For the week ending 6 November 2004 / 22 Heshvan 5765

Kiddush Hashem

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
Become a Supporter Library Library

From: Linda

Dear Rabbi,

In the Memorial Service the Yizkor prayer that we say on the High Holidays, we commemorate the souls of the martyrs who were "killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned and strangled" for the sanctification of the Name. The majority of victims who were killed in WWII did not go to their deaths voluntarily with the purpose of sanctifying G-ds name, as perhaps the Marranos of Spain did. It seems to me that the way Jews were treated and slaughtered during those tragic years was more a "desecration" of G-ds name. Surely, when the nations of the world saw what happened to our people, they said to themselves, "Im glad Im not one of the them" Can you explain how G-ds name was "sanctified" through the slaughter of his chosen people?

Dear Linda,

The distinction you make between the Jews of the Inquisition and other victims of religious persecution throughout Jewish history, and the victims of the primarily racial persecution of Nazi barbarism is correct. [Note: your reference to the Marranos is inaccurate that term applies specifically to the Jews of the Inquisition who converted under duress.]

In the first instance, the perpetrators of the Inquisition were interested in waging war against Judaism by causing Jews to repudiate their ancestral faith and accept Christianity. Their war was not against the Jewish people or individual per se, and Jews who would sincerely convert would be spared and even welcomed. Under those circumstances, any Jew who, given no other alternative, chose to die for his belief rather than succumb to forced conversion, caused a sanctification of G-ds name by forfeiting his life for his faith.

The Nazis, despite their extreme hatred of Judaism, were not interested in winning over the Jewish soul. They wanted nothing less than the complete and utter decimation of the Jewish "race". Their anti-Jewish program began with the Jews of Germany who were overwhelmingly non-observant, loyal German citizens. Jews who had long since repudiated Judaism on their own volition, sometimes even having intermarried or converted to Christianity, were routed out and destroyed. Even Arians, who by Jewish standards were not considered Jewish, were persecuted by Nazi law for having Jewish blood.

However, what seems to be your criteria for a sanctification of G-d, namely that "when the nations of the world saw what happened to our people, they said to themselves, Im glad Im not one of the them" is incorrect. Certainly, no one envied persecuted Jews throughout the ages. Nevertheless, Jewish martyrs infuriated their persecutors and commanded respect from others, thereby sanctifying G-ds name, precisely because they willingly gave up their lives for Judaism.

Did the death of the Jews of the Holocaust, who were given no choice in the matter, constitute a sanctification of G-ds name? This is a very difficult question. Their death at the hands of vicious murderers certainly served as an atonement, and they died free of sin. This is inferred from the verse, "They have given the corpses of Your servants as food to the birds of the heaven, the flesh of Your pious ones to the beasts of the earth" (Psalms 79:2). Our Sages taught that "your pious ones" refers to the righteous, while "your servants" refers to Jews who were not righteous during their lifetime, but having been murdered by non-Jews, their sins were atoned for thus earning the title "servants" of G-d (Sanhedrin 47). This is the source for the law that even though normally a heretic is not mourned for, if he is murdered, he is mourned for (Rama, Y.D. 340:5).

Regarding their death as sanctification of G-ds name, a possible explanation may be found in the words of R Isaac Nissenbaum, a rabbi in the ghetto: "Once when our enemies demanded our soul, the Jew martyred his body. Today when the enemy demands the body, it is the Jews obligation to preserve his life". One communal leader of the ghetto remarked, "Jews cling so tenaciously to life; they fight so stubbornly for life." In this way, the Jews contrasted dramatically the passivity and total resignation of the Russian POWs. Even ghetto Jews who encountered them at forced labor and who offered them bread, were appalled at the transformation of humans into wretchedness. Perhaps the Jews mere heroic struggle for life, in defiance of Nazi atrocities, imbued their deaths with eternal sanctification of G-ds name.


  • Shoah, Rabbi Yoel Shwartz, p. 205
  • The War Against the Jews, Lucy Dawidowicz, Bantam Ed. 1976, pp. 291-2

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at [email protected] and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to Ask!

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.