Jewish view of martyrdom by one’s own hand

Q: Dear Rabbi,

Here is another interesting post by Rabbi Gil Student – this time about Josephus, was he a traitor or victim?  I liked Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion of the issue particularly because it shed light on a question which I keep forgetting to ask: How could those unfortunates caught up in the Crusades and other persecutions have justified killing themselves? While the suicide option is addressed, however, the question still remains: What about those who killed others (e.g., young children) before committing suicide?

Very best wishes,



A: Dear Stefan

Your question re martyrdom and suicide in the Crusades and elsewhere is very valid. It is indeed questionable as to the heter of suicide even under those circumstances, however it was widely practiced (and praised) as a form of pre-emptive martyrdom and a form of protest and declamation of the disdain which Jews had for Christianity. Also, to die by one’s own hand may be less painful than the torture of the enemy. (This was part of Saul’s reasoning, in the biblical precedent. See I Sam. 31:3-6 and Radak there.) Another consideration is that one may fear that s/he will be unable to withstand the temptation to kiss the cross to save his/her life. Finally, in the case of children, the child may be forcibly baptised and raised as a Catholic—a fate worse than death. Nevertheless, the Commentators refer to a medieval rabbi who excoriated a colleague for killing children at a time of siege by the Crusaders, and in the end the peril passed and the (rest of the) community was spared. But that rabbi died a gruesome death.

May the Jewish People never again be tested by any such fearsome trial.

rabbi rashi simon