Maamar Shalosh Shevuos Siman 20

[In this siman, the Rebbe brings proof from the Maharal that even when the nations give permission to the Jewish people to come to Eretz Yisroel, the oath not to go up as a wall remains in effect.]

The Maharal of Prague, in his work Netzach Yisroel, Chapter 24, goes even further. He writes at length about these oaths, which warn us not to deviate at all in the area of exile.

[The Maharal goes through the Midrash Rabbah on Shir Hashirim, which gives several explanations of the mysterious language of the oaths, “by the gazelles or by the deer of the field.” It is helpful to see the entire Maharal in order to understand this siman. The Midrash says:

With what did He make them swear? Rabbi Eliezer says: He made them swear by heaven and earth and by the animals of the field… Rabbi Chanina says: He made them swear by the Patriarchs, the Matriarchs and the Twelve Tribes… Rabbi Yehuda says: He made them swear by circumcision… The Rabbis say: He made them swear by the Generation of Martyrdom. “By the tzvaos (lit. gazelles)” – they did My will (tzivyoni) in the world, and I did My will with them. “Or by the deer of the fields” – they pour out their blood for the sanctification of My name like the blood of the gazelle and the blood of the deer. This is the meaning of the verse, “For on Your account we were killed all day long; we were considered like sheep to be slaughtered” (Tehillim 44:23). Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said: If someone were to say to me, give your life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One, blessed is He, I would give it, but only if they would kill me quickly. But in the Generation of Martyrdom I would not be able to withstand the trial. What did they do in the Generation of Martyrdom? They brought balls of iron, made them white-hot in the fire and placed them under their armpits and burned their souls out of them. And they brought shells of reeds and placed them under their nails and burned their souls out of them.

The Maharal explains the progression of the Midrash as follows.

Rabbi Eliezer holds that He made them swear by heaven and earth. Just as the heavens and the earth keep to the order of nature decreed by G-d, never changing, in the same way the Jewish people must keep the order of exile decreed by G-d. And just as the heavens and earth, if they were to change their nature and order, would bring havoc and destruction to the world, so too if the Jewish people leaves the exile decreed on them by G-d it would mean destruction for them, G-d forbid. Therefore they must not violate the decree.

Rabbi Chanina held that swearing by heaven and earth would not be enough, because the Jews in exile could argue that the motions of heaven and earth are natural, whereas the exile goes against a man’s nature. Perhaps in those circumstances they would not be obligated to keep to the terms of exile. Therefore, he says, Hashem made the Jews swear by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who withstood trials and did His will even when it was difficult for them.

Rabbi Yehuda holds that swearing by the Patriarchs would not be enough, because the Jews in exile could argue that the Patriarchs, despite all their trials, did not actually get killed, whereas in exile Jewish blood flowed like water. Perhaps in those circumstances they would not be obligated to keep to the terms of exile. Therefore, he says, Hashem made them swear by circumcision, which does involve loss of blood.

The Rabbis hold that swearing by circumcision would still not be enough, because the Jews in exile were subjected to more than just bloodshed – they were tortured and burned alive. Jews might argue that under such circumstances, the oath need not be kept. Therefore, they say, Hashem made them swear by a generation of martyrdom. Just as Jews kept the laws of the Torah even during the reign of Hadrian, when they were tortured and burned, so too they must keep the oath of exile.

The next words of the Maharal are quite cryptic and will be discussed below, so right now we will just translate them literally:

And if you ask: The generation of martyrdom themselves, with what did He make them swear that they should not deviate? The answer is that the meaning of “by the generation of martyrdom” is with that trait that the generation of martyrdom had, that the generation of martyrdom clung to – with that trait He made them swear that they would not deviate in the area of exile, for the generation of martyrdom, despite the fact that they met with death in exile, did not deviate. And another explanation of “in the generation of martyrdom” is that even if they try to kill them with painful torture, they must not leave and they must not deviate in this matter, and so is the explanation with each one, and we must understand this.]

