desecrated by Jews often attested “miracles,” and were subsequently enshrined as relics. These relics were made into perpetual objects of veneration and reminders of the Jewish turpitude, ceremoniously displayed during processions on the martyr’s feast day or in permanent church installations.

[56] [57] [58]

It is no coincidence that one of the Christian rituals Ephrem of Rothenberg’s 12th century liturgical song for Passover attacks as idolatrous is “bone-worshipping.”[59] A satirical poem of the 13th c. southern French Jewish troubadour, Isaac haGorni, takes the polemic even further. He speaks in the voice of an aged adulterer:

And from afar they will bring the dust of my tomb to be peddled to beautiful girls as cosmetics,/And the planks of my coffin shall go to barren women, to give birth so sons and daughters…/All my instruments shall become sacred relics, and my robes guarded like treasure!/ Oh who shall pulverize my bones before they make them into icons (temunot)?[60] 

Each historical verdict of ritual murder produced two distinct, competing, sets of martyrs, one Jewish, the other Christian. Each side’s narrative represented and perpetuated the theological truth that it held dear. Each side had its own exclusive truth claim. Martyrdom, in both traditions, was understood as full and instantaneous atonement for sin—complete vindication. Thus, that each side saw its co-religionists as martyrs was per se vindication of its own religious claims.

If we move ahead to the mid 17th c. in Eastern Europe to the Chmielnitzky massacres, we discover that Rabbi Nathan Hanover’s chronicle, Yeven Metzulah (Abyss of Despair) shares some of the same characteristics as its Western European predecessors. Hanover graphically depicts the martyrs’ deaths; their deaths are Kiddush hashem; the assault is interpreted as retribution for Jewish sins following the tzidduk ha-din tradition;[61] women choose death over rape; an exclamatory prayer for divine retribution is repeatedly invoked, as is the prayer for messianic redemption;[62] the only martyrs whose names are mentioned are rabbis; and religious articles are graphically portrayed as defamed and destroyed.

Despite these familiar tropes, the account develops several nova: First, some of the Jews choose capture and escape over death, anticipating their redemption by the Jewish communities of Salonica and Constantinople and their asylum in Turkey, north Africa, and Egypt. Although Hanover makes clear that the preferable course of action is to follow the rabbinic view and to choose martyrdom, he chooses to narrate an alternative.[63] Second, while the fear of forced baptism is still expressed, there are no accounts of polemical interchanges between Christians and Jews. In fact, following his descriptions of Jewish calamities, Hanover often adds a sad reflection on the destruction of churches and murder of Catholic priests, sometimes refracted through the citation of a Biblical verse.[64] The Christian nobles’s deaths are described in detail, and, in one case, that of Duke Jeremy Wiśniowiecki of Tulczyn [then Little Russia, now Polish Ukraine], Hanover appends the words traditionally reserved for Jews: “zichrono livracha,” may his memory be for a blessing. Furthermore, Hanover interprets Wiśniowiecki’s initial escape from Cossack violence as an act of God.[65] Similarly, when mentioning the election of Cardinal Frederick Casimir of Gniezno as King, Hanover adds the phrase, “may his glory increase. . . May his Kingdom grow and my he cause his enemies to fall under him. . . and be blessed with length of days. For he is a just King, a god-fearing man, and a friend of Israel.”[66] Perhaps Wiśniowiecki earns the rabbi’s admiration by issuing a decree that reversed forced baptisms.[67]

Yeven Metzulah marks a ground-shift in the martyrological portrait of Christians, admittedly as much a result of socio-political alliances as any theological conviction. Yet a related theological shift may also be detected. Hanover writes that when a group of Jews narrowly escaped massacre, they recited the blessing, “Blessed are you, O God, who resurrects the dead.” This reconstruction of resurrection as the triumph over death in this life, rather than its postponement to the afterlife, reflects a new understanding of Jewish survival as literally dependant on bodily existence. The violate dietary laws to stay alive.[68] Taken together with Hanover’s reporting of pidyon shevuyim, the ransom of captives, we begin to see a community unwilling to hand its fate entirely over to a transcendent, omnipotent, God, as Hanover reveals: “The Jews there placed their trust first in God, and then in them [the Dukes], thinking that they might find refuge for themselves and their families.”[69] The fact that some Jews were able to find protection with these Christian nobles and clergy initiated the slow erosion of the polemical power of martyrology for Jews in the modern period.

