Martyrdom under Noahide Law

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A martyr is a person who is put to death or endures suffering because of a belief, principle or cause. The death of a martyr or the value attributed to it is called martyrdom. In different belief systems, the criteria for being considered a martyr is different.

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein says another precept that should be discussed as part of this broad conception of Blasphemy is martyrdom.[1] Martyrdom has reference to two commandments:

1. " sanctify G-d's name [in face of death, where appropriate]." Positive 9.

2. "...against desecrating G-d's name [even in the face of death, when appropriate].- Negative 63.

In effect, these two precepts obligate a man to accept death rather than violate the law, with respect to certain laws and under certain conditions. (just what these circumstances are is the subject of dispute among major legalists.) Does the Noahic code feature a directive on martyrdom? The Talmud raises this very question:

Rav Ami was asked: Are Noahites obligated to sanctify the Name, or are they not obligated to sanctify the Name? Abaia remarked: We were taught, "The children of Noah were given seven laws . . .," but if you were to obligate them in this matter, would there not be eight?
Rova answered him: Those seven and all their offshoots. What then is the solution to the problem before us?
Rav Ada bar Ahava noted in the name of the House of Rav: It is stated (11 Kings 5) "May G-d but forgive your humble servant for this thing: when my master enters the Temple of Rimon for to kneel there - and he is on my arm - and I kneel." Then it states, "Said [Elisha] to him: Go in peace." Now, if Noahites were obligated to sanctify the Name, would Elisha have responded in such a tone?
Yes, since there it occurred in private, but here we refer to occurrences in public.[2]

This rendition follows Rashi's text and interpretation. Just what answer does it give to the question of whether Noahites are expected to sanctify the Name? The Tosafists say that according to the reading of Rashi the problem is left unresolved. The Tosafists themselves prefer a different reading however, according to which Noahites are definitely free from any obligations under martyrdom. Nisirn ben Reuben, in Hidushei HaRan, agrees with the text and the decision of the Tosafists, but he does not agree with the inconclusiveness that they attribute to Rashi's rendition. Instead, Nisim ben Reuben writes, "According to the textual reading of Rashi it would appear that the final conclusion of the Talmud is that a Noahite must submit to martyrdom.[3]

Nahmanides supports the text of Rashi, together with Nisim ben Reuben's reading of it. Nahmanides writes:

Concerning the resident stranger's martyrdom, in private he should transgress and not permit himself to be killed, even in cases involving Idolatry and Illicit Intercourse, because the Torah does not here distinguish Idolatry and Illicit Intercourse from their other precepts .... But as for martyrdom in public, it is required of them, even for their other precepts. This, then, is the import of the Talmud's phrase, "there it occurred in private, but here we refer to occurrences in public."[4]

Maimonides disagrees and sides with those writers who decide for freeing Noahites from having to sanctify the Name.[5]

The above is a rundown of the varying decisions that emerge in wake of the Talmud's discussion. Disregarding for the moment what the final position is, one must ask how the Talmud envisioned fitting martyrdom into the scheme of the Seven Laws. For the Talmud views the tentative requirement of martyrdom as being an integral part of the Seven Laws when it responds that martyrdom is not an eighth category but an offshoot of the existing seven. Which one? Surely not Theft, Justice, Homicide, Illicit Intercourse, Limb of a Living Creature, or Idolatry' The only possibility is Blasphemy, understood as the category devoted to regulating man's theistic affairs in his relationship with G-d. Conversely, it may be noted, that the proposition that Noahites are required to sanctify G-d's Name, implies that they must believe in G-d. This realization provides a talmudic basis for obligating Noahites in the belief in G-d, and consequently tends to support the larger conception of Blasphemy being developed here. In addition, when martyrdom is cast in the guise of its Negative Command it comes strikingly close, in both letter and spirit, to the law against blaspherning G-d's name: against desecrating G-d's name.

