Martyrdom in Judaism: Part 2

ZS wrote this two-part overview of Jewish martyrdom in 2018. We post it now with consideration of those who joined the ranks of kedoshim on October 7, 2023. Click here to read Part 1.

Rewards in Heaven

Jewish traditions hold that martyrs gain access to haolam haba. In the Maccabean martyr story of the seven brothers and their mother, rather than eating swine’s flesh, the family was killed one by one. With his last breath, the second brother exclaimed to his persecutor, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Maccabees 7:9). The fourth brother said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him” (v. 14). These responses show the promise of resurrection and eternal life as a factor that spurred the martyrs in their steadfast observance of Torah.

In rabbinic literature, Rav Yehuda describes an incident in which four hundred boys and girls were captured to be sold for prostitution. BT Gittin 57b states, “These children sensed on their own what they were expected to do, and they said: If we commit suicide and drown in the sea, will we come to eternal life in the World-to-Come?” The oldest expounded on Psalm 68:23, concluding that “‘I will bring them back from the seas’ is referring to those who drown in the sea for the sake of Heaven.” So as to avoid the sinful act of unlawful sexual intercourse, the girls and boys martyred themselves by jumping into the sea and drowning. Like the martyrs of 2 Maccabees 7, these children were motivated partly by the promise of eternal life in haolam haba.

In other instances, martyrdom is directly followed by a proclamation of the martyr’s fate in the afterlife. R. Chanina ben Tradyon was burned for teaching Torah in public after the Bar Kochba rebellion. As soon as R. Chanina ben Tradyon died, his executioner “jumped into the fire and a heavenly voice proclaimed: ‘R. Chanina ben Tradyon and the executioner are destined for the world to come’” (Avodah Zarah 18a). The fate of his executioner is another conversation for another time. Heaven immediately rewarded R. Chanina with access to haolam haba for his martyr’s death.

Unlike R. Chanina’s martyrdom, a short heavenly debate ensued from Rabbi Akiva’s death. R. Akiva risked his life to study Torah, defending this practice by citing Deuteronomy 30:20: “For that [Torah study] is your life, and the length of your days.” At his execution, Akiva gave a heroic insight: “All my days I have been troubled by the verse: ‘With all your soul,’ meaning: ‘Even if God takes your soul’… Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?” (Berakhot 61b) With this, Akiva recited the Shema, prolonging “echad” until his last breath, so that he died with the Shema on his lips. Instead of immediately proclaiming his status in the world to come, “a voice descended from heaven and said: ‘Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul left your body as you uttered: “One.”’” Following this statement, some angels sarcastically asked God if his Torah only brings death. God responded, and a divine voice proclaimed, “Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, as you are destined for life in the World-to-Come, as your portion is already in eternal life.” In this story, the debate between the angels and God emphasizes that following—living, and dying, by—the Torah transcends life in the present world by bringing one to the world to come.

In the middle ages, the promised heavenly rewards become intensified by the detailed, tangible imagery used in describing haolam haba. On July 27, 1096, an erev Shabbat, a host of Jews were martyred at Xanten in the onslaught of the First Crusade. Rabbi Solomon bar Samson gives an account of the martyrs, recounting a speech given by Rabbi Moses, the leader of the Jewish community, to urge them to martyrdom. R. Moses described the afterlife as the “world of eternal daylight, in the Garden of Eden, in the illuminating radiance of God, where we shall behold him face to face in his glory and grandeur.” He continued in more specific detail, noting that “everyone [shall] be given a golden diadem on his head, with precious stones and pearls inlaid in it.” Then he described the heavenly community: “There shall we dwell… in the fellowship of the righteous, numbering among the company of Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues, sitting on a throne of gold.” R. Solomon bar Samson ended his account exuberant with optimism, noting that the martyrs rejoiced “in running and entering into the innermost recesses of the Garden of Eden” where they dwelt in the presence of God. [3]

Another medieval description of martyrdom’s rewards paints heaven in similarly glowing detail: “We shall then earn eternal life, and our souls will abide in the Garden of Eden in the presence of the great, luminous speculum forever.” Then, the community of haolam haba: “Such a one is destined for the World-to-Come, where he will sit in the realm of the saints—Rabbi Akiba and his companions, pillars of the universe, who were killed in testimony to His Name.” Again, the heavenly saints of the ancient world give the community of the world to come a presence entirely different from the present world. As Jeremy Woolf points out, these elaborate descriptions create immediacy to heavenly space. The promise of spending eternity in the presence of R. Akiva and other ancient martyrs “was not an abstract notion, but a tangible, attractive reality.” This mirrors in some ways the contemporary Christian crusader inspiration in which “Christians were inspired to take up the Cross by the very real sense that they were following Jesus into battle.” Nevertheless, this closeness of heroes to medieval Jewry took place within the specific context of Jewish culture, with Jewish motifs and Jewish figures.

