ושרץ היאר צפרדעים ועלו ובאו בביתך וכו’ ובתנורך ז:כח The Gemara in Pesachim on daf 53b makes reference to the story in sefer Daniel (perek 3) that Nevuchadnetzar made an idol. He ordered everyone to come to the dedication of the idol and bow down to it. Whoever would disobey this order would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah disobeyed this decree. The Gemara relates their rationale not to bow down to the idol. Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah applied the logical reasoning of a kal v’chomer: if the frogs in Mitzrayim jumped into the Egyptians’ ovens despite not being commanded to do so, then all the more so should we allow ourselves to die al kiddush Hashem and not bow down to the avodah zarah. There is a fundamental question on this kal v’chomer. A “Brisker kashya” that the Rishonim ask. Why did Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah need to make a kal v’chomer? There is a mitzvah of kiddush Hashem regardless of the kal v’chomer! The transgression of idolatry is one of the three prohibitions that one is obligated to die for and not violate. Furthermore, this event was took place in the presence of multitudes of people. In such a situation, the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem requires one to give up his life and not transgress no matter what the aveirah is!
There are a number of answers to this question. One answer is that, according to Tosafos, the idol that Nevuchadnetzar had made was not actually an icon of idolatry. It was nothing more than an image that was made simply to give honor to Nevuchadnetzar. There was no sense of deifying worship associated with it. Accordingly, there was no inherent obligation of giving up one’s life to avoid bowing to it since there was no clearly-defined aveirah. That is why they only decided to give up their lives on the basis of the kal v’chomer. Rabbeinu Dovid and the Ran explain that giving honor to Nevuchadnetzar was entailed diminishing the honor of Hashem. This constituted a chillul Hashem. Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah’s kal v’chomer from the frogs, then, was that if the frogs entered the ovens in order to bring honor of Hashem, all the more so in a situation of chillul Hashem – where the honor of Hashem is being compromised – should one make a kiddush Hashem even if it means giving up one’s life.
Another answer that Tosafos posits is that Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah could have avoided the whole situation by escaping. The kal v’chomer, then, was what made them decide to deliberately remain and give up their lives. They reasoned, “If the frogs went out of their way to jump into the fiery furnaces, surely we shouldn’t go out of our way to escape from the fiery furnace!”
Coming back to the approach that Nevuchadnetzar’s idol wasn’t actually an avodah zarah, Tosafos in Kesubos 33b utilizes this explanation to elucidate an unbelievable statement made by Rav. Rav said, “Had torture been the threat on Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah they would have bowed down to the image.” From the account of Rabi Akiva bearing having his flesh combed off with iron combs, asks Tosafos, we see that one is obligated to suffer even the most extreme form of pain and suffering rather than transgress one of the cardinal sins, so how could Rav say that Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah would have buckled under the pressure of torture?! Rabi Akiva underwent unimaginable pain and he rhetorically exclaimed in response to the disbelief of his talmidim, “All my life I wondered if the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah would ever come my way, and now that it has I shouldn’t uphold it?!” The mitzvah that Rabi Akiva was referring to, of course, is the mitzvah of b’chol nafshecha – the mitzvah to give up one’s life, if necessary, al kiddush Hashem. It seems clear, then, that included in this mitzvah is that one has to endure even torture if necessary. If so, how could it be that Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah would have capitulated out of fear of being tortured and bowed down to the avodah zarah? Tosafos answers that since the image was made just for the honor of Nevuchadnetzar, and not for worship, they therefore would not have withstood unbearable suffering for the sake of making a kiddush Hashem that is beyond the letter of the law.
Based on this approach, Tosafos concludes that even in a situation where there is no actual obligation to give up one’s life, it is permissible to voluntarily do so if it will generate a kiddush Hashem. The Rambam, though, argues on this statement and maintains that there is no such thing as voluntary kiddush Hashem. Either it is a full-fledged obligation to give up one’s life, avers the Rambam, or it is strictly prohibited. And, adds the Rambam, if one does give up one’s life in a situation that he was not obligated to do so, that is tantamount to the prohibition of suicide (Hilchos Yesodei Ha’Torah 5:4). Accordingly, the Rambam maintains that the Nevuchadnetzar idol indeed had a status of avodah zarah, and therefore the situation mandated an obligatory kiddush Hashem on the part of Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah. In this vein, the Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos (mitzvah 9) describes, in great length, the significance of this showdown between Chananya, Mishael, & Azaryah and Nebuchadnezzar. The Rambam describes how that time period represented a particularly low and disgraceful point in the history of Klal Yisrael, wherein practically everyone was bowing down to this idol. As such, emphasizes the Rambam, the actions of these three great tzaddikim held very special significance. This event, adds the Rambam, serves as the ultimate paradigm of what it means to effect a kiddush Hashem and what it is meant to accomplish. The entire Jewish nation witnessed this singular event at a time when no one else was willing to stand up for Hashem’s honor. It generated an exalted level of kiddush Hashem. In fact, the very continuity of Klal Yisrael was due to this great mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice).
According to the Rambam, though, we are back to the original question: why did Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah need a kal v’chomer to know that they should be willing to give up their lives rather than bow to Nevuchadnetzar’s idol? They had a full-fledged obligation of kiddush Hashem regardless?! The truth is “ein makshin al aggada”. The Gemara that describes the kal v’chomer of Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya that they derived from the frogs’ self-sacrifice is not a halachic Gemara, and it therefore doesn’t demand a halachic interpretation. That being said, perhaps we can suggest as follows. Indeed, the kal v’chomer was not their source for carrying out the act of kiddush Hashem; rather, the purpose that the kal v’chomer served was in relation to the avodas hanefesh that would underlie their mitzvah fulfillment. The kal v’chomer served as their source that they had a mandate to create a certain attitude and feeling – their overall mindset – for the moments that they would be dying al Kiddush Hashem. Certainly, it would be perfectly understandable were one to fortify himself with the thought, “In a few moments, I will have attained the highest level of Olam Ha’Ba; a level that no creature in the entire universe can perceive!” There is no question that such an outlook and focus would serve one as a great source of motivation and inspiration to go through with dying al kiddush Hashem with a full heart. And, in fact, there is nothing wrong with being yearning for that great level of spiritual attainment, as we see from the fact that the Beis Yosef, in numerous places, that one should daven that he merit to die al Kiddush Hashem! The frogs, though, that willingly jumped into the Egyptians’ ovens to bring glory to Hashem, obviously do not have a share in Olam Ha’Ba. Koheles (3:21) says, “v’ruach ha’beheimah yoredes l’matah, the spirit of animals descends down into the earth,” and nowhere do we find that the “spirit” of the frogs is excluded from the statement of this pasuk. The frogs didn’t have any motivation of a wonderful afterlife. They went into the furnaces with one purpose, and one purpose only: because that was the will of the Ribbono shel Olam. There was nothing in it for them, no reward at all, aside for doing what Hashem wanted. Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah employed this kal v’chomer as a mandate to give up their lives 100% lishmah, purely for the sake of making a kiddush Hashem and increasing k’vod Shamayim. (Audio recording)
Quotables “Rachmana leba baei (Hashem wants the heart) is not an excuse, it is a charge.”
Vignettes Rav Twersky once told us that the Vilna Goan explains that the words “tov yatzar kavod lishmo” mean that Hashem created a good thing, and that is the ability to give honor to His Name! I heard and felt the deep emotion in Rav Twersky’s voice when he said, “What greater thing could a person do than give kavod to Hashem!” (Reb Yitzchak Goldsmith)