Jewish view of martyrdom by one’s own hand

You are here:
< Back

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

Questions & Answers
this week

Questions and Answers

Ask the Rabbi: Easy as א-ב-ג?
Dear Rabbi Simon,
I hope you fasted well yesterday.
Thank you for the insights into the Kinnot, making them easier to understand.
In the afternoon, I was listening to a shiur on Eichah on Torahanytime.  As an aside, the speaker mentioned that the 1st perek of Eichah is the source for the order of the alef bet as we know it.  Other chapters also follow the alef bet chronology but with ayin en peh interchanged.
He quoted Rabbi Shimon Schwab as his source.
Although he did not elaborate on this, surely Sefer Tehillim predates Megillat Eichah by centuries.  Several psalms are written in the alef bet order (e.g.
psalm 119).
Can you please clarify?
Thank you & best wishes.
PhilippeHi Philippe
TY for your sophisticated Q.
I have also heard that the question of the sequence of samekh and 'ayin is subject to dispute. It seems that there are indications that in Paleo-Hebrew the order is reversed from what we know. It is alleged that chapters 2, 3 and 4 of Eichah (chapter 5 is not alphabetical) reflect the original order. Of course, as you say, ch 1 conforms to the order with which we are family.
You are right that Tehillim predates Eichah, however a critic can claim that the order was redacted to bring it in line with the accepted/preferred sequence. This is particularly true for ch. 119, where each of the 8 vv per letter are their own group, and each set of 8 vv. can easily be repositioned. The question is in Ps. 34 or 145, if the internal logic of the passage sheds light on the correct sequence. In Ps. 34, some claim that the v. starting with the letter peh makes more sense to follow the verse starting with samekh (due to the common appearance of the word ra'). I am not convinced that this argument is compelling.
I will stick with the mesorah, that 'ayin belongs before peh. Best to look before speaking.
Rabbi Rashi Simon
Events / Calendar