Maamar Shalosh Shevuos Siman 33

[In the previous siman, the Rebbe asked how the Maharal could have said that one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress the oaths. Now he continues to address the source of the Maharal, the Midrash.]

Although the Maharal understands the words of the Midrash “He imposed the oath on them in a generation of forced transgression” to mean that we must keep the oaths even if the gentiles force us at gunpoint to violate them, the Midrash’s language is not unequivocal enough to justify this novel ruling that one must allow himself to be killed, G-d forbid. The Midrash does not say explicitly that the oaths have the status of idolatry, which one must give up his life rather than commit. It merely says that He imposed the oath on them in a generation of forced transgression, and there are other ways one could understand these words.

Furthermore, even if the Midrash had said explicitly that the oaths supercede human life, it would be a puzzling contradiction to the widespread concept in the Talmud that in all cases we say “transgress rather than be killed” except for the three cardinal sins. So the Maharal would not have casually quoted such a puzzling source, against the halacha as expressed in the Talmud and codes, especially regarding a matter of life and death to the entire Jewish people, without giving the slightest hint that there was any doubt about the matter. Clearly, it must be that this halacha – that one rather be killed than transgress the oaths – was obvious to the Maharal from elsewhere, and that is why he used it as an explanation of the Midrash. So we have to know what reasoning led him to that position.

Furthermore, how is it possible to violate the oath “not to force the end” at all under duress? If one is forced at gunpoint to leave exile, G-d forbid, this is no freedom, so why is it called “forcing the end”?

[The following paragraph was added in the second edition of Vayoel Moshe.] Now, regarding this last question one could reply that the Maharal is not talking about a highly improbable scenario in which the nations force the Jewish people under threat of painful death to come out of exile and make themselves a country. Rather, he means that even if, G-d forbid, the nations commit all kinds of cruelty and torturous killings against Jews, may G-d spare us, and the Jews have no escape other than to leave exile and found a country for themselves, still it is forbidden. This is because the oaths have the same status as idolatry, where the law is that it is forbidden to convert to idolatry, G-d forbid, even to save oneself from death or torture, G-d spare us. But even according to this explanation, it is clear that the Maharal holds that the Three Oaths have the law of “be killed rather than transgress” like idolatry, and the question is how the Maharal knew this.

We also have to understand the language of the Rambam in his Letter to Yemen, in the midst of a lengthy warning not to force the end, and I quote:

Because Shlomo knew with holy inspiration that this nation, being sunken into exile, would try to awaken when it is not the proper time, and they would die because of this, and travails would befall them, he warned against doing this, and he made the people swear using metaphoric language, and he said, “I adjure you…”

This is difficult: since he considered this to be a real oath, carrying a severe punishment, G-d spare us, why did he say that it was in metaphoric language? Is he just telling stories here?


Vayoel Moshe