#70 - Sanhedrin 72-78
The Limits of Martyrdom
A cryptic dialogue between an Aramite general and a Jewish prophet is cited to resolve the question of whether a non-Jew is required to sacrifice his life in order to avoid worshipping idols as is required of a Jew.
Naaman was so impressed with the miraculous cure of his leprosy brought about by the Prophet Elisha that he committed himself to never again be guilty of idol worship. He even asked Elisha for some earth of Eretz Yisrael to take back with him to build an altar on which to offer sacrifices to G-d. But one obstacle stood in the way of fulfilling his commitment. As a highly respected officer it was his responsibility to accompany the king when he went to the idolatrous temple of Beit Rimon, and to physically support him as he bowed to the idol. He therefore asked the prophet if G-d would forgive him for thus bowing himself to the idol since his refusal to bow along with the king would mean certain death. Elishas succinct response was "Go in peace." (Melachim II 5:1-19)
The question of whether a non-Jew is obligated in martyrdom is limited to situations where his violation of one of the Noachide Laws takes place in a public setting, i.e. in the presence of ten Jews as is deduced from Vayikra 22:32. The text in our gemara is that an attempt was made to prove that a non-Jew is not obligated in martyrdom from the fact that Elisha condoned his action. This proof is rejected, however, because Naamans bowing to the idol was done in a private setting. According to this text the issue remains unresolved and there remains the possibility that in a public setting a non-Jew must be prepared to sacrifice his life to avoid idol worship.
Tosefot, however, cites another text which deletes only one word from our text but radically alters its meaning. His text, which apparently was the one used by Rambam, has the gemara reaching a definite conclusion that a non-Jew is not required to be a martyr even in a public forum; otherwise Elisha would not have given carte blanche endorsement of Naamans action but would have distinguished public and private settings.
A Tale of Two Mysteries
In regard to two cases Moshe had to turn to Heaven for guidance as to what penalty should be given for the sin involved. One was that of the blasphemer (Vayikra 24:12). The other was that of the desecrater of Shabbat (Bamidbar 15:34). In regard to the latter, says the gemara, he was aware that the Shabbat violator was deserving of the death penalty (Shmot 31:14) but was unaware of the type of death. As far as the blasphemer was concerned Moshe was unaware of whether his sin was even punishable by death.
Tosefot explains that Moshe had a doubt as to which death penalty applied even though the passage legislated death for Shabbat violation and any time the Torah makes a general reference to execution without specifying which form it is to take we assume it means death by the comparatively milder form of strangulation. This was because he logically compared the penalty for Shabbat violation to that due to an idol worshipper because our Sages equate one who publicly violates the Shabbat with one who denies that G-d created the world. He therefore considered the possibility that the penalty should be the stoning in the case of idol worship. G-d confirmed this thinking by instructing him to carry out the penalty of stoning.
In his footnote Rabbi Akiva Eiger raises an interesting challenge to Tosefots approach. How did Moshe understand from G-ds command that the penalty for desecrating Shabbat in private, i.e. in front of two witnesses but not in the presence of ten Jews, was stoning? Perhaps G-d was merely confirming his logic of equating public desecration of Shabbat with idol worship, a comparison that does not extend to desecration in a private setting.
Although Rabbi Akiva Eiger offers no resolution to this question it may be suggested that the answer lies in the fact that G-ds instructions to Moshe included the command to put the violator to death and to stone him. If Moshe was already aware that the death penalty was in order on the basis of the above mentioned passage in Shmot (31:14) why was it necessary to repeat it rather than simply designate that the form of execution was stoning? This led Moshe to understand that the stoning mentioned here was a definition of the term "he shall be put to death" which appears in Shmot and which included both private and public violation of Shabbat.