A number of times in your columns you have referred to the “Three Cardinal Sins” as the sins that, if given the choice (by force), you would be required to give up your life rather than transgress those sins.
Could you please explain what those three sins are and why they are different from any other mitzvah that life supersedes their transgression? What is the source of their difference?
— Linda K.
In general, as you mentioned, if a person were to say to a Jew, “Violate one of the commandments or I will kill you,” the Jew should violate the commandment and not be killed, since the Torah says “You shall observe My decrees and My laws, so that you shall live by them.” (Leviticus 18:5) The inference from the words “live by them” is that you shall not “die by them!” (Talmud Yoma 82a)
This, however, does not apply to three transgressions:
- forbidden sexual relations
- worship of other gods, i.e., idol worship
(Talmud ibid. and Maimonides,
Yesodei Hatorah 5:2)
Imagine the case: A person (Jewish or Gentile, there is no difference in this context) says to a Jew: “Either you kill that person, or I will kill you.” The law is that the Jew must allow himself to be killed rather than kill the other person. The reason is, in the language of the Talmud, a point of logic: “What makes you think your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder!” Or in other words, “How can you judge between your life and his assuming your life is more valuable than the one you are being told to kill? Perhaps his life is worthier in the eyes of God than yours!” Since it is impossible to know whose life has more “value” one has to just let the circumstances play out — allowing yourself to be killed — without killing the other person. (Talmud, Yoma 82b)
This logic, surprisingly, applies even if an anti-Semite were to say to the inhabitants of a Jewish town, “Give me one Jew to kill, or if you don’t, I will kill all of you.” Since it is impossible to decide whose blood is the “least red,” the inhabitants of the town must not give anyone over to be killed; they must all allow themselves to be killed. (Maimonides, Yesodei HaTorah 5:5) Although in this case, if any one Jew would volunteer to be the one to be killed and thereby save the town, he would not only be considered praiseworthy, but would receive a reward in the next world that not even the greatest righteous person could imagine. (Talmud Taanis 18b)
Forbidden sexual relations
The reason why someone must allow himself to be killed rather than be involved in forbidden sexual relations, such as with the wife of another man, is because the Torah compares these relations to murder. (Deuteronomy 22:26; Talmud, Yoma 82a)
The reason why one must allow himself to be killed rather than worship other gods is derived from a verse in the Shema: “You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions” (Deuteronomy 6:5). In other words, you should love God so much that you’re willing to give up your life to serve Him (Talmud, Yoma 82a).
The reason why loving God with all your soul specifically applies to the worship of other gods is because the belief that “God is One,” the Creator and Controller of everything, is the basis for all of Judaism. The worship of other gods is a denial of this basic tenet. There are times when one’s love for God must be so strong that he or she is ready to be martyred for His sake. We are commanded, “Love the Lord your God … with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and this is interpreted to mean that one must continue to love God even at the expense of one’s life and soul.
We are commanded, “Love the Lord your God … with all your soul” (Deut. 6:5), and this is interpreted to mean that one must continue to love God even at the expense of one’s life and soul.
These three sins which the Talmud derives the obligation to give up one’s life for are what we refer to as the “Three Cardinal Sins.” The sources, at first glance, seem to be somewhat unclear and one gets the obvious feeling that there is more here being conveyed than what meets the eye on the surface. Perhaps in the next column we will attempt to analyze the deeper moral implications of these cardinal sins and what sets them apart from the entirety of Torah where human life is always supreme.