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Jewish History

The Great Rabbis

Maimonides’ Letter of Martyrdom

I would like to get information on Maimonides’ (The Rambam) Igeret Hashmad (Letter of Martyrdom).

Thank you for your question. I’m quoting the following from the preface of a translation of this work in my possession by Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel. It was sent published by Yeshiva Beth Moshe, Scranton, PA.

“The Letter of Martyrdom (Igeret HaShmad) is a response by the Rambam to a query that he received from a Jew in North Africa. The Jews of the region were forced to convert to Islam by the ruling of the Almohad Moslem sect, the same regime that had forced that Rambam to leave Spain and find refuge in Cairo. The questioner, a forced convert, asked a rabbi whether he should secretly observe as many Mitzvos as he could. The rabbi ruled that any Mitzvah a converted Jew performed, or any prayer he uttered, would constitute a sinful act. Shocked by the incorrectness of this answer, the Rambam wrote his Letter of Martyrdom. In it, he ridiculed the Rabbi’s blatant misinterpretation of the law, and offered instruction and counsel on the proper course to follow when confronted with religious coercion. This letter is much more than a response to one individual caught in a difficult situation. It is a timeless document that has provided guidance and succor during the countless persecutions and forced conversions the Jewish people have endured in our long exile.”

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

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