Hanukah and the Mitzva of Kiddush Hashem

par Yamin Levy, Rabbi
Yamin Levy

Yamin Levy, Rabbi

Hanukah celebrates the miraculous victory of the “few over the many” and the promise of Jewish survival no matter the hardship and circumstances. The Talmud describes this holy day as a time of “Praise and Thanksgiving” commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the single jug of oil that lasted eight days. Hanukah is unique in that it is solely celebrated in one’s home by lighting candles reminiscent of the Bet HaMikdash and evoking a sense of the ephemeral nature of life.

While the written story of the victory of the Jewish people over the Syrian-Greek armies is not part of the Biblical canon it appears in the books of the Maccabees which were written by proud Jews with a strong commitment to Jewish values and observance. The books of the Maccabees are much more than a historical record. The goal of the authors was to describe the great sacrifice that was made by their generation for the sake of Torah, the people of Israel and God. In Judaism as in all religions and in credible political movements martyrdom is regarded as the supreme act of devotion. A doctrine that claims ultimate truth must also be able to claim ultimate sacrifice from its adherents. Indeed, the books of the Maccabees are full of Jewish heroes, men, and women, who offer up their lives in battle and as a public display of commitment to Judaism and to the God of Israel. Take for example the great courage demonstrated by Elazar the brother of Yehuda HaMaccabee:

Now part of the king’s army was spread out on the high hills, and some troops were on the plain and they advanced steadily and in good order. All who heard the noise made by their multitude, by the marching of their legions and the clanking of their arms trembled for their army was very large and strong. But Judah and his army advanced to battle, and six hundred of the king’s army fell. Now Elazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the animals was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. So, he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name. He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it; he killed

men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides. He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it, but it fell to the ground upon him, and he died 1.

Elazar’s death is described as the ultimate act of sacrifice and martyrdom for “his people.” Another genre of sacrifice described in this historical record takes place not in the battlefield as an act of national martyrdom but within the religious community as an act of religious sacrifice.

Elazar one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. But he welcomed death with honor rather than life with pollution and he went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to go who have the courage to refuse things that our Torah forbids, even for the natural love of life. He groaned aloud in pain and said: ‘I am enduring this suffering in my body but in my soul and I glad because I fear only the Lord 2.

The most famous story is, of course, the story of Hana and her seven sons who all died a terrible death in public in front of their mother willingly choosing death instead of bowing to an idol. All these acts of sacrifice are called in Jewish law acts of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name.

Having experienced persecution firsthand in North Africa in the 12th century HaRambam, the great teacher Maimonides understood that the act of sacrifice on behalf of Judaism and God is complex and must be sorted out carefully lest the zealous encourage unnecessary suicidal self-sacrifice and threaten the survival of the people. Like all commandments of the Torah – reason must always pervade zeal. HaRambam in the first section of his Mishneh Torah, code of Jewish Law carefully records the thought process with which traditional Jewish law approaches the problem of martyrdom. HaRambam’s elucidation of the laws that govern martyrdom are presented in a practical and sober tone representing the traditional Sephardic approach to this complex and emotionally charged issue.

In addition to his legal presentation of the matter in Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah, the Laws of the Foundation of Torah HaRambam penned a letter that is referred to as Iggeret HaShemad, the

Letter of Apostasy or Iggeret Kidush Hashem, the Letter Regarding the Sanctity of God’s Name. It was written in 1160 when he was approximately twenty-six years old.

The letter was a response to the Jewish community in Morocco that was being persecuted by the barbaric Almohadean sect. This version of Islam was created by Abdallah ibn Tummart who conceived of Islam as dedicated to the Koran and to the sword. He was a religious enthusiast who rejected luxury, poetry, music, and art. He stressed the superiority of Islam and expected all to recite the confession of faith, the Shahada which states Allah is God and Mahamad is his prophet. His ambition was a worldwide Islamic dominion ruled by the sword and Mohamad law.

In 1146 the Jewish leaders of Morocco were called together and given the following ultimatum:

Your ancestors have not accepted Mohamad as the true prophet…unless you accept Mohamad as your prophet now – we shall regard you as heretics and outcasts, forbidden to dwell in our land. Should you decide to remain here you have only one of two choices – either embrace Islam or death.

While many Jews suffered martyrdom an equal amount agreed to outwardly utter the words « there is no God but Allah and Mohamad is His prophet » and save their lives while observing their Jewish faith in secrecy. These Jews found encouragement in a letter of consolation written by HaRambam’s father Maimon HaDayan.

When word reached Europe about the persecution of the Jews of Morocco and the encouragement of Rabbi Maimon HaDayan’s compassionate approach to the Annusim (those that kept Judaism in secret) they reacted strongly. A pietistic European rabbi wrote a letter ruling that all the Jews of Morocco must submit to the sword and accept death instead of reciting the Shahadah. Any Jew who recites the Shahadah “shall no longer be considered Jewish.” For the European Jews Islam was idolatry and the only course available to a Jew being persecuted is death. When this response reached North Africa, panic ensued, and the Jews were thrown into despair.

When word of this letter reached HaRambam he was outraged by the ignorance, intolerance and lack of compassion of the arm-chair critic from Europe. HaRambam proceeded to get to the heart of the issue- the nature and of Kiddush HaShem sanctifying God’s name. He notes how one must first consider the difference between those who sin under compulsion and those who sin at the hands of wickedness. He notes that Islam is not idol worship like Christianity. Furthermore, he

explains how there is a fundamental difference between transgressing the law in action versus transgressing the law with words. Finally, he praises the courage of the Anusim who are preserving Judaism at great risk in order to ensure the Jewish people’s future.

This letter placed HaRambam among the foremost religious authorities of his time as a dynamic champion of the Jewish people.


  1. Maccabee 6:40-45
  2. Maccabees 6:18-20