Post-Shoah Notions of Martyrdom 

In the post-Shoah era, it has become customary to refer to the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah as martyrs. Although most Jews killed by the Nazis were given no choice other than death, the appellation has become quite common. Yad Vashem’s English name is “The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.”[70] Already, in this title, we sense a shift in the theological understanding of the term, “martyrs,” by its juxtaposition to the term, “heroes.” The heroes are those who survived, while the martyrs are those who perished. This distinction is not evident in the classical sources. In fact, the three young men of Daniel 3 who survived the furnace ordeal were continually referred to as martyrs in both Jewish and Christian tradition. People who demonstrated willingness to die for their faithfulness to God and the Law through their radical actions were considered martyrs, whether they actually died or not. By so doing, martyrs were heroes: they exemplified courage. They were willing to battle death, whether they prevailed or not. I suspect that in making this distinction, the voluntary aspect of the classical definition has also been set aside. In the post-Enlightenment age of individualist consciousness, it is almost inconceivable to envision choosing death as a real choice rather than one coerced by a system of violent oppression or false consciousness. As Allen Grossman writes, even, “The Holocaust was not a challenge to Jewish martyrdom but an attempt to destroy martyrdom forever. . . [Hitler] decreed death for Jews, not for doing or even believing, but rather for being. . . Thus, Jewish martyrdom was made irrelevant. . . A martyr chooses to die. . .”[71] Grossman quotes the famous dictum made by R. Isaac Nissenbaum in the Warsaw ghetto, “this was a time not for Kiddush ha-Shem, but rather for Kiddush ha-chayyim [sanctification of life].” This post-Shoah theology has permeated Jewish consciousness so deeply that it distorts our understanding of pre-modern notions about martyrdom. To cite just one example, Hayyam Maccoby writes, “[T]he concept of martyrdom carries no special mystique in Judaism; it has no sacrificial connotation, and consequently no import of vicarious atonement…. Martyrdom is never to be sought; he who embraces it by failing to seek safety in flight is a sinner. . . . The basic life-affirming meaning of Kiddush ha-shem, however, was reasserted in the halakhic ruling that during the Nazi era the truest Kiddush ha-shem was to preserve one’s life if possible, since the Nazi aim was not only to destroy the Jewish religion but the Jews themselves.”[72]

Another classical aspect of martyrdom, tzidduk ha-Din, is also discarded. With the exception of some early post-Shoah orthodox rabbinic responses to the Holocaust maintained today by ultra-orthodox groups, most Jews find that the concept of martyrdom as divine judgment is blasphemous when applied to the Shoah. As Norman Lamm has written, “the very idea is repugnant to me and bespeaks an insufferable insensitivity. . . .  [I]n these special circumstances of such unprecedented butchery and unequaled suffering and unimaginable danger to our survival, recourse to mi-penei hata’einu [we were punished for our sins] is massively irrelevant, impudent, and insensitive.”[73] In fact, the preference for the term, “Shoah,” catastrophe, over “Holocaust,” rejects attempts to find meaning in sacrificial theologies of salvation.[74]

Nevertheless, in the Jewish liturgy for Yom HaShoah created by Elie Wiesel and Albert Friedlander, the opening prayer reflects, “There are times when songs falter… when martyrdom becomes a constellation of faith against the unrelieved black of space about us.” In their version of the El Male Rachamim, the Memorial prayer, recited for the six million at Yizkor services as well as on Yom HaShoah, the six million are identified by the phrase, “shemeitu al kiddush hashem—those who died in sanctification of the name.” The Conservative movement prayer book, Sim Shalom, uses a similar unique adaptation of the memorial prayer, but rejects the theological classification of the “six million” as martyrs by eschewing any reference to “kiddush hashem.”[75] No special memorial prayer appears in the Birnbaum siddur, which only provides the traditional yizkor prayer for martyrs in general. Although the interreligious service by Gene Fisher and Leon Klenicki also avoids any form of the word martyr, the recitation of Psalm 22, the very psalm recited by Jesus—preserved in Hebrew or Aramaic in the Matthean (27.46) and Markan (15.34) passion narratives—implies a connection between what Christians regard as the paradigmatic martyrdom and the deaths of the six million.