And the Maharal concludes with an explanation of what Chazal say that He made them swear in a generation of martyrdom: “This means that even if they will try to kill them with painful torture, they must not leave and they must not deviate in this matter, and so is the explanation with each one of these oaths, and we must understand this.” See his lengthy words there.

[Menachem Kasher, in Hatekufah Hagedolah p. 315, accused the Rebbe of misquoting the Maharal. The Maharal says “and so is the explanation with each one, and we must understand this” whereas in the first edition of Vayoel Moshe the quote runs, “and so is the explanation with each oath of these oaths, and we must understand this.” In the second edition (which Kasher appears not to have seen) the Rebbe seems to have fixed this partially: the words of the Maharal “and so is the explanation with each one” are left intact, but he still found it necessary to insert the words “of these oaths” in order to explain what “each one” refers to. One should not think it unlikely that the Maharal would use the masculine “echad” to refer to the feminine word “shevuah” because he does so explicitly earlier in the same chapter.]

So it comes out according to the Maharal that not only is it forbidden to leave exile even with permission from the nations, but even if they force the Jewish people to leave exile under threat of death, may Hashem spare us, even then it is forbidden to violate the oaths, just as a Jew must give his life rather than bow to an idol. And the Maharal’s words imply that he is talking about all the oaths, even the oath not to go up as a wall.

[The Rebbe is going now with the understanding that the Maharal is talking about the hypothetical case of a nation that rules over both Eretz Yisroel and the Jews outside of Eretz Yisroel, and this nation forces the Jews at gunpoint to go en masse to Eretz Yisroel. Thus not only is this nation giving permission for immigration; they are encouraging it and even forcing it. However, in Siman 33 the Rebbe will propose a different way to understand the Maharal’s case: a nation afflicts and kills Jews somewhere in the world, and they can save themselves by invading Eretz Yisroel and conquering it from the nation that lives there. According to this, the Maharal would be no proof that immigration with permission from the power ruling Eretz Yisroel is allowed.]

We will discuss later the reasoning behind the Maharal’s statement that one must allow himself to be killed rather than violate the Three Oaths.

[The Rebbe will say that the reason is because violating the oaths is heresy, which has the same status as idolatry for the purposes of the law of “be killed rather than transgress”. Other reasons have been offered: Rabbi Yehoshua Dovid Hartman, in his footnotes on the Maharal, proposes that the Oaths are different from other mitzvos in that keeping them inherently involves danger to life, since there is always some anti-Semitic persecution in exile, and if we were permitted to leave exile to escape being killed, the Oaths would never apply at all. Thus the Maharal does not mean to add a fourth sin to the list of sins regarding which we say “be killed rather than transgress.” (Perhaps the Rebbe did not agree with this explanation because perhaps exile was meant only to be a mild punishment in place of a more severe one, as he wrote in Siman 14 based on the Ramban. If the gentiles step over their bounds and kill us, maybe then we are permitted to leave exile, since this is not an inherent part of exile.)

Others have explained the Maharal in the context of his words earlier that “just as the heavens and earth, if they were to change their nature and order, would bring havoc and destruction to the world, so too if the Jewish people leaves the exile decreed on them by G-d it would mean destruction for them, G-d forbid.” Thus no matter what dangers we face in exile, leaving exile would certainly be more dangerous than staying in it.

Two things remain to be discussed about this Maharal. First of all, in the paragraph beginning “and if you ask: The generation of martyrdom themselves, with what did He make them swear that they should not deviate” what is the Maharal’s question, how does the Maharal answer his question in the first and second answers, and what is the practical difference between the two answers?

The Maharal understood that the words “by the gazelles and the deer of the field” are a language of “hatfasah” – pinning one oath on another previously forbidden act. Thus we must keep exile just as heaven and earth follow their course, just as the Patriarchs withstood their trials, just as we keep the mitzvah of circumcision, and just as the Jews gave their lives to keep mitzvos in the generation of martyrdom. He then asks: the generation of martyrdom did not really have to do what they did. True, a Jew must give his life rather than transgress any prohibition at such a time. But no one is obligated to do what Rabbi Akiva did, for example – going out and teaching Torah publicly when the government forbade it. So how can the oath be pinned onto the generation of Rabbi Akiva? The Maharal answers that true, they were not obligated, but since they did it in any case, it is possible to base the oath on their trait of self-sacrifice.