Before leaving this point, we must contend with yet another possible treatment of how martyrdom can be integrated into Noahism. That possibility is to see the obligation to accept death, rather than transgress, as stemming from whichever of the seven laws the particular Noahite is under compulsion to transgress at any particular time. In other words, whenever a Noahite is compelled to worship an idol, Idolatry is the legal wellspring of the prescribed martyrdom; whenever a Noahite is compelled to murder, Homicide is the legal wellspring of the prescribed martyrdom; and so forth. If in fact this were so, then Sanctification of the Name should be construed as an illustration of the principle that no judicial cognizance is taken of whether or not a crime is perpetrated under duress. But quite the opposite is true, according to Maimonides at least, who writes:

Where one who is enjoined to suffer death rather than transgress commits a transgression and so escapes death, he has profaned the name of G-d. If the transgression was committed in the presence of ten Israelites, he has profaned the name of G-d - and violated a negative precept - not to profane His Name. Still, as the transgression was committed under duress, he is not punished with stripes and, needless to add, he is not sentenced by a court to be put to death, even if, under duress, he committed murder. For the penalty of death or stripes is only inflicted on one who transgresses of his own free will, in the presence of witnesses and after due warning. This rule is based on the text concerning one who has given of his seed to Molech. "And I will set my face against that man" (Leviticus 20:3). The demonstrative "that" has been traditionally interpreted as exempting from punishment one who transgresses under compulsion, in ignorance or in error. Now, if in the case of Idolatry which is the gravest of offences, the (divine) penalty of Excision and, needless, to add, the judicial penalty of death are not incurred by one who worships an idol under compulsion, then how much more is this in regard to the violation of the other precepts of the Torah. So too, in connection with offences against chastity, it is expressly stated, "But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing" (Deut. 22:26).[6]

It appears from the above that a criminal statute is basically powerless when it addresses itself to an individual under duress. It is at this juncture that the statutes on martyrdom come into play, these being designed for just that situation in which criminal statutes lose force. Neither is there reason to suspect that these considerations are different for Noahism, especially in view of the sweeping logical tenor in the words of Maimonides quoted under Blasphemy.[7]

In all likelihood, then, martyrdom does belong together with the belief in G-d, of which it is an extension, under the mast of Blasphemy.[8]


  1. Lichtenstein, Aaron. "The Seven Laws of Noah". New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press and Z. Berman Books, 2d ed. 1986
  2. Sanhedrin 74b through 75a. The translation follows Rashi.
  3. Nisim ben Reuben, Hidushei HaRan. New York: Dath, 1946 (Sanhedrin, ad locurn). There are indications that the Sanhedrin part of Hidushei HaRan was written - or written into - by someone other than Nisim ben Reuben. For one thing, the text quotes Nisim ben Reuben in a number of places, such as Sanhedrin 12a and 30a. In addition, there are repeated uncharacteristic references to one, "the Rabbi Rav David."
  4. Nahmanides, Milhemeth HaShern, Sanhedrin, Chapter Eight, last lines. (This work is found as an appendix to the Wilna and many other editions of the Talmud.)
  5. Code, "Laws on Kings" 10:2.
  6. Code, "Principles of Torah" 5:4.
  7. Cf. Jacob Ettlinger, Aroch LeNer. Warsaw: Goldman, 1925, folio page 56 (Sanhedrin 74b). Also see above Note 60. Cf. Chaim Solowejizyk, Chiduszej Rabejnu Chaim Halejwi, folio 95 ("Laws on Homicide and Safety" 1:9). Cf. "Tosafoth" Sanhedrin 74b, last line.
  8. However, Rashi does not follow this approach, as it appears from his comment on the Sanhedrin 74b phrase: "Those seven and all their offshoots." Rashi's explanation of it is: "All the laws that can precipitate an act of martyrdom apply for the Noahite. Thus, upon being forced to either transgress these laws or die, he would be transgressing them if he should not Sanctify the Name. Hence, this too is part of the Seven Laws." If Rashi were following the approach developed here, his explanation would probably have read simply: Martyrdom pertains to the Noahites as an offshoot of one of the existing seven laws, Blasphemy.