This remarkable link figures prominently in Marc Chagall’s famous “White Crucifixion,” painted in 1938:

click to zoom in[76]

Karl Plank writes, “As the prayer shawl wraps the loins of the crucified figure, Chagall makes clear that the Christ and the Jewish sufferer are one,”[77] as in the work of Sholem Asch.[78] In 1977, the artist himself explained the symbolism of the crucifixion series:

“For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr. That is how I understood him in 1908 when I used this figure for the first time…It was under the influence of the pogroms. Then I painted and drew him in pictures about ghettos, surrounded by Jewish troubles, by Jewish mothers, running terrified with little children in their arms.”[79]

Many would find this view offensive, as typified in the Auschwitz convent controversy. In the book, Memory Offended, Stanislaw Krajewski wrote,

The word [martyrdom] is not neutral. In both Jewish, and subsequently Christian traditions it means suffering for the sake of one’s faith. . ..  Auschwitz, or the Shoah in general, does not have this redemptive quality. It is an ultimate horror: Jews were condemned independently of their willingness to defend their faith, indeed independently of their behavior. For most believing Jews, Auschwitz must have meaning, but that meaning seems totally hidden. In contrast, from the Christian point of view, the redemptive interpretation is natural. Even Pope John Paul II, whose sensitivity to the Jewish fate is obvious, expressed remarks to the effect that so great a suffering must bring great fruits [citing the pope’s visit to Poland and his meeting with Jewish representatives on 6/14/87].”[80]

We find a different treatment of the crucifixion in a story recorded by Yaffa Eliach from Zvi Michalowski entitled, “Jew, Go Back to the Grave!” Eliach relates that on the eve of Rosh Hashana, over 4,000 Jews had been herded into the main synagogue of Eisysky, Lithuania. They were led out in groups to the cemetery, and gunned down into open ditches. Zvi Michalowski, then a young man, jumped into the grave just before the bullets hit, and then climbed out hours later. Naked and dripping with blood, he headed toward the Christian section of town and knocked on the first door he came to. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” came the response, time after time.  Finally, he confronted a widow whom he knew, saying:

“I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” The widow crossed herself, and fell at his blood-stained feet. . . she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened. . .[81]

Whether or not the actual interaction happened as Eliach tells it is beside the point. What is remarkable is that the story stands as a perpetual memory of Jewish escape from death during the Shoah. The self-portrait of a persecuted Eastern European Jew in 1941 as Christ is both ironic and irenic. The irony has a polemical edge to it: the widow only treats Michalowski kindly when he poses as Christ and hides his Jewish identity. The irony, of course, is that Jesus was himself Jewish. Yet there is a tone of reconciliation in the identification as well: Michalowski recognizes that from a Christian perspective, suffering is typified by the crucifixion. Thus, if he wants the widow to empathize with his suffering, he must express it in Christian terms. In doing so, he sees the world through the other’s eyes. The fact that he can overcome his parochialism while the widow cannot suggests that the polemic has the last word with an inverted sort of triumphalism: Jews, the minority, must constantly translate their world into the terms of the majority, while the Christian majority remains complacent in its insularity. Thus, despite this brief moment of rapprochement, Jews can narratively avenge our trauma and overcome our post-Holocaust terror by representing subversion and deception as the secrets to our survival. In this theology, martyrdom only works if there is bodily resurrection. And bodily resurrection is construed here as a new kind of triumph over death that entails clinging to bodily life.[82]


I would like to conclude with a few personal reflections. The topic of martyrdom has captivated my attention for a long time. Yet the distance achieved by texts that record these deaths, either by their appeal to allegory, metaphor, symbolism, and/or Biblical motifs, has allowed me to avoid confronting the theological challenge these traditions pose to my own religious commitments. To be honest, I am uneasy with a tradition that valorizes death without demanding critical scrutiny of the social structures that allowed it to happen in the first place. I am uncomfortable with theological assertions about death as redemptive or atoning. And here is where my intellectual study of Christianity and my personal faith divide. The God to whom I pray does not demand human sacrifice. I know that Jews have believed such ideas for millennia, but I find myself rejecting this aspect of my own tradition in deference to its ethical demands.