As a side note, destiny for hell for the persecutors often accompanied the promised reward of heaven for martyrs. The fourth brother in 2 Maccabees 7 told his persecutor, “for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (v. 14).  The seventh brother proclaimed the king’s doom in like manner. In a medieval account, when Crusaders encountered a Jew, the Jew said, “If you kill me, my soul will repose in paradise, in the light of life. But ‘you will descend to the nethermost pit’ (Psalms 55, 24), ‘to everlasting abhorrence’ (Daniel 12, 3), to hell, where you will be judged along with your deity, who was a child of lust and was crucified.” [4] Nevertheless, the hell-bound status of persecutors was no hard-and-fast rule, as seen in the (notably complex) example of R. Chanina’s executioner.

In the Holocaust, Jewish martyrdom underwent a major transformation. Previously, the prospect of abandoning Torah had seemed much more real than the extermination of all Jewry. In the Holocaust, the Nazis committed genocide against the Jews, no matter their Torah observance or religious affiliation. The continuation of the Jewish people in Europe was put to risk in a way unlike ever before. The question of martyrdom shifted towards the preservation of life. Considerations of the afterlife became less of a motivating factor. At the same time, Jews hoped for the “afterlife” of living freely in the postbellum world. Abramek Koplowicz, murdered in Auschwitz at age fourteen, wrote the following poem in his notebook: [5]

When I grow up and get to be twenty
I’ll travel and see this world of plenty.
In a bird with an engine I will sit myself down,
Take off and fly into space, far above the ground.
I’ll fly, I’ll cruise and soar up high
Above a world so lovely, into the sky…

Like Koplowicz, Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto longed for life on the “Aryan” side of the Ghetto wall. In this sense, the hoped-for “afterlife” became even more immediate, more familiar. This is not to say that thoughts of the spiritual afterlife never came into the minds of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But faced with the preservation of the present life, the afterlife became a marginal concern.

Martyrdom as Sacrifice

As odd as it might seem to modern sensibilities, Jewish tradition compares martyrs with sacrifices offered to God. This tradition often draws on the Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac. Some accounts compare martyrdom with an offering of thanksgiving, while others compare martyrdom with a sin offering. From the middle ages to the modern day, Jewish tradition makes comparisons between martyrs and sacrificial offerings.

In medieval Judaism, Kiddush HaShem not only acted as an alternative to forced conversion, but as a cleansing sacrifice after a forced conversion. Just as the medieval synagogue brought the holiness of the Temple to the midst of the medieval Jewish congregation, so did martyrdom bring the redemptive act of sacrifice to medieval Ashkenaz. The case of Master Isaac the parnas (a congregational leader) sheds light on the medieval conception of martyrdom as sin offering. Isaac underwent the conversion process to save his children’s lives. After returning from this forced conversion, Isaac told his mother, “I have decided to offer a sin-offering to the God on high, so that I may thus find atonement.” [6] Isaac proceeded to martyr his son and daughter before the ark in the synagogue as a sin-offering. R. Solomon bar Samson likens this to a temple sacrifice: “Master Isaac the saint… slaughtered them [his children], in sanctification of the Great Name…. He sprinkled some of their blood on the pillars of the Holy Ark… And he said: ‘May this blood expiate all my transgressions!’” In lieu of the Temple, these children, martyred in a synagogue, played the role of the sin-offering to atone for their father’s conversion.

