The following outline is not intended as a detailed lesson-plan for teaching the sugya of yehareg ve-al ya’avor but rather as a presentation of the central sources with suggestions for addressing the theological and methodological issues that should be raised in the course of study.
There is no mention of “yehareg ve-al ya’avor,” the Jewish rules governing martyrdom, in the either the Torah or the Mishnah. Although the concept of sanctifying God’s name—kiddush ha-Shem—and its inverse, profaning God’s name—hillul ha-Shem—are biblical in origin, their manifestations in rabbinic tradition introduce an entirely new element of observance. Whereas the biblical dictates apply primarily to living a sanctified life, the rabbinic dictates address the issue of martyrdom and dying in the name of God and religion. Judaism developed a model of martyrdom that was expected of every Jew who found himself in the requisite circumstances.
Summary: At the great rabbinical council of the second century in Lydda (Lod), HaZaL established Judaism’s official rules governing martyrdom. According to the Talmud [Sanhedrin 74a], under normal circumstances, there are only three commandments for which a Jew must choose death over transgression (yehareg ve-al ya’avor): idolatry, sexual misconduct, and murder. With regard to all other commandments, the Talmud is firm in its ruling that martyrdom is not permitted and instructs the individual to transgress rather than be killed (ya’avor ve-al yehareg).66 In the continuation of this discussion, however, the Talmud qualifies its statement, positing that the aforementioned rules apply only under “normal” circumstances and only when the required transgression is carried out in private. During times of religious persecution or when forced to transgress in public as a demonstration of apostasy, individuals are obligated to die a martyr’s death rather than violate any Jewish practice, even one which carries no legal weight, such as the wearing of a particular style of sandal straps.67
Points to raise: Why did martyrdom as an halakhic category merit the attention of the second-century rabbis although it had not been previously treated by the halakhah? Perhaps the second century sages in Lydda had the recent victims of the Hadrianic Persecutions in mind when they outlined the requirements and restrictions on martyrdom. It is hard to imagine that they were not also, on some level, responding to the early successes of the fledgling Christian religion which was making a name for itself through tales of individual faith and martyrdom.
Yerushalmi Shevi’it 4:2
Summary: In the Yerushalmi, the concept of yehareg ve-al ya’avor is introduced in the course of a sugya that discusses the response of the Jewish community in Israel when forced, on a national scale, to work during the shemitah year so that they would be able to pay property taxes. In citing the ruling of the tannaim at Lydda, the gemara seems to be primarily interested in justifying la’avor, the requirement to transgress (and not be killed) as long as the transgression does not involve one of the three cardinal sins.
Points to raise: While the Talmud Bavli in Sanhedrin treats the topic of martyrdom from the negative, yehareg ve-al ya’avor perspective, the Talmud Yerushalmi in Shevi’it addresses the same topic from the positive, ya’avor ve-al yehareg outlook. Why might the two traditions have addressed the topic from opposing perspectives? Does this fact in any way reflect historical circumstances?