I once conducted an adult study session at a local synagogue on this morning’s subject, martyrdom, and I asked the participants how these stories and poems made people feel. Most were unsettled by the images, and even were repulsed by the idea of martyrdom—all except the rabbi, who declared with confidence, “I think I would have to choose martyrdom if faced with apostasy. How could I fulfill my role as a model of faith for my community if I didn’t? That’s part of being a rabbi.” I was deeply challenged by this assertion. And that is a challenge with which I continue to struggle.


[1] The material of the story is taken partly from the legend of St. Emmeram of Regensburg (see Amram of Mayence), who, having been accused by Uta, daughter of Thedo, Duke of Bavaria, of being her seducer, was tied to a ladder, where his limbs were cut off, one by one. He was then brought to the castle of Aschheim, where he expired praying and blessing his murderers ("Acta Sanctorum," September series, vi. 474). view.jsp?artid=1416&letter=A on 12/5/03.

[2] Milgrom, 461.

[3] #1-3 are from Boyarin, 95-6.

[4] Major problems with using Macc as “Jewish,” not the least of which is no ancient versions found (e.g. at Qumran ); although the references to the Maccabean shrine in Antioch as Jewish suggests otherwise (Chrysostom/Augustine).

[5] Isaiah 59.12, Nehemiah 9.37, Daniel 9.16, e.g. Perhaps Ezekiel 33.10 (son of man passage) begins to move in a different direction.

[6] Josephus,  Ant. 12.11.2.

[7] Jerome, Ep 7.6; Chrysostum, Homily on the Holy Martyrs 2, Augustine, s. 300.6. See M. Vinson, “Gregory Nazianzen’s Homily 15 and the Genesis of the Christian Cult of the Maccabean Martyrs,” Byzantion 64 (1994): 166-92. Also ROUWHORST, Gerard: "The Use of the Cult of the Maccabean Martyrs" (unpublished?).

[8] Palestine —terebinths of mamre, see Itinerarium Burdigalense 599 (Bordeaux Pilgrim); Jerome ep. 108.11; Sozomen, HE 2.4.

[9] This discussion of the Maccabean shrine in Antioch is informed by Martha Vinson, “Gregory Nazianzen’s Homily 15 and the Genesis of the Christian Cult of the Maccabean Martyrs,” Byzantion 64.1 (1994): 166-92.

[10] Augustine, s. 300.6, tr. Hill [slightly emended]. PL 38:1379: Machabaei ergo martyres Christi sunt. Ideo non incongrue, neque importune, imo convenientissime dies eorum et solemnitas eorum a Christianis potius celebratur. Quid tale Iudaei celebrare noverunt? Sanctorum Machabaeorum basilica esse in Antiochia praedicatur: in illa scilicet civitate, quae regis ipsius persecutoris nomine vocatur. Antiochum quippe regem persecutorem impium pertulerunt, et memoria martyrii eorum in Antiochia celebratur; ut simul sonet et nomen persecutoris, et memoria coronatoris. Haec basilica a Christianis tenetur, a Christianis aedificata est. Eorum ergo memoriam celebrandam nos habemus, nos tenemus: apud nos passiones eorum millia per orbem terrarum sanctorum martyrum imitata sunt.

[11] Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford [Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 1999].

[12] “These sarcophagi , the inner and the outer are of Rabbi Aniana and of ... the holy ones , the sons of...” from on November 28, 2003, reproduced from Avigad, Nahman, Beth She'arim, Catacombs 12-23, v. 3 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 1976: 243-245, #17, Plate XXXVII#2.

[13] Lest we might think this is a generic term for “saints,” other Beth Shearim tomb inscriptions refer to their rabbinic and priestly occupants as “tzadikim” (righteous ones). As far as I know this is a unique occurrence of the term hakedoshim at Beth Shearim.

[14] The dating is problematic, since Beth Shearim is generally considered to date to 200-400 CE. However, the dating of the actual martyrdom of R. Hanina is perhaps less secure than Rabbinic texts suggest.

[15] The earliest reference does not specify when exactly (Gittin 57b), while the Seder Eliahu Rabbah (30) version places it under Hadrian [per van Henten, 146].