The Maharal’s second answer is that the words “by the gazelles and the deer of the field” are not a hatfasah at all, but rather the words should be translated “in the case of the gazelles and the deer of the field.” The Midrash is thus saying that the oath applies in a situation of gazelles and deer – that is, in a situation of martyrdom. This could mean either a direct order at gunpoint to violate the oaths, or, as the Rebbe says in Siman 33, a situation in which violating the oaths is the only way to save ourselves from death in exile.

At this point it would be tempting to say that when the Maharal writes “and so is the explanation with each one” he means that the previous opinions in the Midrash are also to be understood as giving a situation in which the oaths still apply. (This is in fact how Rabbi Hartman understands it in his footnotes on the Maharal.) However, the Rebbe clearly did not wish to say this, perhaps because this would lead to the nonsense statement that the oaths apply even in heaven, in the Patriarchs or in circumcision. The idea that the oaths are said in such-and-such a situation is obviously limited to this opinion that explains gazelles and deer to mean the generation of martyrdom. And the Maharal’s words “each one,” according to the Rebbe, mean each oath: not only is it forbidden to come en masse to Eretz Yisroel to escape a pogrom, but it is also forbidden to revolt or to force the end of exile.

From the Maharal it appears that this statement “and so is the explanation with each one” is only made according to the last explanation, not according to the previous explanation of hatfasah. However, it’s hard to understand (according to the way the Rebbe learns it) why this should be so, and therefore it may in fact be that the words “and so is the explanation with each one” were meant to encompass all that the Maharal writes on this Midrash. He is saying: all that I have written here is true not only regarding “leaving exile” but even regarding revolting or forcing the end.

What is the practical difference between the Maharal’s two explanations? None, it would seem. The first explanation also agrees that one must give his life rather than violate the oaths, because the oath was pinned on, or copied, from those who gave their lives rather than commit idolatry or other sins.

The other point that remains to be discussed is how Menachem Kasher dealt with this Maharal in his attempt to refute the Rebbe. Kasher (Hatekufah Hagedolah pp. 314-318) offers three other ways to understand the Maharal:

1) Rabbi Shraga Feivel Frank said that the Maharal indeed holds that one must be killed rather than violate the oath, but this is only true of the oath not to rebel against the nations. If the nations are killing Jews, Jews are not allowed to fight back.

2) An unnamed “expert in the works of the Maharal” said that the Maharal is talking about a case of religious persecution, and saying that Jews may not escape it by rebelling and leaving exile. This is essentially what the Rebbe himself proposes in Siman 33.

3) Kasher himself says that the words “even if they try to kill them with painful torture, they must not leave and they must not deviate in this matter” are referring to the generation of martyrdom, and the leaving and deviating are a reference to committing the sins they are being ordered to commit. Hashem made the Jews swear by the holiness of this generation, so there is no need to look through the details of the generation and see how they can be applied to exile, as the Maharal does earlier with heaven and earth, the Patriarchs and circumcision. This is why he said, “and so is the explanation of each one” – he means that the other opinions in the Midrash also mean that they swore by the holiness of that thing – not that exile has anything to do with that thing.

It is noteworthy that the first two explanations essentially agree with the Rebbe, and Kasher’s own is very weak: according to him, why did the Maharal have to say explicitly at this point that the generation of martyrdom did not want to deviate – wasn’t that obvious all along? Also, he speaks in the future tense (“even if they will try to kill them”; “they will not leave and they will not deviate”) instead of the past tense. Kasher himself raises this objection, but defends himself by saying that at the time Shlomo Hamelech wrote the oaths, the generation of martyrdom had not yet taken place. Finally, even according to Kasher, the Maharal’s first explanation says what the Satmar Rebbe is saying, because it pins the oath of exile on what the Jews did in a time of martyrdom.