Nedarim 62b: Pretending to be a Non-Jew to Save One’s Life

Nedarim 62b: A Torah scholar is allowed to say, “I am a servant of fire and I will not pay taxes.” Why? He is just saying it to chase away the lion.

נדרים סב ע”ב: ואמר רבא: שרי ליה לצורבא מרבנן למימר עבדא דנורא אנא לא יהיבנא אכרגא, מ״ט? לאברוחי אריא מיניה קאמר. פירש הר”ן דהן סבורים לעבודת כוכבים והוא לבו לשמים כדכתיב ה’ א-להיך אש אוכלה הוא.

יו”ד קנ”ז ס”ב: אסור לאדם לומר שהוא עובד כוכבים כדי שלא יהרגוהו אבל אם כדי שלא יכירוהו שהוא יהודי משנה מלבושו בשעת הגזרה מותר כיון שאינו אומר שהוא עובד כוכבים: הגה…ואע״ג דאסור לומר שהוא עובד כוכבים מכ״מ יוכל לומר להם לשון דמשתמע לתרי אפין (נמוקי יוסף פ׳ הגוזל) והעובדי כוכבים יבינו שהוא אומר שהוא עובד כוכבים והוא יכוין לדבר אחר.

In the Kovna ghetto during the Holocaust, there lived a Jew who was exiled from Germany by the Nazi government. He did not have a Jewish appearance, and his name, printed on his German passport, sounded non-Jewish. As life in the ghetto became more and more difficult for the Jews, he decided to escape and try hiding among the non-Jewish population. In order to ensure that he not be suspected of being Jewish, he wanted to add the letters “RK” to his passport, standing for “Romisch-Katholische” (Roman Catholic), and he asked Rabbi Ephraim Oshry if this was allowed.

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 157:2) says that a Jew is forbidden to say he is a non-Jew in order to avoid getting killed. However, he may wear non-Jewish clothing in order to make them believe he is a non-Jew.

The Rema adds that one may say words that can be understood in two ways, so that they will understand that he is a non-Jew, but he really means something else. His source is the Nimukei Yosef on Bava Kama 113a, who brings our Gemara in Nedarim 62b as a proof. Saying “I am a servant of fire” definitely implies that one is not Jewish. If one is allowed to say that to avoid taxes, certainly it is permitted to do so in order to save one’s life. 

There is a dispute about how to understand the words “servant of fire”. Some Rishonim (Tosafos quoted by the Nimukei Yosef, and Shitah Mekubetzes) explain it to mean a servant of the priests who worship fire. Others (Rosh and Rashi) say it means a servant of the fire idol itself. Either way, says the Nimukei Yosef, the implication is that he is not Jewish, yet it is permitted because he is not saying it directly; he is just misleading his killers.

Rabbi Oshry argues that according to the Rosh, who says one is allowed to say he is a servant of the idol itself, the only way it can be permitted is if the words have another meaning and he secretly has that meaning in mind. In the case of fire, the Rishonim explain that he can have in mind that he is a servant of Hashem, who is called fire as it says in the Torah, “Hashem your G-d is a consuming fire” (Devarim 4:24). He brings the Knesses Hagedolah who says this as well, and says this is the source of the Rema who says one may say words that can be understood in two ways.

Accordingly, it would seem that writing R.K. on the passport is forbidden, since that is saying he is a servant of the Catholic religion, and there is no other way to understand his words.

However, Rabbi Oshry ultimately argues that it is permitted for two reasons:

  1. The halacha that a Jew may not say he is a non-Jew to save his life is similar to the halacha of Kiddush Hashem, that one may not pretend to believe in or accept idolatry to save his life, even if in his heart he does not believe it. The case is that the gentiles are trying to forcibly convert Jews who they are know are Jews, and they just want to squeeze out of them a conversion at the point of a sword. Therefore, to say “I am a non-Jew” or the equivalent is giving in the pressure. A Jew must give up his life for that. But here, the Nazis don’t know he is a Jew. They are out to kill all Jews, but if he can fool them into thinking he is a non-Jew, he is not giving in to shmad, so it is not a Kiddush Hashem situation.
  2. The Rema permits a statement that could be understood two ways. The Toras Chaim on Avodah Zarah 17 tells the story of a great tzaddik who, during a murderous attack on the Jews in Germany, was asked if he was Jewish and replied, “Kein Jude” which in German means “not a Jew” but in Hebrew means, “yes a Jew”. If that is called “words that can be understood in two ways” then here too, he can write R.K. and have in mind that it means the Hebrew word “rak” as in “Only guard yourself and watch your life carefully” (Devarim 4:9).

One might object that the Shach (157:18) that says this heter to mislead them with words is only for a talmid chacham, but a simple Jew is forbidden to use it, lest he take it too far. The answer  is that as the Pischei Teshuva says, quoting Beis Yaakov, that is only true if he is avoiding taxes, because the simple Jew could really pay the tax, whereas a Torah scholar should really be exempt from taxes. But to save oneself from robbery, and all the more so from death, it is allowed for anyone to use this deception.  

(Source: Shailos Uteshuvos Mimaamakim 5:3)

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