Interestingly, R. Eliezer b. Nathan’s version of this story compares martyrdom with an offering of thanksgiving. In R. Eliezer’s story, Isaac killed his two daughters and set his house on fire. Afterwards, Isaac went with one Master Uri to the synagogue and died in front of the ark, consumed by flames. R. Eliezer ends this account thus: “And it is of them and their like that it is written: ‘He who offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me.’” [7]

R. Solomon bar Samson’s account of the martyrdoms at Xanten contains insinuations comparing the martyred Jews with the “daily twilight offering.” He calls Rabbi Moses “a priest of the supernal God” just as he describes Rabbi Moses’s blessing over the Shabbat meal. At the end of the account, R. Solomon writes, “On the eve of the Sabbath at twilight they offered themselves as a sacrifice to God in place of the daily twilight offering, and they themselves came to be like the daily morning offering.” Jeremy Cohen argues that this story purposely competes with Jesus’ Last Supper, at the same time competing with the sacrificial spirit of Christian crusaders. “Like Jesus,” he writes, the Jews at Xanten “partake of a last supper of bread and wine… [with] Rabbi Moses as ritualizing the sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush ha-Shem) precisely in the fashion that Christianity has actualized the experience of Jesus’ death in the daily lives of its believers—in the mass.” [8] This act of martyrdom stood in the face of crusader zealotry, giving the Jewish community an equal or greater will to resist conversion.

Another interesting point of comparison between Jewish suffering and Jesus’ death emerges in the twentieth century in the artwork of Marc Chagall. Chagall’s consideration of Jesus as the paradigm of Jewish suffering inspired White Crucifixion, in which scenes of a shtetl under attack surround Jesus, clothed in tallit and hanging on the cross. Years later, he famously said, “For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr.” [9] Chagall also drew a connection between Jesus and the Akedah. Jesus carries the Cross in the background of The Sacrifice of Isaac. In his painting Exodus, commissioned for the Knesset, Isaac lies on the altar, but his hands sprawl in the position of a cross.

The idea of the Holocaust as a great sacrifice rings, at best, dissonant to most ears. Hyam Maccoby writes, “[martyrdom] has no sacrificial connotation, and consequently no import of vicarious atonement.” [10] Along the same vein, Zev Garber argues against use of the word “Holocaust,” with its connotation of sacrificial ascent. Instead, he advocates for use of “Shoah,” meaning catastrophe. [11] Ideas that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish assimilation find a sympathetic audience with some ultra-orthodox Jewish sects. Nevertheless, such ideas are perpetrated almost exclusively in private settings.


Jewish martyrdom has been considered as sacrifice, as keys to the afterlife, as titles for commemoration, and many other purposes. Halakhic considerations look at Kiddush HaShem from many angles, but Jewish martyrdom also influences Jewish culture and memory. Today, Jews recite liturgy commemorating martyrs in daily prayers, in the Yom Kippur musaf, in Rashi’s selichah on Rosh Hashanah eve, and in kinnot on Tisha B’Av. The concept of Kiddush HaShem has frequently morphed based on the persecutions that besiege Jewry. It has steeled the Jewish community, allowing Jews to counteract the wills of its mortal persecutors. At the core of Jewish martyrdom, however, stands the mandate for the Jewish people to sanctify God’s name, in death as in life.

[1] Some scholars doubt whether 2 Maccabees is Jewish in origin. In any case, the story of the mother and her seven sons circulated in Jewish circles in the ancient world, as Rav Yehuda refers to a similar rendition with differences in BT Gittin 57b.

[2] “For that [Torah study] is your life, and the length of your days.”

[3] Jeremy Cohen, Sanctifying the Name of God. 73-75.

[4] Jeffrey R. Woolf, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz (1000-1300). Brill (2015). 190-2.

[5] “Dream,” on display in Yad Vashem on July 17, 2016.

[6] Robert Chazan, In the Year 1096: The First Crusade and the Jews. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia (1996). 79-80.

[7] Woolf, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz. 184-5.

[8] Cohen, Sanctifying the Name of God. 74-75, 88.

[9] Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts. Pergamon Press (1993).

[10] Hyam Maccoby, “Sanctification of the Name,” in Cohen/Mendes-Flohr, 853. Quote taken from Shira Lander, “Martyrdom in Jewish Traditions.”

[11] Zev Garber, “Why Do We Call the Holocaust ‘The Holocaust’?: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Labels” (1989). Found in Garber, Shoah: The Paradigmatic Genocide: Essays in Exegesis and Eisegesis. University Press of America, Lanham, MD (1994).


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