Summary: The great Ashkenazic legal authorities of the Middle Ages, the Tosafot, seemed unable to accept the Talmud’s lukewarm, qualified position on kiddush ha-Shem. In their commentary on Avodah Zarah 54a, where the possibility of permitting an individual to transgress the ban on idolatry in private is raised, the Tosafot expressed shock at such a suggestion, and declared it impossible. In their commentary on Avodah Zarah 18a, they reinterpreted the law so as to come out with strikingly unequivocal statements proscribing not only the willingness to be killed, but even active suicide.69Avodah Zarah 18a cites the tale of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon’s torturous death at the hands of the Roman authorities during the Hadrianic Persecutions. Rabbi Hananiah’s students, watching him burn slowly and painfully, wrapped in a Torah scroll and sponges of wool, begged their teacher to open his mouth and swallow the flames so that he might speed up his death and end his sufferings. The sage refused, admonishing his followers that human life is meant be taken only by the One who has endowed it and that man may not inflict violence upon his own self. In his commentary on the passage, Rabbenu Tam (Rabbi Jacob ben Meir, d. 1171), foremost of all Tosafot, insisted on reversing this unambiguous ruling against suicide in the case of one forced to transgress a Torah prohibition:70 Note particularly the use of the phrase “commanded to inflict violence,” which flies in the face of all preexisting Talmudic norms. Even the Talmudic requirement to choose death rather than violate one of the three cardinal commandments obligates one only to submit to death, not to commit suicide.
Points to raise: The twelfth century—the era of the First and Second Crusades—was a crucial turning point in the evolution of Jewish attitudes toward martyrdom. Shocked by the sudden onslaught of violent religious coercion, the Jewish communities of France and Germany, when faced with the choice between baptism and the sword, chose the sword. The astonishingly widespread acceptance of death over conversion—and death by one’s own hand rather than death at the hands of the enemy—left the pious Jewish communities of Ashkenaz, in the aftermath of the Crusades, in desperate need of religious justification.
It would seem that Ashkenaz Jewry reshaped the very essence of the kiddush haShem concept: whereas in Talmudic literature, kiddush haShem is used almost universally to denote one who submits passively to persecutors as an expression of absolute loyalty to his or her faith, in the post-Crusade literature of Ashkenaz, the concept is used primarily to denote the activities of one who actively sacrifices not only his or her own life, but also the lives of his or her family and community members.71
Were the Tosafot aware of their breach in interpretation of the halakhic sources? How did they justify their re-reading of the gemara? Consider the comments of Rabbi Aaron Ha-Kohen of Lunel [Sefer Orhot Ha-Haim Section 2, Chapter 4] who reports that there was an ongoing dispute in Ashkenaz regarding the permissibility of suicide in a yehareg ve-al ya’avor situation. Rabbi Aaron claims that some Rishonim justified suicide as an halakhic option on the basis of a midrash halakhah cited in Bereishit Rabbah [Seder Noah, Parshah 34, 13:5]. How does this source change our perspective on Tosafot’s interpretive activities?