Rosh Hashanah – Martyrdom or Life?

The central Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah is Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac (indeed, the first day’s reading may very well just be a lead up to it). The narrative tells of Abraham’s total submission to God; of his willingness to even sacrifice his beloved son Isaac to the Creator. The story inspires us to total devotion, even to martyrdom, if it were to come to that.


The Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio, 1603)

On the other hand, the story concludes with God instructing Abraham to not sacrifice Isaac, and instead Abraham substitutes a ram in Isaac’s place. Is the message then, not that we should aspire to martyr for God, but ideally try to find a way to serve Him in life?

This consideration is at the core of a questionable insight concerning the Jews of Spain. Faced with unrestrained rioting during the interregnum of 1391, thousands of Jews apostatized. It was a year that would begin the march towards the Inquisition, and ultimately to the Expulsion. Scholars (ex. Yitzhak Baer) attribute (blame?) the high rate of conversions (which they contrast with Ashkenazic martyrdom during the Crusades) to Spanish Jewry’s acculturation into Iberian culture.

The truth is though, that many Sephardic Jews did die in the 1391.  But yes, under the threat of death, many others did convert (while besides the point, it isn’t clear to me that Ashkenazic Jews were actually given the choice when their crusading murderers arrived). However, while Jewish law requires martyrdom, Maimonides writes that such an apostate cannot be held accountable, as he acted under duress.

Regardless, though, of how a person acts when their life is on the line, personally I am more concerned with how they act when it isn’t. The Binding of Isaac reminds us that God does not wish that we serve him through death, but through devotion in life. Rosh Hashanah is when Jews think about life, and how they hope to live it. Perhaps then, that is why Spanish Portuguese Jewry’s Rosh Hashanah greeting is ‘Tizku L’Shanim Rabot – Ne’imot Ve’Tovot,’ ‘May you merit many years – pleasant and good.’

Muchos Anos Y Buenos!


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