[16] Van Henten, 135.

[17] This same interpretation and formal terminology appears in the Jerusalem Talmud’s discussion of the halakhic requirements to be martyred in the face of the 3 prohibitions (P. Sanhedrin 3.5, 16a).

[18] Van Henten, 140.

[19] gerim, not meaning converts here—see further discussion below.

[20] The latter would only apply in the case that the rabbis were suspected of participating in an illicit sect, like Christianity. R. Eliezer was arrested and executed on charges of Christianity (see Boyarin, 26-41).

[21] These actual words are missing in the two earliest mss, 13th and 15th c. as well as from Yalkut Shimoni. Yet these words, I think, preserve the text’s original meaning.

[22] Van Henten, 157-8.

[23] Van Henten, 159.

[24] This is a narrative deeply influenced by Christian martyrologies. The style and the tropes are identical to those we find in Christian martyr acts. The Martyrdom of Polycarp has a heavenly voice (9.1), Eusebius’ Martyrs of Palestine contain similar portrayals of death by slow fire, [fill this in???????], the Passion of Perpetua contains the conversion of the attending soldier in the arena (21), and the instantaneous ascent of the martyrs to heaven is well-documented from Tertullian onward.

[25] Paper delivered by Naomi Janowicz at the Hellenistic Judaism section of the SBL on 11/26/03.

[26] P. Berakhot 6.1 (Neusner, 6.3) preserves other contexts for this blessing (over spoiled wine, upon seeing locusts or fallen unripe fruit). Most interesting is P. Berakhot 9.1 and Tosefta Berakhot 6.6, where the blessing is recited upon seeing people with physical deformities and afflictions.

[27] Boyarin, 103.

[28] #2-4 from Van Henten, 153.

[29] In the Mishnah the phrase refers to the fourth blessing of the Amidah, the kedushah (m. Rosh HaShanah 4.5).

[30] Interestingly nearby, in 6. 3: The condemned is given an opportunity to “confess” when he comes within 15 ft. of his place of execution, since, the Talmud states, “whoever confesses has a share in the world to come. . . If he does not know how to confess, they say to him, ‘Say the following: Let my death be atonement for all of my sins.’

[31] In its occurrences in the Babylonian Talmud, the phrase (kedushat hashem) has the same meaning as in the Palestinian traditions about the three prohibitions one must die rather than violate (cf. Sanhedrin 74b, Pesachim 53b). It adds another layer of meaning, however, that of bringing public honor to the Jewish God by conducting business with a gentile in the same manner as with a Jew (Babba Kamma 113a, Gittin 46a—keeping an oath to non-Jews). This is a far cry from martyrdom.

[32] Einbinder, 4.

[33] Einbinder, 9.

[34] Einbinder, 17.

[35] Anonymous, “I shall speak out in the grief of my spirit,” in Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 373.

[36] Ephraim of Bonn, “I invoke my fathers,” Ibid, 379-84.

[37] Ibid., 18.

[38] Ibid, 36.

[39] Ibid, 19. The conversions comprised 5-10% of the Jewish European population (Ibid, 34, citing Shatzmiller, 317).

[40] Ibid, 20.

[41] Ibid, 20.

[42] Ibid, 23.

[43] Ibid, 27. This alludes to Psalm 19.5-6 and Isaiah 49.18 and 61.10. Similar motifs are found in Methodius’ Symposium of the Ten Virgins 11.2.3, Cyril, Homily on Baptism 3.2, Tertullian, c. Marcion 4.11, Chrysostom, Homily 3.

[44] Ibid, 23.

[45] Ibid, 29.

[46] Ibid, 30.

[47] Einbinder, 161. Of course, as Einbinder points out, the kabbalistic corpus contains a wealth of such information, but the likelihood of a money-lender having such access is unlikely.

[48] See this also reflected in the later Yeven Metzulah, p. 104.

[49] “Hell,” miniature from Hortus deliciarum, Herrad of Landsberg, c. 1185, reproduced in Heinz Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History [New York: Continuum, 1996], plate 13.

[50] Revel-Neher, 104.

[51]“ Heretics and Jews descend into the fires of hell,” from Bible Moralisée (13th c. France), Cod. 1179, fol. 126a; reproduced in Sara Lipton, Images of Intolerance (UC Press: 1999), 120.

[52] “Kings and counts kill infidels and heretics,” from Bible Moralisée (13th c. France), Cod. 1179, fol. 52b; reproduced in Sara Lipton, Images of Intolerance (UC Press: 1999), 133.

[53] See, for example, Mahzor mi-kol ha-shanah Pesaro?: Gershom Soncino, 1520?(1515?): “The  Pesaro Mahzor (festival liturgy) was the first edition according to the German rite. Many passages - such as one describing the death of Jewish martyrs - were ‘revised’ (i.e. blackened) by the ecclesiastical censor, whose ink is now fading after 450 years,” on 12/8/03 or the illustration of the Maccabean mother and her seven sons in a 1427 Hamburg Miscellany (Staats- und Universitaetsbibliothek, cod. Heb. 37, f. 79v) in Bezalel Narkiss, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts (Keter: 1969), Plate 39.

[54] Slides reproduced from, as discussed in Einbinder, 156, 171.


[56] Lanciano Reliquary (relic, c. 750), 1713 CE, for centuries displayed with the 1631 manuscript of Sebastiano de Rinaldis, “Flower of the Saints (1611)“ in St. Francesco church: “. . . Let therefore the sacrilegious tongues of the Jews be quiet, let the obstinate hearts of the unbelievers be softened, may the Christian religion rejoice and celebrate, to which is visibly revealed that which she faithfully professes and believes,” from on 12/8/03.

[57] Bleeding Host Reliquary from Chapelle des billettes, est. 1295, in  St-Jean-en-Grève, France (Jonathan the Jew’s host desecration, 1290), from on 12/8/03. For a detailed discussion, see Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales. The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1999), 40-47.

[58] Altarpiece for Desecrated Host, c. 1470, from Korneuburg (1305 host desecration), from Rubin, plate 10.

[59] Einbinder, 36.

[60] Einbinder, 144-5.

[61] Hanover, tr. Mesch, p. 109. This acts as the conclusion of the chronicle. This is tied to the epilogue reporting the great Torah accomplishments and piety of the Polish Jewish communities.

[62] Ibid., 121, the epilogue’s last sentence.

[63] Hanover, tr. Mesch, p. 52, 55, 56.

[64] The massacres were the result of the Ukrainian Cossack uprising under Bogdan Chmielnitski supported by Greek Orthodox peasants. Massacres of Jews, Polish Catholics, Clergy, and Uniates. See, for example, pp. 70-71, citing Isaiah 14.19.

[65] Hanover , tr. Mesch, p. 60, 108.

[66] Ibid, 92. See also 96, 97.

[67] Ibid, p. 103.

[68] Ibid, 88: “They cut off organs from the slain and roasted them on fire and ate them;” and 98: “They at the horses and the dogs because of the hunger.”

[69] Ibid, 94.

[70] on 12/6/03.

[71] Grossman, “Holocaust,” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Cohen and Mendes-Flohr [1987], 406.

[72] Maccoby, “Sanctification of the Name,” in Cohen/Mendes-Flohr, 853.

[73] Norman Lamm, “Excerpt from ‘The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust’,” on 12/6/03.

[74] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 11.

[75] See the full personal size edition, 1989: 1994, p. 522.

[76] Reproduced from  on 12/8/03

[77] Plank, “Broken Continuities: ‘Night’ and ‘White Crucifixion,’  on 12.5.03, republished from Christian Century,  November 4, 1987, p. 963.

[78] This position is not universal by any means, as Plank comments, for Lamed Shapiro and S. Y. Agnon, “the cross remained an emblem of violence and a reminder of Christian enmity against Jews.”

[79] on 12/5/03.

[80] Stanislaw Krajewski, “The Controversy over Carmel at Auschwitz : A Personal Polish-Jewish Chronology,” in Memory Offended, ed. John K. Roth and Carol Rittner (Praeger, 1991), p. 121.

[81] Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, 65.

[82] This motif is found in poetry as well. Cf. Nathan Alterman, “B’od Erev Yored,” in Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 548-9, who uses the term “tchiyat hametim” to refer to survivors who have new lives in Israel.